The monks Roger of Wendover, in his 12th century Chronicle, and Mathew Paris, in the early 13th century, relate that an Anglo-Saxon noblewoman of exuberant beauty and greater goodness rode naked on a beautiful snowy steed with her hair as her only covering with the mission of persuading her husband to lower the abusive taxes that were impoverishing the suffering population of Coventry, a town in the British West Midlands region. This is the legend of Lady Godiva (or Godgifu in Old English, meaning “gift of God”), wife of Earl Leofric of Mercia, lord of Coventry, which dates back to the early 11th century. Her exhibition pursued the improvement of the living conditions of the villagers of Coventry, who were being overexploited by excessive taxes and tolls.
If Godiva was the epitome of goodness, altruism and devotion, her husband was characterized by the opposite: an unconscionable man who unjustly attacked the Church and his subjects. Her implorations to reduce the tribute of Coventry proved fruitless, until Leofric, tired of so much pleading, proposed a challenge: he would change his mind if his demure wife rode through the town naked on a steed. Knowing the modesty and decorum of his spouse, Leofric thought she would be incapable of such a demonstration. However, Godiva put her generosity first and one Market Day complied with the Earl’s demands. Leofric, completely impressed by the boldness of the beautiful countess or, according to some versions, by the miracle that no one noticed her nakedness, canceled all tolls except those of horses, ceased his ecclesiastical offenses and fervently embraced Christianity, founding with his wife a Benedictine monastery in Coventry where they would later be buried, also endowing it with abundant gifts of gold, silver and gems.
In the 17th century another element was added to the legend. Prior to her exhibition, Lady Godiva would have ordered a couple of messengers to warn the inhabitants of Coventry of the obligation to lock themselves in their homes during her ride so as not to be observed. So respected was she that everyone did their duty, except for a roguish tailor by the name of Peeping Tom. He was the only one who dared to look at the naked countess hiding behind his window. As a heavenly punishment, he was immediately blinded or died, depending on the version.
Although the passage of time has blurred the boundary between legend and real history (the chronicler Florence of Worcester, a source close in time to the event, mentions Leofric and Godiva, but says nothing of her naked ride), the story and its characters have infiltrated popular culture to the point of being mentioned in many popular literary and musical works, the best known allusion being that made by the band Queen in Don’t Stop Me Now. Currently, a symbolic procession is held every year in Coventry to revive the courageous woman who gave the city its hallmark.
BBC (2014). An Anglo-Saxon tale: Lady Godiva [online] available in: https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/anglo_saxons/godiva_01.shtml
Johnson, B. (2021). Lady Godiva [online] available in: https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/Lady-Godiva/
The Editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (2021). Lady Godiva [online] available in: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Lady-Godiva