The true story of Dick Whittington
Dick Whittington: the true story
By The Museum of London
Richard Whittington lived from about 1350-1423. He achieved many things in his life. Now he is known for having a pet cat and 'turning again'. How did Whittington become so famous?
Richard or 'Dick' Whittington was born during the 1350s. He was the younger son of Sir William Whittington, Lord of the Manor of Pauntley in Gloucestershire. Sir William died in 1358. The oldest son inherited the estate, so Richard travelled to London to find work.
Whittington served an apprenticeship, and eventually became a ‘mercer', dealing in valuable cloth from abroad, such as silks, velvets and cloth of gold. The main market for selling these cloths was the Royal Court. Whittington supplied large quantities to King Richard II (who owed Whittington £1000 when he was deposed in 1399) and to King Henry IV. Whittington became rich. After 1397 he often lent large sums of money to the Crown. In return he was allowed to export wool without paying customs duty on it.
He became a City alderman, or magistrate, in 1393. In 1397 the Mayor, Adam Bamme, died in office and the King chose Whittington to become the new mayor. He was re-elected the following year, and again for 1406-7 and 1419-20. This made him Mayor of London four times.
Whittington died in March 1423. His wife Alice, daughter of Sir Ivo Fitzwaryn (or Fitzwarren) of Dorset, had died before him. They had no children.
In his will Whittington asked that his great wealth be used to the benefit of the city. The money was used to establish an almshouse (residences for poor people), a college of priests and a library, and to carry out a number of other public works. These included improvements to the water supply and building a public lavatory, which became known as ‘Whittington's longhouse'. Disadvantaged Londoners still benefit from Whittington's will through the Whittington Charity.
Medieval mercers and mayors
As a mercer Whittington would have belonged to the Mercers' Company, which was the leading livery company. The various livery companies controlled their respective trades and received rights from the King. The trade of a mercer does not exist today, and the Company is now devoted to charitable works.
In Whittington's time Westminster and the City of London had separate governments. The Mayor of London was the head of Government for the City of London, and was based at the Guildhall. The Guildhall is still the seat of the Corporation of London now. The Mayor was not called ‘Lord Mayor' as he is today until much later.
The Dick Whittington myth
The gifts left in Whittington's will originally made him famous. However, Londoners did not know how he first made his money. Stories began about how a poor boy became rich with the help of his cat. There is no evidence that Whittington kept a cat, and as the son of a Lord he was never very poor. Despite being untrue the stories flourished. A play produced in 1606 tells most of the story. There are many different versions, but essentially the tale was:
Dick Whittington was a poor boy from Gloucestershire who walked to London to seek his fortune. He found work in the house of a rich merchant Fitzwarren, and fell in love with Fitzwarren's daughter, Alice. Dick had a cat to keep down the mice in the attic where he slept. Fitzwarren invited his servants to put money into a sailing voyage. Dick had no money, but gave his cat to the captain to sell.
Dick decided there was no future for him in London, and left to go home to Gloucestershire. He stopped on top of Highgate Hill on the way out of London. There he heard the bells of London ringing - they seemed to say: ‘Turn again, Whittington, three times Lord Mayor of London'.
Dick thought this was a good omen and returned to Fitzwarren's house. He learnt that the ship had returned with great news. The sailing party arrived in a foreign land where the king's court was overrun by rats. Dick's cat killed or drove out all the rats. In thanks the king paid a huge sum of gold to buy the cat. Dick was now a very wealthy man. He married Alice Fitzwarren, and eventually became Lord Mayor of London.
The story continued to grow in the 17th and 18th centuries and appeared in many children's books. In the 19th century, the story became the subject for pantomimes and other characters were added. The story is still told today in pantomimes and new versions of the story are still published. Even now, Dick Whittington and the cat that made his fortune are familiar to people who have never heard of the ‘real' Richard Whittington.
Article reproduced courtesy of the Museum of London
last updated: 11/10/07