The story of Dick Whittington is one of the most iconic in children’s literature. However, the boy who had the cat and became three times Lord Mayor of London was, in fact, a real person of consequence in late 14th and early 15th Century England.
The children’s story is well known. A poor boy named Dick Whittington from Gloucestershire comes to London to seek his fortune. He became the apprentice to a wealthy merchant named Fitzwarren. He fell in love with Fitzwarren’s daughter, Alice, but being a poor apprentice knew that there was no future in it. Later, Fitzwarren invited his employees to invest money in a trading voyage to a far eastern land, sometimes identified as Persia, other times identified as China. Dick had no money, but gave his pet cat to the Captain to sell for his share.
Disillusioned, Dick Whittington decided to return to Gloucestershire. As he passed over Highgate Hill, the bells of London began to peel. They seemed to speak to him, saying, “Turn again, Whittington, three times Lord Mayor of London.” Seeing this as a good omen, Dick turned around and returned to London.
Shortly thereafter, the trading ship returned with wonderful news. It seemed that the Shah of Persia’s (or Emperor of China’s) palace had been overrun with rats. Dick Whittington’s cat made short work of these vermin, killing or driving them out. In gratitude, the Shah (or the Emperor) paid an enormous sum for the cat. Dick Whittington, poor boy from Gloucestershire, was suddenly very rich. He married Alice Fitzwarren, eventually took over Fitzwarren’s business, and presumably lived happily ever after.
Dick Whittington, far from being a fictional character in a children’s story, was very much a real person. And there is plenty of truth about him in the story. However, there are some details in the story of Dick Whittington and his Cat that vary from the historical reality.
Far from being a poor boy from Gloucestershire, Dick or Richard Whittington was a younger son of Sir William Whittington, Lord of Pauntley in Gloucestershire. Richard Whittington was born in 1350. When he was eight, Sir William Whittington died and his lands went to his oldest son. Richard Whittington was sent to become apprenticed to Ivo Fitzwarren, a wealthy mercer or dealer in expensive cloth, such as silk, velvet, and cloth of gold.
Richard Whittington did marry his master’s daughter Alice and did become a wealthy mercer in his own right. There is no historical evidence that his cat played any role in his acquisition of great wealth or that he even had a cat.
Since the main customer for fine, expensive cloth was the crown, Richard Whittington became well acquainted with the rulers of England, first Richard II, then Henry IV and Henry V. He loaned immense sums of money to the crown, much of which was never paid back. But in return to was given the privilege of exporting cloth without paying duties.
Richard Whittington served as an alderman for the city of London in 1393. When the previous Lord Mayor of London died in 1397, the King appointed Richard Whittington Lord Mayor in his place, Richard Whittington was reelected for that office for the following year. He also served as Lord Mayor for the years 1406-7 and 1419-20. He became a member of Parliament in 1416. Richard Whittington died in 1423 without children.
Richard Whittington bequeathed his fortune for various charitable causes. He established an almshouse, a home for the poor, as well as a collage of priests and a library. His fortune helped to build various public works, including improvements to London’s water system and a public lavatory. Poor citizens of London to this day are helped by the Whittington Charity, established by Richard Whittington.
The gifts left in Whittington’s will made him famous, and the legends about the cat may have arisen because it was not widely known how he made his money. By 1605 most of legend had developed and appeared in a play, The History of Richard Whittington, of his lowe byrth, his great fortune. Some historians have suggested that one of the most popular legends about Whittington originated in a popular early engraving of the Lord Mayor in which his hand rested on a cat. Modern analysis of the engraving reveals that the oddly-shaped cat was in fact a later replacement for what had originally been a skull, a popular prop for illustrations of the period. Whether the engraving gave rise to the legend or the reverse is uncertain.