Updated: Feb 1
UPDATE - JANUARY 2021
I first published this blog back in November 2019, before we undertook a Heritage Lottery Funded project to research the real man. Thanks to those lovely folks, we were able to develop an online resource to give you a much, or as little, of the story as you wish. For the most up to date info on Dick Whittington, click here.
Whenever I write a Story Storks version of a fairytale I like to go back as far as I can and read the early print versions. Some of the tales I write a version of have been passed down for millennia. Jack and the Beanstalk, for example, was recently dated as 4000 years old. I have no idea how they dated that, but they are experts and they did! As each successive generation hands the tale down to the next, they add their own ideas and values. This is how it's always been. These stories, therefore, represent more than an interesting plotline - they capture a moment in time and can be considered as much a part of our heritage as our palaces and landscapes.
Dick Whittington is different; his story is a legend rather than a fairytale because Dick Whittington was a real person which presented a second avenue of research i.e. the truth behind the man. Turns out the latter is as incredible a tale as the legend, and worthy of being told. We've incorporated the real history into our version of Dick Whittington, blending heritage and legend to create a 'rounded' view of the man he was, and who he came to be.
Richard Whittington, known as Dick, was born around 1350 in Pauntley, Gloucestershire. He was the third and youngest son of Sir William Whittington and Joan Maunsell (Ref 1). Sir William died in 1358 and did indeed leave a debt behind him, albeit a small one, which may have given rise to the notion that Dick came from a poor background.
Apprenticeship to the Mercers
There is plenty of evidence of Dick’s work as a Mercer, so whilst his apprenticeship isn’t documented, it is reasonably safe to say that this is the reason he left Gloucestershire. During the medieval period, it was seen as ‘good for a child’ to be sent away from home to work, sometimes from as young as the age of 9 and certainly before they were 14. Children from impoverished families will have worked as servants for obvious financial reasons, but parents of means will have saved up to buy an apprenticeship for their children (Ref 2).
Dick was born shortly after the Black Death, and with a heavily depleted population (Ref 3), it is not unreasonable to suppose that he started his apprenticeship sooner rather than later.
The Journey to London
I covered this in a previous blog which you can access by clicking HERE. The current evidence seems to indicate that Dick probably didn't enter London via Highgate Hill, but walked to Maidenhead and then travelled into London on the Thames. We're hoping to research this more thoroughly next year and attempt to get a definitive answer either way.
As a Mercer & a Moneylender
The first record of Dick Whittington as a Mercer is in 1379 when he contributed 5 marks towards a civic gift to the nobles of the realm. By 1388 he was a major supplier to the royal court, and by 1389 he was selling his wares to King Richard II. The pattern continued, with Dick recorded as supplying mercery to Henry IV’s great wardrobe and for the marriages of Henry IV’s daughters, Blanche and Philippa.
His close connections with wealthy customers left him in an advantageous position as a money lender. He is recorded as lending to the crown on nearly sixty occasions. He also lent money to individuals. He kept his capital liquid rather than investing it into a large estate which meant that he was able to make consistently large loans over a sustained period of time.
During the reign of Edward III, it is probable that he also engaged in trade with Italy in the rapidly expanding export of English woollen cloth. He is known to have collected on royal debts via wool subsidies and served as a collector of the wool subsidies in all of London twice between 1401 and 1410, which would have been very lucrative indeed.
His professional interests diversified over time, and in the last decade of his life he enacted fewer sales and took on fewer apprentices, but he continued to import linens and deal in mercery until the end.
As a Statesmen
As Dick climbed the ranks of the social echelon, so he also furthered a successful civic career. Below is a list of notable offices held (Ref 1).
1384 to 1393 Common Councilman for Coleman Street Ward
1393 to 1397 Alderman of Broad Street
1393 Sheriff of London
1395 Warden of the Mercers Company
1397 Lord Mayor of London (appointed by Richard II)
1397 Lord Mayor of London (via election)
1399 to 1400 Member of Henry IV’s first council
1401 to 1402 Warden of the Mercers Company
1405 to 1423 Mayor of the staple of Westminster
1406 to 1413 Mayor of the Calais staple
1406 Lord Mayor of London (via election)
1408 to 1409 Warden of the Mercers company
1416 to 1417 MP for the city
1419 Lord Mayor of London (via election)
1421 Judge in Ursury Trials, London
Love and Marriage
Dick Whittington married Alice Fitwarin around 1402. He bought a large house in The Royal, next to the church of St Michael Paternoster Royal where they lived together. They had no children.
Just eight years later, Alice died. At that time, it would have been customary for a man of Dick’s standing to take another wife, but he died a widower. Immediately after her death, his demeanour appears to have changed. He took a break from civic life and wound down the elements of his business that would have involved him investing time in work colleagues. A man of his standing would have been expected to take another wife, yet there was no-one else.
The evidence tends towards the conclusion that he was a man who waited a relatively long time find the love of his life, and was heartbroken when he lost her.
He paid for the rebuilding of the church St Michael Paternoster Royal as a final resting place for himself and Alice. It burned to the ground during the great fire of London and was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren. Although the tomb is lost, there is a stained glass window commemorating his direct link to the church.
During his lifetime Dick Whittington gave to good causes and set up some of his own. Some of those documented causes include a library at Greyfriars, a refuge for unmarried mothers and more unusually a longhouse which included the largest provision of public lavatories at that time, and an almshouse.
His life and work were given in service of the people of London, and so it seems fitting that he decided to leave his entire fortune to charity. These included rebuilding Newgate Prison, rebuilding the south wall of St Bartholomew’s Hospital, establishing a library at the Guildhall and installing public fountains in the city.
The fruits of his generosity still linger, with many of the institutions he founded or supported still running today. It was this final act of extreme generosity that gave rise to the legend of Dick Whittington. By the early seventeenth century the story of the orphan boy Whittington from Gloucester who came to London and made good was being circulated. A poor kitchen Scullion, he was befriended by the daughter of the master of the house, Alice Fitzwarren, but was plagued in his attic bedroom by rats and mice. He bought himself a cat who drove the vermin away. Alderman Fitzwarren offered all of his servants the opportunity to contribute to his trading ship, The Unicorn, but the only thing Dick could offer was his cat. When the Unicorn docked in North Africa, the King their bought the cat for 10 times more than all the other merchandise to solve his rat problem. Dick had lost faith in the Aldermans return and was leaving for Gloucestershire, but as he walked over Highgate hill the Bow Bells called him back. He returned to discover that The Unicorn had docked and that he was a rich man.
And the cat…?
It is believed that the feline legend originates from the famous picture of him seen holding a cat. Turns out the cat was added later, and he was originally holding a skull!
More likely, it is down to a mix up of words as the story was passed down. Dick Whittington traded in coals which were brought to London in cats, a type of sailing vessel. This sounds remarkably similar to achat, a term used during Dick's time period to mean trading at a profit. Whatever the truth was, I think we can safely say that the cat is, for now at least, here to stay.
Sarah Cantrill, November 2019
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Sarah Cantrill is a woman on a mission to help and inspire every early years child in the UK and beyond to become a reader for pleasure. She does this through Story Storks, an Early Years Theatre company who unlock the magic of fairytales through Interactive Story Workshops and Theatre to help kids build the language skills they need to read, and most importantly, to fall in love with stories.