Taxes, Lady Godiva, Coventry, privacy, and the first Peeping Tom

by Stephen Cobb on April 19, 2015

Naked Woman on Horseback might sound like a porn video but it’s also a timely topic for the month of April, the month when taxes are front of mind for many Americans: personal income taxes for the previous calendar year must be paid on or before the 15th of the month.

For me, the topic of paying taxes conjures up many images, some more pleasant than others. The oldest of these images is indeed a woman on a white horse: the celebrated tax protester, Lady Godiva, for which my home town of Coventry in England is famous.

(Or rather, Coventry should be famous for Lady Godiva, but I suspect that many Americans eat delicious Godiva Chocolate in complete ignorance of the story behind the logo of the naked lady on the horse, for she truly has no historical connection with chocolate – the confection did not even exist when she made her famous ride.)

Lady Godiva was the wife of the Earl of Leofric, ruler of the central region of England, known as Mercia, in the early years of the eleventh century. Leofric was one of the most powerful Earls in the country prior to the Norman invasion of 1066 (Leofric died in 1057). Historical records show that both Leofric and his wife were great benefactors, donating land and money to establish monasteries as well as jewelry for shrines, even gold-fringed vestments for St. Paul’s cathedral in London.

The Lady Godiva Clock in Coventry, with Peeping Tom.Unfortunately, the power struggles that beset England in those times consumed resources that included taxes levied on the Earls’ subjects. These were not predictable annual levies. Times of conflict would produce successive tolls to fund armies, at least until the posturing or fighting was over. When Lady Godiva implored her husband not to impose more taxes he is said to have declared something to this effect: “The day I stop raising taxes is the day you ride naked through the city.” So that is what she did.

If you’re looking for a really bad pun you could say something about calling his bluff in the buff, but the good folk of Coventry took this act of courage very seriously. At Lady Godiva’s request they all went inside at the appointed hour and shuttered their windows; all except one, whose name was Tom.

As Lady Godiva rode by on her white horse, long blonde hair draped across her body, Tom peeped out. Legend has it that Tom, the original Peeping Tom, was struck blind by God for his voyeurism. On the bright side, Leofric kept his word and “abolished the onerous taxes.”

This story is commemorated every day in the center of Coventry where, every hour, on the hour, a clock displays the figure of Lady Godiva riding by, while from above leers the despicable Peeping Tom.

To be honest, the ride of Lady Godiva is more legend than documented historical fact, although the lady herself was very definitely a real person. She outlived her husband and and at the time of her death still maintained a large estate, as recorded in the Domesday Book. By the time I was born, and this was several centuries after Lady Godiva’s “allegendary” ride, the city of Coventry had a well-established tradition of re-enacting the event, by which I mean a woman would ride a horse in a large procession through the city. The citizenry did not go inside, instead they came out to watch. The woman was not always naked and nobody was blinded.

The Godiva procession has been revived in recent years and the city of Coventry has done more to tell the world about its most famous lady. Less attention is paid to Peeping Tom, but he has become synonymous with voyeur throughout the English-speaking world, even as the digital revolution has expanded the potential for voyeurism and invasion of privacy. The digital equivalent of blinding those who look where they shouldn’t has not yet been invented, but this age is yet young.

p.s. I have no idea why Godiva Chocolate chose Lady Godiva as a logo, but I do give them credit for the Lady Godiva program it started in 2012 “to celebrate inspirational women around the world.” The program seeks to support “extraordinary women who embody the spirit of Lady Godiva through their attributes of selflessness, generosity and leadership.” Amen to that!

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