Who was Lady Godiva? The story of Lady Godiva's ride, naked, through the streets of Coventry has changed and grown over the 900 years or so of its existence - but who was the real person behind the legend?

Lady Godiva was married to Leofric, the 'grim' Earl of Mercer and Lord of Coventry, a man of great power and importance. The chronicler Florence of Worcester mentions Leofric and Godiva, but does not mention her famous ride, and there is no firm evidence connecting the rider with the historical Godiva.

In 1043 the Earl and Countess founded a Benedictine house for an abbot and 24 monks on the site of St Osburg's Nunnery, which had been destroyed by the Danes in 1016. The monastery was dedicated by Edsi, Archbishop of Canterbury, to God, the Virgin Mary, St Peter, St Osburg and All Saints.

During the dedication ceremony, Earl Leofric laid his founding charter upon the newly consecrated altar, which not only granted the foundation, but also gave him lordship over 24 villages for the maintenance of the house.

Lady Godiva endowed the monastery with many gifts in honour of the Virgin Mary. She is supposed to have had all her gold and silver melted down and made into crosses, images of saints and other decorations to grace her favoured house of God.

Leofric died in 1057 and was buried with great ceremony in one of the porches of the Abbey church. Lady Godiva survived her husband by ten years and is also said to have been buried in the church, although this has not yet been proven.

She rode through the silent streets unseen by the people...

On her deathbed, she gave a heavy gem-encrusted gold chain to the monastery, directing that it should be placed around the neck of the image of the Virgin. Those who came to pray, she said, should say a prayer for each stone in the chain.

The remains of the subsequent 13th-century church monastery, Coventry's first cathedral, can now be seen in Priory Row.

Top The Godiva legend The Godiva procession  © So what is the truth behind the story of Lady Godiva's ride through Coventry? Why would a lady of great standing in the town do such a thing? The legend has been handed down over many years, so the line between fact and fiction has become more than a little blurred.

The earliest surviving source for the legend is the Chronica of Roger of Wendover for the year 1057. He wrote that Godiva pleaded with her husband to relieve the heavy burden of taxes he had imposed on the citizens of Coventry.

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.

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.

A pageant is held annually in Coventry to re-enact Lady Godiva's original route through the town.