Now we have reached the pantomime season, Dick Whittington will be striding the stage once again in the form of a girl in tights, but there was a great deal more to the real man than a cat and the sound of Bow Bells.
Derel Elroy and Summer Strallan in Dick Whittington and His Cat. Photograph by Manuel Harlan
Richard Whittington was born around 1354 in the
village of Pauntley,
Gloucestershire, in the , although his
family originally came from Kinver in Staffordshire. His birth thus fell very
soon after the massive tragedy of the Great Pestilence or Black Death, when Forest
was still reeling from the after-effects of that disaster. He would have been
regarded at the time as belonging to the lesser gentry, for although his
grandfather, Sir William de Whittington, held the rank of knight-at-arms, Richard
was a younger son and so would not inherit his father’s estate. England
"Sir" Richard Whittington and his Cat. Printed in New Wonderful Museum, Vol. III (1805). "from the original painting at Mercers’ Hall".
Like many a younger son at the time, he was despatched by his family to
where a promising, hard-working young man would have the opportunity to learn a
trade or go into business and thus make his own way in the world. Coming from a
fairly well-off family, he was apprenticed to one of the more prosperous
callings as a mercer, or cloth merchant. At this time, from the late fourteenth
into the early fifteenth century, fine English woollen cloth, particularly
broadcloth, was becoming highly valued throughout London Europe.
Broadcloth is so called because it is woven wider than its finished width and
then goes through a milling process which beats the cloth until the fibres matt
together, creating a dense, felt-like fabric which is warm and quite
As well as exporting English cloth, the mercers also imported luxury cloth – silks, damask and velvet – which Whittington is known to have sold to the royal court and to King Richard II himself. It is recorded that in a short period Whittington sold cloth to the king to the value of £3,500, which corresponds to about £1.5 million in today’s money, the foundation of his great wealth. He continued to be an active and prosperous
merchant until his death. In addition, he loaned money to three kings – Richard
II, Henry IV and Henry V. London
In 1384 Whittington became a member of the Common Council of London, and from then until the end of his life he was one of the most senior and active political figures in
. Eight years later, in 1392, he was
part of a delegation sent by the City of London London
to meet Richard II at Nottingham, when the
king seized land belonging to the City. The delegation was unsuccessful in its
negotiations with the king, but Whittington seems to have retained the king’s
The next year, 1393, marked a significant rise in Whittington’s fortunes. He became a full Member of the Mercers’ Company and also an alderman. The Lord Mayor, William Staundone, a grocer, appointed him as one of his two Sheriffs (or deputies) and he continued to hold this office under the next Mayor, John Hadley. In 1394, the Worshipful Company of Mercers was incorporated under a royal charter, with Whittington as one of its founders. (To this day it retains its position as the highest ranking of the Livery Companies of
|The Lord Mayor's Modern Regalia|
In 1397, four years after Whittington’s appointment as Sheriff, Lord Mayor Adam Bamme, a goldsmith, died during his second term in office and King Richard immediately appointed Whittington in his place. His first action as Lord Mayor was to negotiate successfully with the king for the return of
lands and liberties seized illegally five years before, on payment to the king
of £10,000. In recognition of this success, he was elected Lord Mayor for the
following year. The mayoral elections took place at Michaelmas (29 September),
but the new mayor only took up office halfway through November. London
Whittington was elected Lord Mayor again in 1406 and 1419, while during part of the former period in office he was also mayor of
Calais, which then belonged to .
In 1416 he was elected a Member of Parliament. Perhaps his most eminent
position was under King Henry V, who reigned from 1413 to 1422. During this
period Whittington served on a number of Royal Commissions, collected import
duties, sat as a judge, and was in charge of expenditure in completing the work
on Westminster Abbey. England
Although Whittington married in 1402, his wife died nine years later and the couple had no children. Instead, it could be said that the people of
especially the poor, were his children and heirs. He undertook and paid for a great many public
works during his lifetime, and left £7,000 in his will (about £3 million in
today’s money) for charitable works after his death. London
|The Guildhall of London|
He financed the rebuilding of the Guildhall, created the Guildhall and Greyfriars libraries, and provided for the rebuilding of his own parish church, St Michael Paternoster Royal, where he was buried after his death in 1423. Other building works included the rebuilding of the great gate at Newgate, to provide accommodation for the Sheriffs and Recorder of London, and the adjacent Newgate Prison, a complex of buildings which was the forerunner of the modern Old Bailey.
Concerned about the dangerous working conditions of young apprentices, he passed laws to protect them from unhealthy practices which had frequently led to death. He was also interested in the welfare of the poor, providing a set of almshouses for the elderly and carrying out repairs to St Bartholomew’s Hospital, which cared for the poor and needy of
the river in Southwark was another hospital, London ’s. Here Whittington established
what must have been unique in the world – a lying-in ward for unmarried
mothers. Southwark contained the recognised red-light district of Mediaeval and
Tudor London, where the ‘ St Thomas
geese’ plied their trade (so called because the Bishop of Winchester owned much
of the land and a palace there). The need for such a ward was probably
considerable, but its establishment is a timely reminder of what a generous and
warm-hearted man Richard Whittington was. There the babies of such mothers
could be born in safety for both mother and child, instead of the more common
bungled and often fatal abortions practised in the district. Winchester
So – was there a cat? Perhaps. Perhaps not. It makes a good story. Pictures of Whittington were often doctored at a later date to include a cat. But whether or not Richard Whittington nearly went home until Bow Bells called him back again, Londoners then and now owe him an enormous debt. Even today there is the Charity of Sir Richard Whittington which provides help for those in need, year round, but especially at this Christmas tide.
I'm also to be found today (20th Dec. 2014) as part of a Christmas Party blog hop here . Lots of fascinating posts on historical festivities for the winter solstice.
Ann Swinfen's historical novels for adults have been set in the first and seventeenth centuries, and she is currently working on a series set in the late sixteenth century, The Chronicles of Christoval Alvarez.
Ann Swinfen's website .