Updated: Nov 19, 2019
Back at the beginning of the year, I was sat in the Rose Theatre with Robert O'Dowd and told him of my plans to stage Dick Whittington as our Christmas Show. "Not doing a show with a local history angle?" he complained! And then he said, "well if Dick walked up the A3 to get to London then he will have walked past here!"
We laughed. We drank coffee. We went our separate ways.
And I started mulling.
Dick Whittington was a real person, and historical records have him born in Gloucestershire and becoming a Mercer in London. Indeed, he went on to become the Master Mercer, serving the Kings of his time, and was elected the Lord Mayor of London three times. At some point, he made the journey to London. What if he did go through Kingston?
Dick left behind no personal records, so we will never know for sure the route that he took. However, during my initial research, it became apparent that the current perception of how Dick travelled to London is based on somewhat fragile assumptions.
The legend tells us that Dick entered London via Highgate Hill, and in some versions travels via Oxford, making his journey comparable to the route of the modern-day M40. Some academics and experts have doubts about the validity of Highgate Hill as a part of the route; it doesn’t take into consideration that Dick had money (he wasn't a poor orphan, but the third son a knight no less!) and the importance of the rivers as a form of transport during the period.
Highgate Hill was a place of importance to the Mercers company, with the Master Mercer, Richard Rawson, being registered as owning land there in 1480. During this time, the legend was still being told orally by travelling troubadours and storytellers. Some speculate that the Mercers had the Highgate Hill reference inserted into the story as a ‘marketing tactic’, using the good name of the most famous Mercer, Dick Whittington, to further their business interests. Further research is needed to test the validity of this claim.
The Gough map, one of the earliest maps of Britain dating from as early as the 1360s is the oldest surviving attempt at an accurate map of Britain. The strategic importance of rivers is emphasised, and the waterways network is well represented. Roman roads were in existence at that time, and were thought to be depicted by red lines which scholars now believe are routes rather than actual roads. Whilst the Gough map still remains something of an enigma, as a tool of navigation, it is much more useful to a sailor than a wagon owner, which may be indicative of the more prominent means of transport during that time. The Gough map has it's own website if you'd like to take a look for yourself. http://www.goughmap.org/
So, if Dick didn’t travel via Highgate Hill and he probably travelled by river at some point, how did he get to London?
For the purposes of our show, we have drawn on ‘The Dick Whittington Adventure’, where BBC Radio Gloucestershire’s Mark Cummings and his team of Whittington Walkers extensively researched and then retraced the route Dick Whittington took from Pauntley to London, completing the mammoth walk, ride and river journey at midday on Saturday 4th June 2005. Their walk from Cirencester through Lechlade on Thames to Wantage takes them along the modern-day A417, sections of which are still called ‘London Road’.
Below is an approximation of their itinerary
DAY ONE Walk from Pauntley to Gloucester
DAY TWO Walk from Gloucester to Cirencester
DAY THREE Walk from Cirencester to Lechlade on Thames
DAY FOUR Walk from Lechlade on Thames to Wantage
DAY FIVE Walk/Horseback from Wantage to Caversham
DAY SIX Walk from Caversham to Maidenhead
DAY SEVEN Boat from Maidenhead to Richmond
DAY EIGHT Walk from Richmond to Highgate Hill (seems like a bit of a detour!)
DAY NINE Walk from Highgate Hill to the City of London
If Dick did indeed travel via the River Thames, then he will have sailed through Kingston on his way to Richmond. Evidence of 13th-century boat timbers have been found along the Kingston riverfront of the north side of the bridge, showing that merchant vessels will have actively traded with Kingston during this time.
So he might have come through Kingston.
As to why Dick didn’t get off the boat until Richmond, there is evidence that Kingston was plagued by ‘Roberdsmen, wasters and draghlaches’, with criminal gangs plundering and burning entire hamlets at that time. It wasn’t until 1400 that the town was granted royal protection. In nearby Richmond, the mother of King Edward III lived in a Manor which was a precursor to Richmond Palace and a residence of future Kings. It’s probably safe to say that he was less likely to be robbed in Richmond!
The evidence so far suggests that further research is needed so next year we'll be carrying that research out. If we can find pretty conclusive evidence to support this theory then we'll be sharing it, and the story of Dick Whittington, in the riverside parks for future generations to enjoy!
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.