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Peeping Tom

There was once a time when friends would gather to scare themselves silly watching horror films in the dead of night. If the thought of an eery stone well, a VHS cassette tape and a girl with draping jet-black hair walking slowly towards you conjures up a memory of fear and disbelief, you are in good company… But as time went on, and the friends grew up, their taste of self-imposed fear changed, and they began to sample some of the older classics; ‘The Shining… ‘Dracula’… ‘Psycho’!

Another notable British psychological horror-thriller film (written by Leo Marks and directed by Michael Powell) revolves around a serial killer who murders women whilst capturing their dying expressions on camera. The film in question, made in 1960, is called ‘Peeping Tom’.

But have you ever wondered where the phrase Peeping Tom came from? The definition of this phrase is ‘a person who obtains sexual gratification by observing others surreptitiously’. But in fact, its history dates back some 900 years…

In the 11th century there lived a powerful Lord who ruled part of England under the Danish King Cnut the Great. His name was Leofric, Earl of Mercia. Known as tyrant, it may come as no surprise that he mercilessly demanded from the people of Coventry, an oppressive tax; the ‘Heregeld’.

This tax was supposedly an ‘Army Tax’ but rather than be spent on weapons or to pay homegrown soldiers, it was moreover collected to pay a mercenary force to send the Vikings on their way. This was not a wholly successful policy, but alas we digress.

Leofric was married to a woman named Lady Godiva. Known for her generosity to the church and a rich landowner in her own right; one of her most valuable properties was the town of Coventry. She had a fondness for the Midlands and its populace, and it was for this reason she pleaded with her husband to end the hated tax.

Leofric is reputed to have said “You will have to ride naked through Coventry before I change my ways”, self-assured that his modest, demure wife would never do such a thing!

But in fact, Lady Godiva took him at his word. She spoke with her people asking them to remain indoors with their windows shuttered. On realising this heroic act may rid them of the Heregeld they obeyed her request. And so, she set out on market day riding naked upon her horse in protest of her husband’s unfair tax on the population, veiled only by her gloriously long hair. So long, as the story goes, that it covered her entire body bar her face and legs.

Leofric was stunned to submission and henceforth lowered the tax on the people of Coventry. But rather satisfactorily, the last part of this tale, which admittedly may at this point fall slightly into legend, takes us back to the beginning.

The town folk of Coventry largely complied with Lady Godiva’s request to remain indoors, except for one man; a tailor named Tom. The tailor could not resist catching a glimpse of the Lady, so is said to have drilled a hole in his shutters from which to take a peep as she rode past, and so the phrase ‘Peeping Tom’ was born. Yet alas, it was at this moment that Peeping Tom is said to have been struck blind or dead!

Thus here our tale must come to a grisly end, but the next time you hear the phrase Peeping Tom, you’ll know it was derived from a tale of tax abomination.