Who was the beautiful lady of John Collier's 19th century painting and did she actually ride through Coventry's town centre in the nude?
The year was 1040 and Lady Godiva was the wife of Leofric, the rich and powerful Earl of Mercer and Lord of Coventry. According to Roger of Wendover, Lady Godiva was concerned with the amount of tax the towns people were paying. Wendover, writing in 1057, wrote that she pleaded with her husband to do something about it, he is said to have agreed to this on the condition that she ride naked through the town. It may be that history has misunderstood the meaning of Lady Godiva's nakedness. Perhaps she was not naked in the term we understand but rode through the town without the trappings of wealth, her jewels, her finer clothes, that her position in society brought. This was Godiva's way of to showing solidarity.
Did she do as her husband asked?
History tells us that she did and the Leofric was so stunned that he freed the town from its tax burden, underwent a religious conversion and along with his wife funded a Benedictine monastery in Coventry.
So was this story true? There is no written evidence of Lady Godiva's ride, but Mathew Paris the English chronicler was writing of it in the early thirteenth century. The tale that still appears in popular culture to this day is the 17th century embellished tale that Lady Godiva ordered the people of the town to say indoors, cover their windows and lock their doors so that no one would see her, and with only her long hair to cover her modesty, she left her home for the empty streets of Coventry.
With the towns people having more of their hard earned cash in their pockets, Lady Godiva and Leofric lived happy every after. Following their deaths they were buried together in their new founded monastery.
Incidentally, it is from Lady Godiva's ride that we get the term Peeping Tom. Tom, its seems, was unable to resist the temptation to peep through his window and look upon Lady Godiva's naked form, but before he looked her he was struck blind.