Saturday 20 December 2014

Turn Again, Whittington by Ann Swinfen

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 Forest of Dean, 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 England 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.
"Sir" Richard Whittington and his Cat. Printed in New Wonderful Museum, Vol. III (1805). "from the original painting at Mercers’ Hall".

Professional Career

Like many a younger son at the time, he was despatched by his family to London, 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 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 weatherproof. 

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 London merchant until his death. In addition, he loaned money to three kings – Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V.
Richard II

Political Career

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 London. Eight years later, in 1392, he was part of a delegation sent by the City of 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 favour nonetheless.

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 London.)
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 London’s 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.

Henry V

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 England. 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.


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 London, 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 was growing rapidly at the time, as the nation recovered from the Great Pestilence, and this led to problems with the city’s water supply and hygiene. Although the Great Conduit in Cheapside provided a major supply of water accessible to all Londoners, Whittington’s money provided new conduits at St Giles Cripplegate and Billingsgate. He also improved the sewers and drainage at Cripplegate and Billingsgate, and built public lavatories, the so-called ‘Long House’ with accommodation for 64, in the parish of St Martins Vintry, on the riverside between Billingsgate and Queenhithe. He even laid on a water supply to the prisons of Ludgate and Newgate.

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 London. Across the river in Southwark was another hospital, St Thomas’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 ‘Winchester 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.
Vera Effigies or "True Portaicture" of Richard Whittington, engraving by Reginald Elstrack (1570 – after 1625). Original engraving depicted a skull under his palm, but printseller Peter Stent requested it changed to a cat, to meet popular expectations.

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 . 


Marie-Louise Jensen said...

Fascinating post, Ann, thank you. I knew some of this but by no means all. The world needs more people like Whittington.

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

Apologies for the removed comment. I can't spell...

Susan Price said...

I very much enjoyed this. I've often had a drink in 'Dick Whittington's family home', near Kinver - - but I had no idea what a truly charitable and kindly man he was.

I've often thought that there must once have been an English version of 'Puss in Boots' - where a youngest son is helped to wealth by a clever cat - and this got tacked on to Whittington. But the cat got a bit lost in the process.

Ann Swinfen said...

Thanks,Marie-Louise and Susan! Wasn't he a wonderful man? I first started on this trail of discovery because of the lying-in ward at St Thomas's, where my character Christoval Alvarez has just started as a physician in 1589. (Book 4 of a series) I thought, "What an extraordinary thing to do!" So I went in search of the rest of his life. I think he must have been quite remarkable. As for the cat - there are so many folk tales about helpful animals, that the idea may just have been tacked on. Or perhaps he did have a cat, and once joked that he owed everything to his cat! Who knows?

Christina Koning said...

Lovely piece, Anne - and very seasonal (given that it's supposed to be a time of charity and philanthropy). I, too, knew very little of Whittington's life and achievements, which seem to have been considerable - although I do hope there really was a cat!

Ann Swinfen said...

Yes, I hope there was a cat too! I was quite bowled over by what I discovered. What a lovely man!

Marjorie said...

Fascinating! I knew he was a real person, but didn't know any of those details.
I chose, however, to believe there was a cat, too. There should always be cats!

Ann Swinfen said...

Yes,I knew he was a real man, Marjorie, but like you I didn't know any details until I stumbled upon the fact that he had endowed a lying-in ward for unmarried mothers. And let's agree that there probably was a cat, though he may not have done everything that he is credited with! There definitely always should be a cat. The public convenience was enlightened too. Imagine how difficult it must have been before that was provided! Though I think there was one on the Fleet Bridge as well. The two public conveniences would have been quite a distance apart. He thought of everything!

Catherine Johnson said...

My favourite thing on the ride home from central London was passing the cat statue outside the Whittington Hospital! Lovely post

Ann Swinfen said...

Great statue! And I suppose the whole cat story emphasises his likable humanity, so it's entirely in keeping with his personality. It's rather a pity that the pantomime figure diminishes his stature as one of our truly great men. Time for a rethink! Seriously thinking of writing a book about him.