A Noble Extortioner of Feudal Days-a Cruel Test of Sincerity-shame Vanquished by Pitypeeping Tom in the Pillory of Time
Twenty-three years before the advent of William the Conqueror, who brought with him, apparently, an ancestor of every family in England, Leofric, Earl of the vast central district of England known as Mercia, founded a monastery in Coventry for Benedictine monks.
He and his wife actively interested themselves in it, and were always making gifts of jewels, missals, and money to the foundation. Mercia resounded with praises of the good and generous Earl Leofric, although the townsfolk of Coventry praised him with but one corner of their mouths.
A Primeval Chancellor
Truth to tell, the monastery was expensive, and so were various other benefactions, to say nothing of the continual wars with the other earls and petty kings of Britain. The Coventry people, too, were commercial, and perhaps showed but a languid interest in warlike and religious enterprises. Be that as it may, when he found himself pressed for money, it occurred to Leofric that an excellent way to find it would be by levying tax and toll upon the town of Coventry.
The modern Budget is a burden hard to bear, but at least we know the worst at once. Coventry, in those days, never knew what evil would next befall her. No sooner had the citizens become accustomed to one imposition than another followed. Their food, their clothes, their houses, their merchandise, their servants-one after the other, had taxes laid upon them. Large incomes could scarcely endure such taxation, and the small ones were attenuated almost to vanishing point.
At last someone bethought him of the Earl's wife. She was always doing good, and giving alms, feeding the hungry, and tending the sick; and there was no sign that she approved what her husband was doing, or, indeed, proof that she even knew of it. After much consultation, therefore, a deputation of townsmen waited on the Lady Godiva, and laid their case before her. One can surmise the way they presented it-with a little flattery as to how she could make her lord do anything for love of her, and a poignant appeal to her pity for the hungry children and old people sunk in poverty, and so on. They must have had a good spokesman, for he wrought up the noble woman to an unheard-of pitch of determination.
She went to her husband, and begged him to remit the taxes on Coventry. He refused. She asked him again, and still he refused. She used all her wifely arts, entreated, coaxed, pleaded, but all in vain. As men went in those days, he was very patient with her; but he needed the money, and he did not mean to yield.
At last, to end the matter, he said, " My dear, I am not going to remit those taxes, ' or words to that effect. " Understand, I am not going to remit them; I won't give up one penny of Coventry's money until-oh, well, until you ride naked through the town at midday."
Then he probably went on with his occupation of making arrows and drinking mead. There was a pause, and then his wife said: " Have I your leave to do that, Leofric? " An uneasy kind of feeling stirred in his mind, but he dismissed it as absurd, and gave her leave in the same manner. Godiva then went back to the deputation.
The next day at noon a sudden blindness descended on Coventry. Not a door was open, not a window unshuttered. No living creature, save a stray dog or cat stirred in any of its streets. The sun shone down on a town that looked like a painted scene in a theatre. Then, on the stroke of noon, a white palfrey paced up the street bearing as his rider Godiva, " garmented in light from her own beauty," her hair shining in a great mantle about her white limbs. Through the streets she went, and everywhere was silence and solitude. Suddenly, just as she turned into Grey Friars' Green, there was the sound of a shutter opening. Godiva looked up, and met the eyes of Tom, the tailor. She was the last thing he ever saw, for from that instant he was blind.
Lady Godiva rode back to her home, and to her amazed, half-angry, all-admiring husband. Coventry opened its doors and windows, and set itself to rejoicing and praising its good and heroic lady; only Peeping Tom crept away, ashamed and blind. The next day Leofric sent word that all taxes were remitted.
In old Coventry -Church there used to be a window of stained glass representing the Earl and his wife, with the legend:
"I, Leofric, for love of thee, Do set Coventry toll-free."
The window was put there in Richard II.'s reign. The legend of Peeping Tom seems to have been added about that time.
In Charles II.'s time, Coventry Fair dwindled in popularity, and the famous procession was founded, in which ever since Lady Godiva has been represented. A strange old wooden figure, originally intended for Mars, was hacked about to represent Peeping Tom, and put up on the house whence he is supposed to have looked.