From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Godiva (or Godgifu) (c. 990? – September 10, 1067) was an Anglo-Saxon noblewoman who, according to legend, rode naked through the streets of Coventry in England in order to gain a remission of the oppressive toll imposed by her husband on his tenants. The name "peeping Tom" for a voyeur comes from later versions of this legend in which a man named Tom watched her ride and was stricken blind.
According to the popular story, Lady Godiva took pity on the people of Coventry, who were suffering grievously under her husband'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 strip naked and ride through the streets of the town. Lady Godiva took him at his word and, after issuing a proclamation that all persons should stay indoors and shut their windows, she rode through the town, clothed only in her long hair. Only one person in the town, a tailor ever afterwards known as Peeping Tom, disobeyed her proclamation in one of the most famous instances of voyeurism. In the end, Godiva's husband keeps his word and abolishes the onerous taxes.
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 an earlier writer. The later story, with its episode of "Peeping Tom," appeared first among 17th century chroniclers.
At the time, it was customary for penitents to make a public procession in their shift, a sleeveless white garment similar to a slip today and one which was certainly considered "underwear." Thus, some scholars speculate, Godiva may have actually travelled through town as a penitent, in her shift. Godiva's story may have passed into folk history to be recorded in a romanticised version. Another theory has it that Lady Godiva's "nakedness" may refer to her riding through the streets stripped of her jewellery, the trademark of her upper class rank. However, both these attempts to reconcile known facts with legend are weak; there is no known use of the word "naked" in the era of the earliest accounts to mean anything other than "without any clothing whatsoever."
Moreover, there is no trace of any version of the story in sources contemporary with Godiva, a story that would certainly have been recorded even in its most tame interpretations. Additionally, with the founding of Coventry circa 1043, there was little opportunity for the city to have developed to an extent that would have supported such a noble gesture. Lastly, the only recorded tolls were on horses. Thus, it remains doubtful whether there is any historical basis for the famous ride.
Like the story of Peeping Tom, the claim that Godiva's long hair effectively hid her nakedness from sight is generally believed to have been a later addition (cf. Rapunzel). Certain other thematic elements are familiar in myth and fable: the resistant Lord (cf. Esther and Ahasuerus), the exacted promise, the stringent condition and the test of chastity. Even if Peeping Tom is a late addition, his being struck blind demonstrates the closely knit themes of the violated mystery and the punished intruder (cf. Diana and Actaeon).