The chronicler Florence of Worcester mentions Leofric and Godiva, (The Old English name Godgifu or Godgyfu meant “gift of God”; Godiva was the Latinised version) she was an Anglo Saxon Noblewoman, Florence of Worcester does not mention her famous ride, and there is no firm evidence connecting the rider with the historical Godiva.  If she is the same Godiva who appears in the history of Ely Abbey, the Liber Eliensis, written at the end of the 12th century, then she was a widow when Leofric married her. Both Leofric and Godiva were generous benefactors to religious houses

The legend of the infamous nude ride is first recorded in the 13th century, in the Flores Historiarumand the adaptation of it by Roger of Wendover; for the year 1057. , despite its considerable age, it is not regarded as plausible by modern historians

Wendover wrote that Godiva pleaded with her husband Leofric the ‘grim’ Earl of Mercer and Lord of Coventry, a man of great power and importance to relieve the heavy burden of taxes he had imposed on the citizens of Coventry, England.   Weary of her persistence, Leofric said he would grant her request if she would ride naked through the town.

The rest of the story is not documented at all, but it is said that so great was her compassion for the people of Coventry that Godiva overcame her horror of doing this. She ordered the people to remain indoors with their windows and doors barred. Loosening her long hair to cover her as a cloak, she mounted her waiting horse.

Then she rode through the silent streets unseen by the people, who had obeyed her command because of their respect for her.

The story tells how Godiva pleaded with her husband to relieve the heavy burden of taxes he had imposed upon the citizens.

Only one man, called Tom, was unable to resist the temptation to peep at the Countess (hence the term ‘Peeping Tom’). He unbarred his window, but before he could satisfy his gaze he was struck blind.

A statue supposedly of Peeping Tom, a strange wooden effigy, can be seen in Coventry’s Cathedral Lanes Shopping Centre. The eyes in this effigy appear blank, but that may be because the paint has worn off over the years.

Her ordeal completed, Godiva returned to her husband, who fulfilled his promise to abolish the heavy taxes. According to Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon, Leofric freed the town from all tolls save those on horses. An inquiry made in the reign of Edward I shows that indeed, at that time, no tolls were paid in Coventry except on horses.

Some historians have discerned elements of pagan fertility rituals in the Godiva story whereby a young “May Queen” was led to the sacred Cofa’s tree perhaps to celebrate the renewal of spring

 The oldest form of the legend has Godiva passing through Coventry market from one end to the other while the people were assembled, attended only by two knights.  This version is given in Flores Historiarum by Roger of Wendover (died 1236), a somewhat gullible collector of anecdotes, who quoted from unnamed earlier writers.

The annual Coventry Fair has kept alive the Godiva story until the Reformation when the festival was banned and it was not revived until 1678.

From this time on Godiva rode through the streets on a snow-white horse, accompanied by a man whose chief skill lay in his ability to make rude, suggestive gestures. Peeping Tom again!! The Godiva Procession has been revived in recent years and takes place annually in June

Historical Map of England in 1065

This map illustrates 

– Earldoms of the house of Godwine
– Earldoms of the house of Leofric
– Other families

University of Texas at Austin. From The Public Schools Historical Atlas edited by C. Colbeck, 1905.

Godiva portrayed through the arts.   

Adam Von Noort, Goodiva ( working between 1562-1641)

In Lady Godina’s Rout (1796), James Gillray appealed to the Godiva legend in caricaturingA fashionable crowd playing cards at two tables. In the foreground, four people playing the game Pope-Joan. One of the women is wearing a loose fitting semi-transparent dress with her breasts exposed. Behind her, peering down her dress, is a man who is about to cut off a candle due to his distracted state. Rear view of a fat woman dominates the left side of the picture.

According to the National Portrait Gallery of the UK, the caricature refers to Lady Georgiana Gordon (1781–1853), Duchess of Bedford from 1803 until her death; the title and the lecherous servant refer to Lady Godiva. Pope-Joan is a card game; Lady “Godina” is holding the diamond nine, which is called the “Pope” in that game. The man sitting on Lady “Godina”‘s right is John Sneyd (1763–1835); the fat woman sitting on her left is Albinia, Countess of Buckinghamshire (died 1816).

David Gee, Lady Godiva Procession. 1829 

John Clifton Lady Godiva and Lord Leofric. 1848

Goodiva (Lady Godiva) attributed to Adam van Noort (1562 to 1641)

Marshall Claxton, Lady Godiva. 1850

Alfred Woolmer, Lady Godiva.  1865

Edward Henry Landseer Lady Godiva’s Prayer. 1865

W H Sullivan Lady Godiva.  1877

Edith Arkwright.  Lady Godiva.  1862 

Jules Joseph Lefervre, Lady Godiva.  1891

Edmund Blair Leighton depicts the moment of decision (1892)

John Collier, Lady Godiva. 1898

Edward Henry Corbould Godiva 

John Thomas, Lady Godiva 


I waited for the train at Coventry;
I hung with grooms and porters on the bridge,
To watch the three tall spires; and there I shaped
The city’s ancient legend into this:
Not only we, the latest seed of Time,
New men, that in the flying of a wheel
Cry down the past, not only we, that prate
Of rights and wrongs, have loved the people well,
And loathed to see them overtax’d; but she
Did more, and underwent, and overcame,
The woman of a thousand summers back,
Godiva, wife to that grim Earl, who ruled
In Coventry: for when he laid a tax
Upon his town, and all the mothers brought
Their children, clamoring, “If we pay, we starve!”
She sought her lord, and found him, where he strode
About the hall, among his dogs, alone,
His beard a foot before him and his hair
A yard behind. She told him of their tears,
And pray’d him, “If they pay this tax, they starve.”
Whereat he stared, replying, half-amazed,
“You would not let your little finger ache
For such as these?” — “But I would die,” said she.
He laugh’d, and swore by Peter and by Paul;
Then fillip’d at the diamond in her ear;
“Oh ay, ay, ay, you talk!” — “Alas!” she said,
“But prove me what I would not do.”
And from a heart as rough as Esau’s hand,
He answer’d, “Ride you naked thro’ the town,
And I repeal it;” and nodding, as in scorn,
He parted, with great strides among his dogs.
So left alone, the passions of her mind,
As winds from all the compass shift and blow,
Made war upon each other for an hour,
Till pity won. She sent a herald forth,
And bade him cry, with sound of trumpet, all
The hard condition; but that she would loose
The people: therefore, as they loved her well,
From then till noon no foot should pace the street,
No eye look down, she passing; but that all
Should keep within, door shut, and window barr’d.
Then fled she to her inmost bower, and there
Unclasp’d the wedded eagles of her belt,
The grim Earl’s gift; but ever at a breath
She linger’d, looking like a summer moon
Half-dipt in cloud: anon she shook her head,
And shower’d the rippled ringlets to her knee;
Unclad herself in haste; adown the stair
Stole on; and, like a creeping sunbeam, slid
From pillar unto pillar, until she reach’d
The Gateway, there she found her palfrey trapt
In purple blazon’d with armorial gold.
Then she rode forth, clothed on with chastity:
The deep air listen’d round her as she rode,
And all the low wind hardly breathed for fear.
The little wide-mouth’d heads upon the spout
Had cunning eyes to see: the barking cur
Made her cheek flame; her palfrey’s foot-fall shot
Light horrors thro’ her pulses; the blind walls
Were full of chinks and holes; and overhead
Fantastic gables, crowding, stared: but she
Not less thro’ all bore up, till, last, she saw
The white-flower’d elder-thicket from the field,
Gleam thro’ the Gothic archway in the wall.
Then she rode back, clothed on with chastity;
And one low churl, compact of thankless earth,
The fatal byword of all years to come,
Boring a little auger-hole in fear,
Peep’d — but his eyes, before they had their will,
Were shrivel’d into darkness in his head,
And dropt before him. So the Powers, who wait
On noble deeds, cancell’d a sense misused;
And she, that knew not, pass’d: and all at once,
With twelve great shocks of sound, the shameless noon
Was clash’d and hammer’d from a hundred towers,
One after one: but even then she gain’d
Her bower; whence reissuing, robed and crown’d,
To meet her lord, she took the tax away
And built herself an everlasting name.

Alfred Lord Tennesson 1840


Stasis in darkness. 
Then the substanceless blue   
Pour of tor and distances. 

God’s lioness,   
How one we grow, 
Pivot of heels and knees!—The furrow 

Splits and passes, sister to   
The brown arc 
Of the neck I cannot catch, 

Berries cast dark   

Black sweet blood mouthfuls,   
Something else 

Hauls me through air—
Thighs, hair; 
Flakes from my heels. 

Godiva, I unpeel—
Dead hands, dead stringencies. 

And now I 
Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas.   
The child’s cry 

Melts in the wall.   
And I 
Am the arrow, 

The dew that flies 
Suicidal, at one with the drive   
Into the red 
Eye, the cauldron of morning. 

Sylvia Plath 


Video – Lady Godiva 1911