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Lord Mayor of London.Cat or no cat.

Updated on August 14, 2012

In 1399 the new King of England, Henry 1V took control of his kingdom. Eager not to repeat the mistakes of his predecessor, Richard 11, who was known as the uncounselled, Henry surrounded himself with the usual coterie of bishops and barons to be his advisors However in December of 1399 he took a revolutionary step of summonsing a merchant and business man to the royal council, Sir Richard Whittington, the first man of trade to sit as advisor to a monarch.

Sir Richard Whittington is better known as Dick Whittington to generations of British children, as the main character and star of the pantomime Dick Whittington.

This pantomime tells the story of a young Dick Whittington leaving his native Gloucester to seek his fortune in London with his trusty pet cat. Disillusioned with London and its streets strangely free of gold lining, Dick and his cat leave the city. However when resting on Highgate hill, Dick hears the bells of London pealing out “turn again Whittington thou worthy citizen lord mayor of London, “so both Dick and his cat return to London.

Once back in the city, Dick finds employment with alderman Fitzwarren and falls in love with the alderman’s daughter Alice. After wrongly being accused of the theft of a necklace, Dick and his cat escape to the Barbary Coast. .Here they come to the attention of a local sultan, whose palace is plagued by rats.The cat, apart from being able to talk, is also an excellent ratter, and clears the palace of its unwelcome guests. For this the grateful sultan rewards Dick with vast amounts of gold and jewels. With this fortune Dick and his cat return to England, where they are able to clear their names from the unjust accusation of theft.Dick then marries Alice Fitwarren and goes on to be the lord mayor of London, just as the bells prophesised.

The pantomime does contain elements of the real Dick Whittington’s life story. At some time in the 1360s, the young Dick Whittington did indeed leave his home village of Pauntely in Gloucestershire for the relatively bright lights of twelfth century London. As a third son of a Gloucester knight, he had no prospect of inheritance, so he decided the city would be the place to seek fame and fortune.

On arriving in London he became apprenticed to a mercer who traded in precious cloths and fabrics. This gentleman may have been Sir Hugo Fitzwarren. Some of these precious textiles where imported from the North African Barbary coast, home of the Berbers and possibly the inspiration for Dick and his cat’s adventures in the pantomime. In time Dick became a mercer in his own right (the Collins English dictionary gives the meaning of mercer, as a dealer in textile fabrics and fine cloths).His business flourished and in time he was soon supplying luxurious fabrics to the nobility and royalty of the time. Among his royal clients where Richard ll and Henry Bolingbroke, soon to be Henry lV.It is recorded that he supplied the gold cloths for the wedding trousseaus for Henrys two daughters. It is also recorded that Richard ll owed Whittington around £1000, when Bolingbroke deposed him: £1000, 000 at today’s value.

Apart from being the royal supplier of cloth, he was also called upon to act as a royal bank manager.

The monarchy was forever running short of cash to fund the various wars and foreign adventures and they were forever turning to people like Dick Whittington for loans. Over the years Dick made over fifty loans to Richard ll, Henry lV and the Kings son HenryV.As security for these loans he often took items of jewellery. One of these items was a necklace that Dick somehow lost and had to cover the loss from his own pocket. More echoes of the pantomimes story.

Dick Whittington’s political career has been reduced by way of the pantomime to his just being three times Lord Mayor of London. However history paints a different and slightly wider picture.

By 1379 the city of London gave a gift to the nobility of England, and Dick Whittington was already wealthy enough to contribute to this gift. By the late 1380s he was already lending money to the monarchy who allowed him to export wool without paying any customs duty. In 1393 he became a city alderman and a Sherriff, and in 1395 became master of the mercers company. He finally became Lord Mayor of London in 1397 when King Richard ll chose him to replace the incumbent mayor who had unfortunately died in office. He was re-elected as Lord Mayor in 1406 and again in 1419.

During his political career Dick Whittington contributed greatly to the life and people of London. He was popular for campaigning against the greedy brewers who were watering down the beer they sold, and he also objected to the destruction of monuments. Another of his achievements was the removal of standing traps and nets in the Thames. These where locally known as “fish wiers”who threatened fish stocks in the Thames by being too narrow and thereby catching even the smallest of fry.

A less salubrious benefaction was the long house public lavatory build alongside the river Thames. This contained enough seating for 128 people half for men and half for women. There was no privacy and all the effluent was washed directly into the river

He also contributed to the upkeep of a ward in St Thomas’s hospital, exclusively for the care of unmarried mothers, and founded some alms houses that were maintained by the mercers company, and whose legacy lives on to this day as a small estate offering support for the elderly in Surrey.

Dick Whittington did marry his Alice. But possibly not the Alice Fitzwarren of the pantomime.Dick married Alice Fitzwarin, daughter of Sir Ivo Fitwarin of Wantage in Berkshire in about 1402.They remained childless and Alice died in 1411.

Dick Whittington died in 1423.With no family to leave his wealth to he left instructions for it to be distributed to charities and other beneficial concerns. The value of his estate was around £7000.The equivalent of £7000, 000 today.

For Dick Whittington to be remembered as he has been down the historical road leading from the twelfth century, he must have been a man of great popularity, energy and flair. An astute and successful business man, a generous benefactor: and an able and public spirited politician.

As for the cat in the legend, well there in no record of Dick having a cat, but who is to say he did not own one. Some people have claimed that a “cat” was a sailing barge used for transporting coal and that somehow Dick Whittington was involved in the coal trade. However he was never in the coal business and the term cat for coal ships was not coined until later in history.

Many countries and cultures have the folk tale of a young boy becoming wealthy and famous by starting with nothing but a cat as a companion, and that legend somehow attached itself to the tale of Dick Whittington’s rise to fame and fortune. It has taken many forms in its telling over the centuries. In his diary for the 21st of September 1668, Samuel Pepys wrote “To Southwark Fair, Very dirty, and there saw the puppet show Whittington which was pretty to see”


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