In a new book, Michael McCarthy charts the life and times of the medieval mayor who left London in a much better condition than he found it: the real Dick Whittington
Next year (2023) marks the 600th anniversary of the death of Richard Whittington (1358- 1423), best known by many by his pantomime name of ‘Dick’, and yet the real man was one of medieval England’s most successful entrepreneurs and social reformers, who often had a king in his pocket. Born in the year of his outlawed father’s death (1358-9), Whittington arrived in London around 1369-70, aged 10-11 under the guardianship of Sir Ivo Fitzwarin – the two families were distant relatives but were closely linked by service during the Hundred Years’ War. Fitzwarin would prove instrumental in Whittington’s advancement, facilitating introductions to his family’s high-level military connections and enabling his protégé to make an early impact at the court of Richard II. Whittington would later marry Fitzwarin’s daughter Alice, and the pair shared a joint vision for social reform made evident in Whittington’s extraordinary will 12 years after her death.
By the time of his own passing in 1423, Whittington was one of the most celebrated and influential men in London – perhaps in England – and well known abroad. But how did he come to have such influence? And why, since its first performance in 1605, have over 6 million people seen Dick Whittington, one of our most popular pantomimes? The most telling observation we can make of Richard Whittington was that he was unfailingly in the right place at the right time, and with the right connections. Whittington arrived in an expansive, outward-facing London. A walled city of 50,000 souls barely able to contain its thinned and straining population, now determined to thrive and prosper 20 years after the Black Death had hit.
His future would lie both within and far beyond the city’s physical confinements, and far exceed his early aspirations. A celebrated civic path and the heady imperative of trade, far and wide, lay ahead. We encounter him first as a young mercer, making his way and his first fortune supplying luxury goods at the ostentatious court of the spendthrift Richard II, and going on to act as a provider of loans to Richard and to his impecunious successors Henry IV and Henry V. Between 1388-1422 he made 58 separate loans to the Crown/Exchequer, his later wealth accruing from a timely diversification from high-end mercery into a series of shifting interests and investments where enterprise and capital rather than one’s trade were the door to profit.
We see this right place/right time theme throughout his civic career, not least in his controversial ‘instalment’ in 1397 as London’s mayor by the embattled Richard II, a move that greatly suited both men – Whittington went on to be elected Lord Mayor three more times, hence his ‘thrice Lord Mayor’ label.
We also see it in his unerring ability to spot and seize the next commercial opportunity, and in his sure-footed proximity to three successive kings, but for different reasons, and on quite different terms. Henry IV recruited him initially as one of his ‘wise counsellors’, before leaning on him heavily for loans, and to help him increase the state’s revenue. Recognition of his worth is seen most controversially in Henry allowing Whittington to import a Jewish physician into England, against prevailing law and convention, to tend to his dying wife, Alice.
Whittington’s singular imperative lay in keeping his capital ‘liquid’ available for what we might call ‘strategic lending’ and earning him the access and influence he coveted at court, in trade, and in politics. Whittington enjoyed being close to the levers of power and his rewards for services rendered were often in the form of high office and advisory positions, places on royal commissions and from the lucrative offices and sinecures handed to him by the state – Collector of the Wool Custom, Mayor of the Staple at Westminster, and Calais. His fortune made, he could focus on the higher things that drove him. Politics, trade, civic improvement, the governance of London, social reform, gaol delivery, his vision for a College of Priests, and later his groundbreaking will and legacy.
His rise was not without its challenges. He made fierce enemies along the way. His battles with the Fishmongers and the Brewers to curb and outlaw illegal trade and malpractice coloured at least two of his mayoral ties.
Under Henry V, he found himself presiding over deeply unpopular commissions on usury and Lollardy. His built legacy to London included improvements to the public realm, infrastructure – roads, bridges, sanitation – the facilities to alleviate poverty and hunger; the overhaul of its notorious prisons and, after his death, funding the rebuilding of Newgate; the conveyance of fresh water and amenity; measures to improve London’s defences and facilities for the conduct of trade.
So, what of the myths that attend his story? Well, far from being a rags to riches story, Richard Whittington was neither impoverished nor of low birth. Indeed, his family owned estates in two counties. Henry IV’s alleged description of him as “the pulse of England” is a fabrication but he certainly contributed to its economic heartbeat. Nor did he ceremonially burn all of Henry’s debts to him.
He did indeed have responsibility for the continued funding, recruitment, and oversight of works to Westminster Abbey while Henry V was campaigning in France, and was a leading financial contributor to the victory at Agincourt. It is also true that he helped fund the lavish weddings of Henry IV’s two daughters – in substantial part for Blanche, while Philippa, who is thought to have been the first bride to wear a white wedding dress, later repaid him.
It is also fact that he funded a ward for unmarried mothers at St Thomas’s Hospital, and a public toilet comprising 128 seats known as ‘Whittington’s Longhouse.’ In 1420, he also put in place the funds to develop and stock the Guildhall Library. Sadly, there is no definitive evidence that he owed his good fortune to a cat, though statues and retrospective paintings invariably incorporate one, and it is true that a mummified cat was discovered in what was formerly believed to be his grave. However, feline adornment to his memory is more to do with deploying a cat as a symbol, rather than fact. And how did Whittington see himself….as a prudent, wise, and devout man…as did his contemporaries. And all without the benefit of that mythical cat.