Lady Godiva and Peeping Tom

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.

Gee, David; Lammas Day, Coventry; Herbert Art Gallery & Museum

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.

Jones, George; Godiva Preparing to Ride through Coventry; Tate

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.

Gee, David; The Lady Godiva Procession of 1829, Coventry; Herbert Art Gallery & Museum

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.

Sources

Leeds Intelligencer 3 June 1788

Oxford Journal 20 June 1789

Coventry Herald 15 June 1827

Featured Image

Ellis; Lady Godiva; St Mary’s Guildhall

Ghostly evidence of murder

In our last blog we told the tale of an eighteenth-century ghost who helped a girl find a hoard of buried coins beneath the stone flags on the floor of her cottage. Today we discuss another ghost who initially seemed equally as helpful, but this one was bent on revealing a murderer rather than a treasure trove and was not what it initially seemed.

The report was circulated in the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, dated the 18th March 1762, and began with the following notice:

The Public having for some Time past been impos’d on with so many sham Ghosts, (which credulous People are apt to place too much Belief in), the following may not be disagreeable to the Generality of our Readers.

This referred to the recent controversy in London over the Cock Lane ghost, a supposed haunting carried out by ‘Scratching Fanny’ the dead common-law wife of William Kent, but one really perpetrated by Elizabeth Parsons, the daughter of a man who had recently had a dispute with Kent.

Scene from David Garrick's play 'The Farmer's Return from London. An Interlude'; cottage interior; the actor David Garrick as the Farmer, seated in centre, his right hand on table beside him, his left hand holding his pipe, relating the story of his conversation with the Cock Lane Ghost to his family. British Museum, 1766
A scene from David Garrick’s play ‘The Farmer’s Return from London. An Interlude’; cottage interior; the actor David Garrick as the Farmer, seated in centre, his right hand on the table beside him, his left hand holding his pipe, relating the story of his conversation with the Cock Lane Ghost to his family.
British Museum, 1766

But, to return to our tale…

On a dark night, a farmer’s wife lay tossing and turning, her worry for her missing husband keeping her awake. He had gone to the market at Southam, a small market town about 6 miles south-east of Leamington Spa in Warwickshire, and should have been home hours before. Early the next morning there was a knock at her door.

The farmer’s wife found a man standing there who asked her if her husband had returned the previous evening. She replied in the negative and told him that she ‘was under the utmost Anxiety and Terror on that Account’. The man gave a startling reply.

Your Terror, said he, cannot equal mine, for last Night, as I lay in Bed, quite awake, the Apparition of your Husband appeared to me, shewed me several ghastly Stabs in his Body, told me he had been murthered [sic] by [here he named the individual], and his Carcase thrown into such a Marle-Pit.

The man at the door had named both the murderer and the pit and, after the alarm had been raised, the pit searched and the unfortunate farmer’s body found, the man named by the ghost was arrested. The wounds on the body matched the account given by the ghost and it appeared that the farmer had returned to give evidence against the man who had taken his life.

Haunted Hillborough, Warwickshire by British School (c) Shakespeare Birthplace Trust; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Haunted Hillborough, Warwickshire by British School
(c) Shakespeare Birthplace Trust; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

So thought the men who had taken the murderer into custody, and so thought the jury when the case came to trial at Warwick before the Lord Chief Justice Raymond, all convinced by the evidence said to have been given by the deceased who had helpfully pointed the finger at his murderer and saved them the bother of finding him themselves. They were all set to convict the man accused of the crime until the Judge checked them and spoke to them.

I think, Gentlemen, you seem inclined to lay more Stress on the Evidence of an Apparition, than it will bear. I cannot say that I give much Credit to these Kind of Stories, but be that as it will, we have no right to follow our own private Opinions here. We are now in a Court of Law, and must determine according to it; and I know not of any Law now in being which will admit of the Testimony of an Apparition; not yet if it did, doth the Ghost appear to give Evidence.

The Judge instructed the Crier to call for the Ghost, which he did – three times. Perhaps predictably, the ghost of the murdered farmer neglected to appear in the courtroom.

The Judge continued to address the jury. He pointed out that the man who stood accused of the crime had an unblemished character up to that point, that no cause of a quarrel or grudge between him and the deceased man could be discerned. The Judge gave his verdict.

I do believe him to be perfectly innocent; and, as there is no Evidence against him either positive or circumstantial, he must be acquitted.

Then the Judge pointed his finger at another man in the courtroom, the man who had seen the apparition and had repeated the tale to the poor farmer’s widow.

But from many Circumstances which have arose during the Trial, I do strongly suspect that the Gentleman, who saw the Apparition, was himself the Murtherer [sic]; in which case he might easily ascertain the Pit, the Stabs, &c. without any supernatural Assistance; and on such Suspicion I shall think myself justified in committing him to close Custody, till the Matter can be further enquired into.

With the man in custody, a warrant was granted to search his house and strong proofs of his guilt were discovered. Faced with these he confessed to the murder and was executed for his crime at the next Assize.

The report in the newspaper ended with the following cautionary words – something to bear in mind if you are visited this Halloween.

It is hoped that this simple Relation of a Matter of Fact, now on Record, will be a sufficient Caution to others, not to be over hasty in giving Credit to the Testimony of Apparitions.

 

Notes:

Robert Raymond, 1st Baron Raymond (1673 – 1733) was appointed Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench in 1725, and held that position until his death in 1733. Although this story has been oft repeated we can find no mention of it before 1762, some twenty-nine years after Raymond’s death.