It has largely been accepted that the story of Lady Godiva riding through the streets of Coventry was a myth. The legend dates back to around the 13th century when she was reputed to have ridden around Coventry naked, with just her long blonde hair covering her modesty. Her reason for doing this was said to have been in protest against her husband Leofric who was planning to impose higher taxes on his tenants.
The name ‘Peeping Tom’ was said to originate from someone who, rather than politely looking away when she rode through the town, watched her and was said to have been struck blind, other legends say he was struck dead. Either way both Lady Godiva and Peeping Tom entered folklore, with her parade being re-enacted every 3 years initially. This eventually became incorporated into the Coventry’s annual fair.
Today we’ll take a glimpse into how this story continued to be remembered and re-enacted into the Georgian Era. In 1713, according to ‘British curiosities in nature and art’ which described notable objects and buildings in Coventry it made specific reference to both Lady Godiva and although not named, Peeping Tom:
The figure of a man, who was very miraculously punished for his brutal curiosity, in looking out at a window, when the Lady Godiva (wife of Leofric, the first Lord of this place) road naked thro’ the streets, to purchase a mitigation of taxes, and other privileges for the city.
From the beginning of June 1788, the city of Coventry held a week long fair, known as the Trinity Fair, also known as a Shew or Show Fair, and it was at this that it was agreed that the pagan tradition of Lady Godiva parading through the streets on horseback was reinstated after many years.
On Friday in consequence of the revival of that ancient and singular ceremony, which has for some years discontinued, the procession of Lady Godiva through the streets of Coventry. A great concourse of people were assembled at the fair in that place, from all parts of the country, than has ever been known upon a former similar occasion and the fight with which the spectators were gratified fully answered their expectations, great preparations having been made to render it is most showy and splendid. After divine service had been performed at Trinity Church, the procession began, and her ladyship, attired only in white linen, closely fitted to her body, and decorated with bows of red ribbon, paraded on horseback, through the principal streets of the city. The Mayor, Sheriffs, Aldermen, Council and Companies of the city, attended by their proper officers, and music, were in the procession. The banners of each were newly painted and the streamers and flags finely ornamented with a variety of curious emblematic devices, added greatly to the beauty of the scene. Peeping Tom, a principal personage in the show, was entirely new clothed, and appeared with becoming dignity.
Clearly the weather was good for the 1789 event as ‘Lady Godiva, not only made a most majestic appearance, but conducted herself throughout the whole in a manner becoming her exalted station’.
In 1818, according to the Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser:
The ancient city pageant at Coventry, which has been suspended for some years, is about to be revived with additional splendour; for which cavalcade the several trading companies are preparing. Lady Godiva is once more to pass mounted on her milk white palfry, and Peeping Tom again to appear in all his glory.
In 1827, Lady Godiva did not make an appearance at the annual show, which was much to the disappointment of visitors, according to this piece:
Our annual Great Fair commenced this morning and will continue for eight days. The occasion has brought a considerable influx of strangers to the city, but in consequence of the lowering aspect of the morning, together with the omission this year of the Procession of Lady Godiva, many of our annual gay country visitors will probably defer their visit to a future occasion. An unusual number of exhibitions have arrived, which, if the weather permits, we doubt not will in great measure make up for the absence of the pageant of our good Lady.
Finally, in this period, the Oxford Journal, 30 May 1829, tells us that citizens of Coventry were expecting a splendid fair this year with the procession of Lady Godiva being revived and here was a portrait of the young woman portraying Lady Godiva in that year. She takes centre stage on her horse, fully clothed and a brunette, rather than the traditional image of a fair haired Lady Godiva. She is being handed a bouquet of flowers.
On the right of the image, although a little blurred, you can see the coat of arms for Coventry on the banner.
I did come across a couple of amusing anecdotes which referenced Lady Godiva to share with you:
The first comes to us courtesy of the Cambridge Intelligencer, 20 April 1800:
Masked Ball – At one of the great Parisian grand masked balls, a mask appeared whose whole outward dress was composed of macaroons; the lovers of sweets pursued him from every quarter of the room, and in a short period his clothing was so completely devoured that he was nearly in the state of Lady Godiva at Coventry Fair.
From the Morning Post 14 September 1801, it appears that the term Peeping Tom had by then acquired an unwelcome meaning, one which is still used even to this day:
The indiscriminate mixing of the bathers at Ramsgate is much complained of by some of the visitors, as there are many ‘Peeping Toms’, and some, who, it is supposed, wish to be Lady Godivas.
The first details about Peeping Tom were said to have been recorded in the city of Coventry accounts of 1773, however, I have come across a description of him dating back to 1762 in a book, ‘England and Wales described in a series of letters’, by William Toldervy in which he tells readers that
In one street, against the wall of a house, is the figure of a man, in a blue doublet, with a black cap on his head. This figure call Peeping Tom, being the representation of a Taylor, who (as the vulgar believe) having more curiosity than the rest, popped out his head as the lady rode along, but on the instant, was struck blind.
Leeds Intelligencer 3 June 1788
Oxford Journal 20 June 1789
Coventry Herald 15 June 1827
Ellis; Lady Godiva; St Mary’s Guildhall