You might associate the name “Godiva” with a brand of Belgian chocolates, but it was first popularized as part of a 900-year-old English legend.
The original Lady Godiva was an 11th century noblewoman married to Leofric, the powerful Earl of Mercia and Lord of Coventry. As the story goes, Godiva was troubled by the crippling taxes Leofric had levied on the citizens of Coventry. After she repeatedly asked him to lessen the burden, Leofric quipped that he would lower taxes only if she rode naked on horseback through the center of town. Determined to help the public, Godiva stripped off her clothes, climbed on her horse and galloped through the market square with only her long flowing hair to cover herself. Before leaving, she ordered the people of Coventry to remain inside their homes and not peek, but one man, named Tom, couldn’t resist opening his window to get an eyeful. Upon doing so, this “Peeping Tom” was struck blind.
After finishing her naked ride, Godiva confronted her husband and demanded that he hold up his end of the bargain. True to his word, Leofric reduced the people’s debts.
While most historians consider her nude horseback ride a myth, Lady Godiva—or “Godgifu” as some sources call her—was indeed a real person from the 11th century. The historical Godiva was known for her generosity to the church, and along with Leofric, she helped found a Benedictine monastery in Coventry. Contemporary accounts of her life note that “Godgifu” was one of only a few female landowners in England in the 1000s, but they make no mention of a clothes-free horseback ride. That story appears to have first cropped up some 100 years after her death in a book by the English monk Roger of Wendover, who was known for stretching the truth in his writings.
The legend of “Peeping Tom,” meanwhile, didn’t become a part of the tale until the 16th century. The Godiva myth was later popularized in songs and in verse by the likes of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who wrote a famous poem called “Godiva” in 1840.