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Peeping Tom Of Coventry

( Originally Published Late 1800's )

I inclose you a connected history I have lately formed, relative to Lady Godiva and her far-famed pageant, which was exhibited on Friday last, May 26, at Trinity Great Fair in this city ; and also a drawing of Peeping Tom, in the exact state in which he is carved, but divested of all paint and superfluous ornaments.

In the early part of the reign of Edward the Confessor, Earl Leofric was lord of a large feudal territory in the middle of England, called Mercia, of which Coventry formed a part. It contained the present counties of Lincoln, Nottingham, Warwick, Leicester, Stafford, Northampton, Worcester, Gloucester, Derby, Cheshire, Shropshire, and Oxford. By King Canute Leofric was made Captain-General of the Royal forces. After the death of Canute, he was chiefly instrumental in advancing to the crown Harold I., the son of that king. Edward the Confessor was principally indebted to Leofric for his elevation to the throne, and was subsequently protected, by his wisdom and power, from many of the turbulent machinations of Earl Godwyn. The Countess Godiva was sister to Thorold, Sheriff of Lincolnshire, a man much imbued with the piety prevalent in that age, as appears by his founding the Abbey of Spalding. She is said, by Ingulphus, to have been a most beautiful and devout lady.

Leofric, in conjunction with his Countess Godiva (called also Godeva, Godina, and Goditha), founded a monastery in Coventry in 1044, near the ruins of a Saxon nunnery, for an abbot and 24 Benedictine monks. Leofric bestowed on it one-half of the town in which it was situated, and 24 lordships in this and other counties. The king and the Archbishop of Canterbury, with a long train of mitred churchmen and powerful nobles, were witnesses to the act of endowment.

Leofric died in 1057, at an advanced age, at his house at Bromley, in Staffordshire, and was buried in a porch of the Monastery Church at Coventry. The time of the death of Godiva is not precisely known, but it is remarked by Dugdale that she was buried in the same monastery.

The tale of Godiva is related by an ancient historian, Matthew of Westminster.

Whether it was owing to Leofric or not does not appear; but Coventry was subject to a very severe tollage, which was paid to this feudal lord. The people complained grievously of the severity of the taxes, and applied to Godiva to intercede in their behalf. The great lords, to whom the towns belonged under the Anglo-Saxons, had the privilege of imposing taxes, which can now only be exercised by the representatives of the people in Parliament. The countess entreated her lord to give up his claim, but in vain. At last, wishing to put an end to her importunities, he told her, either in a spirit of bitter jesting, or with a playful raillery, that he would give up his tax, provided she rode through Coventry naked, in the sight of all the people. She took him at his word, and said she would. It is probable, that as he could not prevail upon her to give up her design, he had sworn some religious oath when he made his promise : but be this as it may, he took every possible precaution to secure her modesty from insult. The people of Coventry were ordered to keep within doors, to close up all their windows and outlets, and not to give a glance into the streets upon pain of death. The day came, and Coventry, it may be imagined, was as silent as death. The lady went out at the door of her castle, was set on horseback, and at the same time divested of her wrapping garment, as if she had been going into a bath. Then, taking the fillet from her head, she let down her long and lovely tresses, which poured around her body like a veil; and thus, with only her white legs remaining conspicuous, took her gentle way through the streets. We may suppose the scene taking place in the warm noon ; the doors all shut, the windows closed ; the earl and his court serious and wondering ; the other inhabitants reverently listening to hear the footsteps of the horse; and, lastly, the lady herself, with a downcast but not a shamefaced eye, looking towards the earth through her flowing locks, and riding through the silent and deserted streets like an angelic spirit.

The countess, having performed her journey, returned with joy to her husband, who consequently granted to the inhabitants a charter of freedom from servitude, evil customs, and exactions. The history was preserved in a picture of the earl and countess in a south window of Trinity Church, about the time of Richard II. He held a charter of freedom in his right hand, on which was the following inscription :

" I Luriche (Leofric) for the love of thee
Doe make Coventre tol-free."

Mutilated figures of these personages still exist in a window in this church.

It has been already mentioned that previous to her riding through the city, all the inhabitants were ordered, on pain of death, to shut themselves up in their houses ; but the curiosity of a certain tailor, it should seem, overcoming his fear, he ventured to take a single peep ; and as a punishment for violating the injunction of the noble lady, was struck blind. It is also said that her horse neighed at the time, on which account horses were not afterwards toll-free, although the town was franchised in every other respect.

This circumstance is commemorated to the present day by a grotesque figure called Peeping Tom, which appears looking out of a corner window or opening in a wall, in Smithford-street. It is about six feet in height, and is an ancient full-length statue of a man in plate armour, with skirts. It is carved with the pedestal from a single block of oak, and the back is hollowed out in order to render it less ponderous. The crest of the helmet is nearly destroyed, and the arms were cut off at the elbows, in order to favour its present position of leaning out of the window. The latter were formed of separate pieces of wood, and fastened to the upper part of the arms by means of pegs, the remains of which are still visible. From the attitude in which the body was carved, and the right leg and foot armed, being in advance, there is reason to believe that the figure was in a posture of attack, and probably might be intended to re-present St. George with a shield on his left arm, and a sword or ancient spear in his right hand, transfixing a dragon. Or it might represent some other warlike chieftain exhibited in the pageants, when our monarchs occasionally visited the city.

It is absurd to suppose that the figure thus accoutred was intended, in the eleventh century, viz., at the period when Godiva flourished, to resemble a mechanic. The long wig and cravat or neckcloth, its usual habiliments (until lately), are characteristic of the reign of Charles II., at which period it is certain that the present form of the procession had its origin. The effigy is also usually decorated with a cocked hat, and with the addition of paint to represent clothing, is so metamorphosed that he who carved it would scarcely now be able to recognise the work of his dexterity. The early historians (as has been previously mentioned) give a lengthened detail of Godiva riding through the public streets, yet not one, including the late Sir W. Dugdale, even hint at the circumstance in question. We may safely, therefore, appropriate it to the reign of Charles II.

In the reign of Henry III. (12x7), Ranulph, Earl of Chester, procured from that monarch a charter for an annual Fair, to begin on the Friday in Trinity week, and to continue for the space of eight days.

From an early period, the mayor and his brethren, with their armed guard, minstrels, and other attendants, were accustomed to proclaim this fair on the first day through the city, and the different trading companies sent men cased in black armour to join the cavalcade, which from the colour were denominated Black guards. In times of danger, detachments of these men were sent to aid the national armies. Some faint resemblance of this custom is still apparent at the present day. The necessity of an armed force to keep peace and order during this fair, which lasted eight days, is not improbable ; and it is well known that formerly each company possessed several suits of armour.

In 1677 (shortly after the lamentable civil war, which doubtless materially injured every description of trade, and during the licentious reign of Charles II.) the procession at the great fair was first instituted. At that period a female intended to represent the benevolent patroness of the city was procured to ride in the cavalcade. That singular figure called Peeping Tom (the Coventry Palladium, as he is aptly termed) was placed in an exalted situation in the High Street, to the admiration of the spectators ; and there are many who even at the present day have a high opinion of his sagacity and discernment.

The city companies also very materially assisted in the new pro-cession. They provided new flags and streamers, on which were painted their different arms, and attired the attendants on the followers in various antique frocks and caps, to which those now in use are similar. Boys, fancifully dressed, were likewise set out by the companies, which custom is supposed to have received its origin from naked children being exhibited in the religious pageants, in-tended to represent angels, or other celestial attendants.

The following is a list of the followers that rode at this Institution : Company of drapers, 2 boys ; mercers, 2 ; blacksmiths, I ; clothiers, I ; fellmongers, r ; bakers, r ; tylers, r ; the mayor, 2 ; the sheriffs, z ; shearmen and taylors, I ; feltmakers, I ; shoemakers, I ; butchers, I; and the city, 2.

The show (although not depending on any charter) was an annual occurrence until within these few years, but it is now only occasion-ally presented. The inhabitants of the city are always found to contribute liberally to the support of this popular exhibition ; and a committee is generally appointed to superintend the ulterior arrangements. For some previous weeks the greatest preparations are made in the city—the houses are newly painted and white-washed, and ribbons and cockades are distributed in profusion to those who are to be employed in the procession. The morning of the festival is ushered in by the ringing of bells—every species of vehicle, from the humble cart to the splendid carriage, is observed moving to the attractive scene, and the streets, houses, and battlements of the churches are thronged with spectators.

Prior to the movement of the grand cavalcade through the principal streets, the mayor, magistrates, and charter officers regularly attend divine service at Trinity Church.

At twelve o'clock the procession moves forward from the county hall, and having passed through all the principal streets of the city, terminates at the same place about half-past three. The boys belonging to the Bablake School occasionally sing the national anthem in different parts of the city; which, intermingled with the ringing of bells, and the melodious sounds arising from successive bands of martial music, form altogether a scene beyond the power of language to describe.

At the head of the procession, walking two and two, are the city guards attired in suits of black armour of the make of the 17th century, which have lately been repaired and painted, viz., corselets, back pieces, skirts, with morions on their heads, and bills of different shapes in their hands. Then immediately follows, on a charger, the patron of England, St. George, in full black armour. St. George is the patron saint of the Taylors' Company in Coventry. He is re-presented by the author of the Seven Champions of Christendom to have been born, and afterwards to have resided, in the town ; and an ancient building called St. George's Chapel was lately taken down in Gosford Street.

Two large city streamers are next brought to view, beautifully gilded and painted with various devices, on which are depicted the city arms, viz. an elephant with a triple-towered castle on his back, with a cat-a-mountain forming the crest, and three ostrich feathers, given to Coventry by Edward Prince of Wales, commonly called the Black Prince.

The high constable then advances, followed by a female to re-present Lady Godiva, who rides on a grey horse, not literally, like the good countess, with her own dishevelled hair, but in white linen closely fitted to her limbs. She is sometimes habited in a slight drapery, which reaches nearly to her knees, and which is tastefully decorated with wreaths of flowers. Her long tresses are also beautifully curled and adorned with a fillet of flowers, the whole being surmounted by a handsome plume of white ostrich feathers. On each side are the city crier and beadle, with pink cockades in their hats : they are also distinguished by wearing the elephant and castle (in silver) on their left arms—the left side of this dress is green ; the right scarlet, agreeing with the field of the city arms.

Every person conversant in the history of England will recollect that the red rose was the peculiar mark of distinction of the House of Lancaster and its adherents. Henry VI. made Coventry a county, conferring on it many privileges and immunities. The colour universally adopted by the citizens of Coventry was consequently red or pink, and it has thus passed through succeeding ages to the present day.

The persons who lead the horses and otherwise attend the corporation are dressed in waistcoats ; and ribbons of this colour are tied round the arms and knees.

Then follow the mayor's crier, who occasionally proclaims the fair, and persons carrying the ancient and costly insignia of office belonging to the corporation, viz., the sword and large mace, and crimson velvet hat and cap of maintenance.

We next view the mayor and ten aldermen, in their scarlet gowns lined with fur, and cocked hats, with wands in their hands. Then follow the two sheriffs, common council, two chamberlains (who have the management of the common and lammas grounds), and two wardens, all dressed in black gowns, and bearing wands.

The mayor, charter officers, the masters of companies, and the stewards of the societies, are attended by little boys, beautifully and splendidly dressed in various coloured clothes, trimmed with silver or gold fringe ; their hats adorned with plumes of feathers, their horses gaily dressed with rosettes of ribbon, and saddle-cloths trimmed in a tasteful and superior manner. These children are called followers, although they sometimes precede the persons to whom they belong.

The masters of the different companies, with their followers and streamers, add considerably to the splendour of the cavalcade. Each company has a characteristic flag, on which is painted the arms, and the follower carries a symbol of the respective trade. The ancient dresses of the attendants are also highly deserving of attention.

The loyal independent order of Odd Fellows and the benefit societies, attended by their followers and flags, are next observed. Then follow the Woolcombers' Company, attired in large jersey wigs and habits, dyed of different colours, and a singular woollen flag, which add considerably to the novelty of the scene. After the Master and follower are a beautiful boy and girl, representing a shepherd and shepherdess, holding crooks, sitting under a spacious arbour composed of boughs and flowers, erected on a carriage drawn by horses; the boy carrying a dog, and the girl, elegantly dressed, carrying a lamb upon her lap, and holding a bouquet of flowers, made of wool. Until lately they were accustomed to ride separately on horses, with the above attributes

We then notice Jason, with a golden fleece in his left hand, and a drawn sword in his right, as the champion and protector of the fleece.

The last prominent figure in the procession is the venerable Bishop Blaze, with his black mitre of woo] and lawn sleeves, carrying a Bible in his left hand, and a woolcomb in the right. Over his white shirt two broad black belts of jersey are crossed, which considerably add to the singular appearance of this character. The bridle is held on each side by a page; and his attendants are dressed in white, with sashes, scarfs, and high caps, all made of wool and wands. Blaze suffered martyrdom, by decapitation, in the year 289, after being cruelly whipped with scourges, and his flesh lacerated with iron combs (whence his symbol). The woolcombers call Bishop Blaze their patron Saint ; and they attribute to him, erroneously, the invention of their useful art.

It only remains for us to remark, that this popular procession is unequalled for its novelty and variety. Worcester, Chester, and other towns have occasionally public exhibitions, but they are generally on a confined scale, and by no means possess those splendid attractions which are to be seen in the grand procession at Coventry. We therefore anxiously trust that this ancient pageant will ever meet with public encouragement, and that it may descend to future generations with the same degree of splendour in which it is exhibited at the present day. [See Note 23.]

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