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The story is that she was the beautiful wife of Leofric, earl of Mercia and lord of Coventry. The people of that city suffering grievously under the earl's oppressive taxation, Lady Godiva appealed again and again to her husband, who obstinately refused to remit the tolls. At last, weary of her entreaties, he said he would grant her request if she would ride naked through the streets of the town. Lady Godiva took him at his word, and after issuing a proclamation that all persons should keep within doors or shut their windows, she rode through, clothed only in her long hair. One person disobeyed her proclamation, a tailor, ever afterwards known as Peeping Tom. He bored a hole in his shutters that he might see Godiva pass, and is said to have been struck blind. Her husband kept his word and abolished the obnoxious taxes.
The oldest form of the legend makes Godiva pass through Coventry market from one end to the other when the people were assembled, attended only by two female (clothed) horsemen. This version is given in Flores Izistoriarum by Roger of Wendover, who quoted from an earlier writer. The later story, with its episode of Peeping Tom, has been evolved by later chroniclers. Whether the lady Godiva of this story is the Godiva or Godgifu ("gift of God") of history is undecided.
The claim that Godiva's long hair effectively hid her from sight is generally believed, like the story of peeping Tom, to have been a later addition.
That a lady of this name existed in the early part of the 11th century is certain, as evidenced by several ancient documents, such as the Stow charter, the Spalding charter, and the Domesday survey, though the spelling of the name varies considerably. It would appear from Liber Eliensis (end of 12th century) that she was a widow when Leofric married her in 1040. In or about that year she aided in the founding of a monastery at Stow, Lincolnshire. In 1043 she persuaded her husband to build and endow a Benedictine monastery at Coventry. Her mark, "di Ego Godiva Comitissa diu istud desideravi," was found on the charter given by her brother, Thorold of Bucknall, sheriff of Lincolnshire, to the Benedictine monastery of Spalding; and she is commemorated as benefactress of other monasteries at Leominster[?], Chester, Wenlock[?], Worcester, and Evesham. She probably died a few years before the Domesday survey of 1085 and 1086, and was buried in one of the porches of the abbey church. Dugdale (1656) says that a window, with representations of Leofric and Godiva, was placed in Trinity Church, Coventry, about the time of Richard II.
The Godiva procession, a commemoration of the legendary ride instituted on May 31, 1678, as part of Coventry fair, was celebrated at intervals until 1826. From 1848 to 1887 it was revived, and continued into the 21st century. The wooden effigy of Peeping Tom which, since 1812, has looked out on the world from a house at the north-west corner of Hertford Street, Coventry, represents a man in armour, and was probably an image of Saint George. It was removed from another part of the town to its present position.