Richard Whittington (c. 1354–1423) was a medieval merchant and politician, and the real-life inspiration for the pantomime character Dick Whittington. Richard Whittington was Lord Mayor of London and a Member of Parliament. In his lifetime he financed a number of public projects, such as drainage systems in poor areas of medieval London, and a hospital ward for unmarried mothers. He bequeathed his fortune to form the Charity of Sir Richard Whittington, which nearly 600 years later, still continues to assist people in need.
In 1384 Whittington had become a Councilman. In 1392 he was one of the city's delegation to the King at Nottingham at which the King seized the City of London's lands because of alleged misgovernment. By 1393, he had become an alderman, as well as a member of the Mercers' Company. When Adam Bamme, the mayor of London, died in June 1397, Whittington was imposed on the city by the King as Lord Mayor of London in 1397 to fill the vacancy with immediate effect. Within days Whittington had negotiated with the King a deal in which the city bought back its liberties for £10,000 (nearly £4m today). He was elected mayor by a grateful populace on 13 October 1398.
The deposition of Richard II in 1399 did not affect Whittington and it is thought that he merely acquiesced in the coup led by Bolingbroke. Whittington had long supplied the new king, Henry IV, as a prominent member of the landowning elite and so his business simply continued as before. He also lent the new king substantial amounts of money. He was elected mayor again in 1406 and in 1419, becoming a living legend in the process. In 1416, he became a Member of Parliament, and was also in turn influential with Henry IV's son, Henry V, also lending him large amounts of money and serving on several Royal Commissions of oyer and terminer. For example, Henry V employed him to supervise the expenditure to complete Westminster Abbey. Despite being a moneylender himself he was sufficiently trusted and respected to sit as a judge in usury trials in 1421. Whittington also collected Papal revenues and import duties and taxes.
From his life, historians detect an austere correctness and great trust from the people he dealt with. A long dispute with the Company of Brewers over standard prices and measures of ale was characteristically won by Whittington. In his lifetime he donated much of his profit to the city. He financed:
He also provided accommodation for his apprentices in his own house. He passed a law prohibiting the washing of animal skins by apprentices in the River Thames in cold, wet weather because many young boys had died through hypothermia or in the strong river currents.
The almshouses were relocated in 1966 to Felbridge near East Grinstead. Sixty elderly women and a few married couples currently live in them. The Whittington Charity also disburses money each year to the needy through the Mercers' Company.
Despite knowing three kings (though five reigned during his life), there is no evidence that he was knighted, though it is highly probable. In the town of Bishop's Stortford he owned a lot of land and regularly stayed in the town. This explains why in the town there is a school called Richard Whittington Primary School and a road called Whittington Way.
Dick Whittington (also Dick Wittington) is a character in a British pantomime, very loosely based on Richard Whittington. There are several versions of the traditional story, which tells how Dick, a boy from a poor family, sets out for London to make his fortune, accompanied by his cat. At first he meets with little success, and is tempted to return home. However, on his way out of the city, whilst climbing Highgate Hill from modern-day Archway, he hears the Bow Bells of London ringing, and believes they are sending him a message. (There is a large hospital on Highgate Hill, named the Whittington Hospital after this alleged episode.) A traditional rhyme is associated with this episode, as follows:
On returning to London, Dick embarks on a series of adventures. In one version of the tale, he travels abroad on a ship, and wins many friends as a result of the rat-catching activities of his cat; in another he sends his cat and it is sold to make his fortune. Eventually he does become prosperous, marries his master's daughter Alice Fitzwarren (the name of the real Whittington's wife), and is made Lord Mayor of London three times (the historical Whittington was elected Lord Mayor four times).
There is no evidence that Whittington kept a cat, and as the son of gentry he was never very poor. Whittington may have become associated with a thirteenth-century Persian folktale about an orphan who gained a fortune through his cat. The gifts left in Whittington's will made him well known. By 1605 most of the pantomime legend had developed and appeared in a play, The History of Richard Whittington, of his lowe byrth, his great fortune. Some have suggested that one of the most popular legends about Whittington — that his fortunes were founded on the sale of his cat, who had stowed away on a merchant vessel, to the rat-beset Emperor of China — 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.