Lady Godiva is an 1897 painting by English artist John Collier, who worked in the style of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The portrayal of Lady Godiva and her well-known ride through Coventry, England, is held in Coventry’s Herbert Art Gallery and Museum.
Lady Godiva was bequeathed by social reformer Thomas Hancock Nunn. When he died in 1937, the painting was offered to the Corporation of Hampstead. He specified in his will that should his bequest be refused by Hampstead (presumably on grounds of propriety) the painting was then to be offered to Coventry
In the 11th century, Lady Godiva and her husband Lord Leofric,the powerful Earl of Mercia, lived in Coventry, England. Lord Leofric was a powerful ruler who was unsympathetic to the citizens of his kingdom. Lady Godiva, however, was a woman of great generosity who had dedicated her life to the impoverished and stricken.
When Lord Leofric imposed a heavy burden of taxation upon his subjects, Lady Godiva protested. In response, Lord Leofric set forth this challenge: If his wife rode naked through the streets, the taxation would be lifted. Lady Godiva was a modest woman, but she immediately agreed to this challenge to help her fellow townspeople.
Before leaving, she ordered the people of Coventry to remain inside their homes and not peek.
The Defining Moment
On the morning of the event, dawn rose, the bells chimed, and Lady Godiva began her ride wrapped in nothing but her lustrous long hair. The generosity of Lady Godiva led to more generosity on the part of the townspeople. The people agreed to all close their shutters to preserve Lady Godiva’s modesty. Throughout the streets, the sounds of hooves echoed, but a single glance fell upon Lady Godiva.
One man, named Tom, couldn’t resist opening his window to get an eyeful. Upon doing so, this “Peeping Tom” was struck blind.
Upon her finish, thunderous cheers erupted throughout the town. Lady Godiva’s bravery and risk had won over the hearts of all who knew her. After finishing her naked ride, Godiva confronted her husband and demanded that he hold up his end of the bargain.
As promised, Lord Leofric eased his taxation of the poor and Lady Godiva’s place in history was immortalized.
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.