During every pantomime season, Dick Whittington strides the stage once again in the form of a girl in tights, but there was a great deal more to the real Richard Whittington than a cat and the sound of Bow Bells. Richard Whittington was a famous Mayor of London, a boy born into modest circumstances who rose to become a great public figure, a confidant of kings, and a benefactor whose personal wealth improved the lives of his fellow citizens.
Readers of my series, The Chronicles of Christoval Alvarez, will have come across references to the Whittington ward at St Thomas’s hospital. This was just one of his many benefactions, though perhaps the most unusual. [See, amongst others, Suffer the Little Children.]
Richard Whittington was born around 1354 in the village of Pauntley, Gloucestershire, in the Forest of Dean, although his family originally came from Kinver in Staffordshire. His birth fell very soon after the massive tragedy of the Great Pestilence or Black Death, when England was still reeling from the after-effects of that disaster. His year of birth was thus the one following that in which my Oxford Medieval Mystery series begins, and so he provides an unplanned link between the two series.
Richard Whittington would have been regarded at the time as belonging to the lesser gentry, for although his grandfather, Sir William de Whittington, held the rank of knight-at-arms, Richard was a younger son and so would not inherit his father’s estate.
Like many a younger son at the time, he was despatched by his family to London, where a promising, hard-working young man would have the opportunity to learn a trade or go into business and thus make his own way in the world. Coming from a fairly well-off family, he was apprenticed to one of the more prosperous callings as a mercer, or cloth merchant. At this time, from the late fourteenth into the early fifteenth century, fine English woollen cloth, particularly broadcloth, was becoming highly valued throughout Europe. [See The Merchant’s Tale.]
Broadcloth is so called because it is woven wider than its finished width and then goes through a milling process which beats the cloth until the fibres matt together, creating a dense, felt-like fabric which is warm and quite weatherproof.
As well as exporting English cloth, the mercers also imported luxury cloth – silks, damask and velvet – which Richard Whittington is known to have sold to the royal court and to King Richard II himself. It is recorded that in a short period Whittington sold cloth to the king to the value of £3,500, which corresponds to about £1.5 million in today’s money. Deals of this kind laid the foundation of his great wealth. He continued to be an active and prosperous London merchant until his death in 1423. In addition to his business dealings as a mercer, he made loans of money to three kings – Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V.
In 1384 Whittington became a member of the Common Council of London, and from then until the end of his life he was one of the most senior and active political figures in London. Eight years later, in 1392, he was part of a delegation sent by the City of London to meet Richard II at Nottingham, when the king had seized land belonging to the City. The delegation was unsuccessful in its negotiations with the king, but Whittington seems to have retained the king’s favour nonetheless.
The next year, 1393, marked a significant rise in Whittington’s fortunes. He became a full Member of the Mercers’ Company and also an alderman. The Lord Mayor, William Staundone, a grocer, appointed him as one of his two Sheriffs (or deputies) and he continued to hold this office under the next Mayor, John Hadley. In 1394, the Worshipful Company of Mercers was incorporated under a royal charter, with Richard Whittington named as one of its founders. (To this day it retains its position as the highest ranking of the Livery Companies of London.)
In 1397, four years after Richard Whittington’s first appointment as Sheriff, Lord Mayor Adam Bamme, a goldsmith, died during his second term in office and King Richard immediately appointed Whittington in his place. His first action as Lord Mayor was to negotiate successfully with the king for the return of London’s lands and liberties seized illegally five years before, on payment to the king of £10,000. In recognition of this success, he was elected Lord Mayor for the following year. The mayoral elections took place at Michaelmas (29 September), but the new mayor only took up office halfway through November.
Richard Whittington was elected Lord Mayor again in 1406 and 1419, while during part of the former period in office he also held office as the mayor of Calais, which then belonged to England. In 1416 he was elected a Member of Parliament. Perhaps his most eminent position was under King Henry V, who reigned from 1413 to 1422. During this period Whittington served on a number of Royal Commissions, collected import duties, sat as a judge, and was in charge of expenditure in completing the work on Westminster Abbey.
Although Richard Whittington married in 1402, his wife died nine years later and the couple had no children. Instead, it could be said that the people of London, especially the poor, were his children and heirs. He undertook and paid for a great many public works during his lifetime, and left £7,000 in his will (about £3 million in today’s money) for charitable works after his death.
London was growing rapidly at the time, as the nation recovered from the Great Pestilence, and this led to problems with the city’s water supply and hygiene. Although the Great Conduit in Cheapside provided a major supply of water accessible to all Londoners, Richard Whittington’s money provided new conduits at St Giles Cripplegate and Billingsgate. He also improved the sewers and drainage at Cripplegate and Billingsgate, and built public lavatories, the so-called ‘Long House’ with accommodation for 64, in the parish of St Martins Vintry, on the riverside between Billingsgate and Queenhithe. He even laid on a water supply to the prisons of Ludgate and Newgate, which must have greatly improved the conditions of the prisoners.
He financed the rebuilding of the Guildhall, created the Guildhall and Greyfriars libraries, and provided for the rebuilding of his own parish church, St Michael Paternoster Royal, where he was buried after his death in 1423. Other building works included the rebuilding of the great gate at Newgate, to provide accommodation for the Sheriffs and Recorder of London, and the adjacent Newgate Prison, a complex of buildings which was the forerunner of the modern Old Bailey.
Concerned about the dangerous working conditions of young apprentices, Richard Whittington passed laws to protect them from unhealthy and risky practices which had frequently led to death. He was also interested in the welfare of the poor, providing a set of almshouses for the elderly and carrying out repairs to St Bartholomew’s Hospital, which cared for the poor and needy of London. Across the river in Southwark was another hospital, St Thomas’s. Here Whittington established what must have been unique in the world – a lying-in ward for unmarried mothers. Southwark contained the recognised red-light district of Mediaeval and Tudor London, where the ‘Winchester geese’ plied their trade (so called because the Bishop of Winchester owned much of the land and a palace there). The need for such a hospital ward was probably considerable, but its establishment is a timely reminder of what a generous and warm-hearted man Richard Whittington was. There the babies of such mothers could be born in safety for both mother and child, instead of the more common bungled and often fatal abortions of the district.
So – was there a cat? Perhaps. Perhaps not. It makes a good story. Pictures of Whittington were often doctored at a later date to include a cat. But whether or not Richard Whittington nearly went home until Bow Bells called him back again, Londoners then and now owe him an enormous debt. Even today there is the Charity of Sir Richard Whittington which provides help for those in need, year round but especially at Christmas tide.
A great man. A generous and unusual man. He deserves to be remembered.
I have just released two new audiobooks:
Voyage to Muscovy, narrated by Jan Cramer
and The Merchant’s Tale narrated by Philip Battley.
I’m busy working on the new Kit Alvarez book (title not decided yet) and researching the next Oxford book, The Troubadour’s Tale.
Till next time,