In A Nutshell
The idea is certainly a romantic one. A beautiful woman, riding naked through a medieval town, sacrificing her own virtue and modesty to put a stop to her tyrannical husband’s persecution of the common folk. So romantic, in fact, that she has chocolates named after her in tribute to that famous ride—the ride that never happened.
The Whole Bushel
The legend states that the kind Lady Godiva intervened on behalf of the people of Coventry, in England. Her husband was taxing them beyond what she thought was acceptable; he grew so tired of her pestering him to lower the taxes that he promised to do so if she rode from one end of the town to the other and back, naked all the way. She bade all townspeople to stay inside with their curtains drawn to preserve her modesty, and she did exactly that. (The townspeople obeyed, save for one man named Tom—which is where we get the term “Peeping Tom” from today.) Taxes were abolished and a legend was born.
Except it didn’t happen like that.
Lady Godiva was a real person, that much is undisputed. She lived in the early 11th century and was the wife of Leofric, the Earl of Mercia. (More on him in a minute.) Also known as Godgifu, she was a deeply religious woman who aided in the rebuilding and founding of a Benedictine monastery in Coventry that had been destroyed during during an invasion by the Danes. Much of her personal wealth was donated to the monastery, both during her lifetime and at her death.
Writers and historians contemporary to Lady Godiva all make note of her generous donations to the church and her devout, Christian piety. She extended her patronage to a number of religious houses and abbeys, and is supposed (though not proven) to be buried at the church of the Benedictine abbey she helped found.
But what no contemporaries ever make note of is her legendary ride through the city.
That story never appears until 200 years later, and even then, it’s just a story. It’s not until the mid-1800s that Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “Godiva” begins to cement the story as historical fact.
Aside from the written word, the earliest appearance of any reference to the legend of Lady Godiva’s naked ride doesn’t happen until the 14th century. A stained glass window in the Holy Trinity Church shows both Leofric and Godiva, and bears the inscription, “I Luriche for the love of thee Doe make Coventre tol-free.”
There’s a key element to the story that’s very telling when it comes to determining the truth—or fiction—of the legend. Original tellings of the legend describe a medieval town, and tell of her riding through heavily populated, small-town streets and marketplaces. The 11th-century Coventry that Lady Godiva knew didn’t have any of that, but the 13th-century Coventry (that the authors lived in) certainly did. At the time of the historical Lady Godiva, Coventry was a farming community with single-family huts and hovels making up most of the city’s buildings; it was far from the bustling metropolis that it would become in 200 years’ time.
And what about Leofric, the much-maligned, grim husband who’s wringing every penny he can out of his subjects?
Historical records of the real Leofric also cast some doubt on the veracity of the story. By all accounts, Leofric was grim, but just as pious and giving as his wife. He also saved the entire kingdom from a civil war, by mediating between bickering nobles after the death of King Canute in 1035. We also know that he’s buried at the Benedictine cemetery they helped found, with full honors, respect and ceremony that wouldn’t be really due to the tyrant he’s often portrayed as.
So where did the story come from? Most likely, it was told to harken back to pagan rituals and beliefs. The pale lady with the long blonde hair is one of the most well-known representations of fertility, and even the idea of Peeping Tom paying for his actions of voyeurism recalls the stories of virginal goddesses like Artemis enacting their revenge on those who see them naked.
Real or not, it hasn’t stopped Coventry from re-enacting the famous ride—something the real Lady Godvia would probably be less than thrilled about.