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18 June 2014
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Legacies - London

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Myths and Legends
Oh yes he was! Oh no he wasn’t!

Richard Whittington on his death bed in 1423
Richard's death is recorded in this illustration
© Reproduced by courtesy of the Mercers' Company
During his lifetime Whittington held many positions of civic and national responsibility: he was appointed Alderman, Sheriff, and Mayor, was given various special royal commissions and spent time on the council of Henry IV, and his advice was sought on questions as diverse as the demolition of buildings and the fight against heresy.

The man and his cat

Richard Whittington must have been a fairly well known character in medieval London. Private individuals sought his advice on many occasions, and his initiatives as Mayor would have made him known to the city's wider population. The first stories of Dick and his cat, however, did not appear until the time of Queen Elizabeth I, almost two centuries after Whittington's death in 1423.

Whittington left assets worth around £5,000 to be used for charitable purposes, such as founding the Greyfriars and Guildhall libraries, and rebuilding Newgate Gaol, and these benefactions helped his name to survive. But, with time, fewer people would have known how he came to make his money, and this might explain why the stories of Dick Whittington and his cat eventually emerged.

Dick Whittington pantomime at Norwich Theatre Royal
© Courtesy Norwich Theatre Royal
The earliest references to the cat occur in two plays printed in 1605 – one, a comedy about London life called Eastward Ho!, in which a character refers to "the famous fable of Whittington and his pusse". Whittington was also the subject of a ballad printed in the same year.

The first recorded pantomime with Dick Whittington as it subject, Harlequin Whittington; or, The Lord Mayor of London, was performed in 1814 in Covent Garden, and the legend continued to be embellished in the following centuries, with the introduction of new characters like King Rat. It’s thought the addition of rats into the legend may hark back to the Black Death, which instilled fear in Londoners for centuries.

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