Thursday, October 26, 2006

Hello, this is Michael Anthony, and you’re listening to British History 101. After an admittedly ridiculously long hiatus, British History 101 is back and in full action. Tonight, we explore one of Britain’s most well-known folktales and a story that has given rise to a term applied today for a nosy man of low character – Peeping Tom.
You may recall from British History 101’s pilot series on the Battle of Hastings one Godwin, Earl of Wessex. One of his fellow lords was Leofric, Earl of Mercia in approximately central England. Leofric was known for his generosity to religious houses, and is credited with founding the Benedictine monastery at Coventry. It is thought by some that Leofric’s wife, Godgifu (meaning “God’s gift” and Latinized to Godiva) was the driving force behind this endowment, and both of their names appear on the land grants to the monastery of St. Mary, Worcester and the minster of St. Mary, Lincolnshire. Biographers from the period tell us that Leofric and his wife were both very devout and especially trusted their prayers to the Blessed Virgin. The monastery at Coventry was known to be one of the wealthiest religious establishments in the country at the time.
Leofric’s apparent zeal for religion and ensuring that the Church was well-funded obviously required a lot of money – at that time in Britain’s history, the easiest way for a noble to raise money was to levy taxes on the citizens within their domain. For our purposes, we will examine Coventry, for this is where the tale originates.
The people of Coventry were suffering under the weight of Leofric’s taxes – his demands were far above what they felt was reasonable, and as a result the common opinion was that the population was unduly burdened and that something needed to be done. Godgifu, or Lady Godiva, sympathized with the overtaxed citizens and begged Leofric to lower the taxes he was demanding. He refused, only driving Godiva to beg even more for mercy. Her persistent requests to him resulted in an offer, well illustrated in Roger of Wendover’s 13th century Flores Historiarum:
“The countess Godiva, who was a great lover of Gods's mother, longing to free the town of Coventry from the oppression of a heavy toll, often with urgent prayers besought her husband, that from regard to Jesus Christ and his mother, he would free the town from that service, and from all other heavy burdens; and when the earl sharply rebuked her for foolishly asking what was so much to his damage, and always forbade her ever more to speak to him on the subject; and while she on the other hand, with a woman's pertinacity, never ceased to exasperate her husband on that matter, he at last made her this answer, 'Mount your horse, and ride naked, before all the people, through the market of the town, from one end to the other, and on your return you shall have your request.' On which Godiva replied, 'But will you give me permission, if I am willing to do it?' 'I will,' said he.
The terms were simple: ride naked through Coventry, and the tax would be lifted. Leofric was probably quite pleased with his response, as he figured Godiva would never do such a thing. Although different versions of the legend give slightly different versions of Godiva’s actions, Roger of Wendover immortalized his when he continued Flores Historiarum with:
“Whereupon the countess, beloved of God, loosed her hair and let down her tresses, which covered the whole of her body like a veil, and then mounting her horse and attended by two knights, she rode through the market-place, without being seen, except her fair legs; and having completed the journey, she returned with gladness to her astonished husband, and obtained of him what she had asked; for earl Leofric freed the town of Coventry and its inhabitants from the aforesaid service, and confirmed what he had done by a charter."
Other twists on the legend say that Godiva rode through the town clothed in a shift – a garment closely resembling a modern slip – with that being the extend of the Lady’s nudity, but embarrassing nonetheless. It is also thought by some that Lady Godiva simply rode without wearing her best clothes and unadorned by her fine jewels, which would have made her “naked” to the fact that she was of noble rank. No matter the version, the point is that Godiva went to great pains and sacrificed a good deal of dignity to free Coventry of its oppressive taxation.
In the 17th century, the legend of Lady Godiva began to include a proclamation by the lady that all the citizens of the town shut their doors and curtains so as to hide her nudity too the public’s view. Most of the town obeyed this order out of respect for Godiva. The one man who decided not to follow the proclamation was a certain tailor – named Tom. Tom the Tailor, hearing that the noble lady would be riding through the streets naked, bored a hole in his window’s shutter so he could peep out at her when she passed. Tom indeed caught a glimpse of Lady Godiva – and was immediately struck blind. Although unfortunately not all people carrying on this tradition today are blinded, this is thought to be the origin of the phrase “Peeping Tom.” Joseph Draphs further immortalized Lady Godiva in 1926 by founding Godiva Chocolatier, which features the Lady as its logo. While there is little to no reliable and authentic historical evidence to support this legend, it does make for excellent storytelling and highlights what people want in a ruler – benevolence, and willingness to sacrifice.
What can we learn from all this? The next time you feel overburdened by taxes, write to your state’s First Lady or Laura Bush herself, and request a nude ride through the city. Maybe, just maybe, it’ll work.
For any new listeners, let’s take a minute to check out Matt’s Today in History, run by the world-renowned Matt Dattilo.
Thanks, Matt. Although I realize I’m terribly late with this, I do want to congratulate Matt on his and Kelli’s wedding anniversary. I remember being at Matt’s wedding, and looking back I can’t help but wonder if Kelli knew what she was getting into. I wish them both the best and many years of continued marital bliss. With that, we are just about out of time this week. I’d like to thank all of our listeners for tuning in, whether you’re a regular subscriber or just found us recently. Check out my blog at for a transcript of this and past episodes. I’d like to commend Blogger for fixing the interface between themselves and my hosting service – the blog appears to be fully functional and I am happy to see it back up. Send suggestions, questions, comments, rants, and raves to Our music tonight is “The Fairy Queen,” performed by Da Camera and available on Magnatune is an independent online record label that equally shares all revenue from album sales with their hand-selected artists while allowing them to retain full rights to their works. Visit for great music at low prices and support the many wonderful artists hosted there. Until next week, my best to you all, and thanks again for learning with me. Now that we’re done here, go out and make some history!

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