Dick Whittington and his cat have become regular fixtures at British pantomimes each year. A popular story that has graced stages since the lifetime of 17th century diarist Samuel Pepys, it tells of a poor boy leaving his home in Gloucestershire for London to make his fortune.
Whittington faces setbacks but upon hearing the Bow Bells toll, returns to London accompanied by his trusty cat and ultimately becomes Mayor of London.
Yet the story of Whittington is not quite the rags to riches tale we are familiar with today. Richard ‘Dick’ Whittington, the true subject of the pantomime, was born into the landed gentry during the 14th century and rose to prominence as a merchant before assuming the role of Mayor of London.
Medieval merchant, figure of folklore, pantomime favourite and Mayor of London: who was Dick Whittington?
The road to riches
Richard Whittington was born around the early 1350s into an old and wealthy Gloucestershire family. He was the 3rd son of Sir William Whittington of Pauntley, a Member of Parliament, and his wife Joan Maunsell, daughter of William Maunsell Sheriff of Gloucestershire.
As the youngest of William and Joan’s three sons, Whittington was not set to inherit any of his parents’ wealth. Therefore he travelled to London to work as a merchant, dealing in luxury goods such as velvet and silk – both valuable fabrics he sold to royalty and nobility. He may also have increased his fortune sending the much sought after English woollen cloth to Europe.
Regardless, by 1392 Whittington was selling wares to King Richard II worth £3,500 (equivalent to more than £1.5 million today) and lending the king large sums of money.
How did Whittington become Mayor of London?
In 1384 Whittington was made a Councilman of the City of London, and when the City was accused of misgovernment in 1392, he was sent to delegate with the king at Nottingham at which the king seized the city lands. By 1393, he had raised to alderman status and was appointed Sheriff of the City of London.
Just two days after the death of Mayor Adam Bamme in June 1397, Whittington was approached by the king to be London’s new mayor. Within days of his appointment, Whittington had made a deal with the king agreeing that London could buy the seized land back for £10,000.
The grateful people of London voted him Mayor on 13 October 1397.
‘Thrice Lord Mayor of London!’
Whittington managed to keep his position when Richard II was deposed in 1399. This was likely because he had done business with the newly crowned King Henry IV, who owed Whittington a lot of money. He was elected mayor again in 1406 and 1419, and became a Member of Parliament for London in 1416.
This influence continued into the rule of Henry VI, who employed Whittington to oversee the completion Westminster Abbey. Despite being a moneylender, Whittington had gained enough trust and respect that he even acted as judge in usury trials in 1421 as well as collected import duties.
While undoubtedly gaining great wealth and prestige in his role as mayor and major moneylender, Whittington invested back into the City he managed. During his lifetime, he financed the rebuilding of the Guildhall, the building of a ward for unmarried mothers at St Thomas’ Hospital, much of Greyfriars Library, as well as public drinking fountains.
Whittington also made provisions for his apprentices, giving them lodging in his own house and prohibiting them from washing in the Thames during cold, wet weather which was causing pneumonia and even instances of drowning.
Becoming ‘Dick’ Whittington
Whittington died in March 1423 and was buried in the church of St Michael Paternoster Royal, which he had donated significant amounts of money during his lifetime. The church was destroyed during the Great Fire of London in 1666 and so his tomb is now lost.
A mummified cat found in the church tower in 1949 during a search for Whittington’s final location likely dates to the time of the Wren restoration of St Michael’s.
The generous gifts Whittington left to the City in his will made him well known and popular, inspiring the beloved English story adapted for the stage in February 1604: ‘The History of Richard Whittington, of his lowe byrth, his great fortune’.
Yet as the son of an ancient and wealthy family, Whittington was never poor, and despite the mummified cat found at his burial place, there is no evidence he had a feline friend. Instead, the story of ‘Dick’ Whittington may have fused with a 13th century Persian folktale, popular in Europe at the time, about an orphan who gains wealth through his cat.
Nonetheless, through his generosity and ability to navigate fast-changing medieval politics, ‘Dick’ Whittington has become a well-known character in English popular and is undoubtedly London’s most famous mayor.