Just exactly what, you might be asking, is a pantomime character doing in a history blog? Except of course, that Sir Richard Whittington really was the Mayor of London – not once, twice or even thrice but four times…okay three and a half if you’re being picky about it. He first became mayor in 1397 having been asked by Richard II to fill in for a defunct mayor (hence the half prior to the election), 1406 and 1419. He even went on to become one of London’s members of Parliament. So far so good.
However, he was not a penniless orphan. He was the son of a Gloucestershire knight born in 1350. When Richard’s father died, young Dick – who was by way of the spare in the phrase an heir and a spare- was apprenticed to Ivo Fitzwarren, a wealthy mercer.
In reality Richard did marry Alice Fitzwarren and he did become a wealthy and influential man though that’s about as far historically as anyone can go. There is no historical record of worldly goods being tied up in a red handkerchief, no historical record of informative city bells and no account of the cat which helped secure his fortune. Though one does feature in the window of St Michael Paternoster church on College Hill which Whittington helped to fund. Oh yes – and when excavation work was carried out in the church in 1949 a mummified cat was discovered during a search for Dick’s missing tomb- not really surprising given the amount of demolition work and rebuilding that the church has experienced over the centuries. The idea of a real cat is rather more intriguing and definitely more appealing than the suggestion that the cat originated like a game of chinese whispers from the more merchantish preoccupation with ‘achats’ or purchases.
Cat owner or not, in reality Richard Whittington was a canny and influential mercer who sold his cloth to the royal court and lent Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V money. In 1399 for example, Richard II owed Dick Whittington £1000. It was Richard II who chose Whittington to be mayor when the mayor at the time died, very inconveniently, mid way through his term of office. He also appears to have been able to export cloth without paying taxes – a perk of lending money to kings.
Dick died, childless, in 1423. Alice was already dead. He was buried by her side. He left most of his money to charity including for St Bartholomew’s Hospital. It should be added at this point that the original St Michael Paternoster Church burned down during the Great Fire of London in 1666 and was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren (the last of his London churches). The new church didn’t fare too well during World War Two. Trouble arrived in the form of a flying bomb which left the church a derelict shell. It was rebuilt in the 1960s.