One of the first written mentions of him wasn’t until the late 18th century, in Francis Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: “Peeping Tom, a nickname for a curious prying fellow.” The original Peeping Tom, however, probably never existed.
His story is steeped in the legend of Lady Godiva and her famous horse ride from the 11th century. Lady Godiva was pleading with her powerful husband, Leofric, Earl of Mercia, over his treatment of his people. The increasingly exasperated Leofric came up with a wager that he was sure would end the argument.
Leofric said he would lower his heavy taxes if Godiva rode through the streets of Coventry completely naked. He misjudged his wife’s reaction to this wager – Godiva met his challenge and made the ride.
Before setting off, the people of Coventry were ordered to stay indoors, close their shutters and make sure they averted their eyes as she passed by. According to legend, the whole town complied, apart from one man, Tom the tailor, who was unable to resist. As soon as he had peeked through his shutters and spied on the Lady Godiva, however, he was instantly struck blind.
Whether this story is true is open to debate. Lady Godiva was a real person, but records are sketchy about her bareback horse ride. As for Peeping Tom, he didn’t emerge into the legend until the 17th century – it is unclear why he was added to the already-racy story.
This article was first published in the July 2014 issue of History Revealed.