There are two Dick Whittingtons in this world (well, maybe more than that, but I’m only concerned with two): the real guy and the fairy-tale character. Let’s begin with reality.
Richard Whittington was born in the 1350s (exact year unknown) in Gloucestershire, the younger son of a landowning family. Richard’s father, William, was a knight, which meant the family was richer than a substantial portion of the population. Not earl or duke rich, but way wealthier than your run-of-the-mill peasant. Remember that: it will be on the quiz later.
Since Richard wasn’t the eldest son, he wasn’t going to inherit his father’s land. Instead, he was apprenticed to a London mercer to learn that trade. In medieval England, mercers traded in silk, linen, other fancy fabrics, and luxury goods. Especially rich mercers exported English wool and English woolen cloth, which could fetch real money (top pound, shall we say) because English wool was the cat’s pajamas back then. Seriously, it was amazing. Anyway, Richard grew up to be a mercer and a successful one at that. By the 1380s, he was selling cloth to the royal court, meaning his customers were the movers and shakers of England. Richard even sold cloth to King Richard II, who loved luxury so much he spent over £1,000 a year (in certain years) on luxury materials. That’s a helluva lot for back then. Even after Richard II was deposed, Richard Whittington kept selling to the best people, counting Henry IV as his customer.
With all the dough he was raking in from his trade as a mercer, Richard decided to diversify. Rather than invest in land, he made loans, generally to the crown. Richard loaned money to Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V, as well as a number of prominent courtiers. And while the interest Whittington probably charged was low compared with the rates of today, he didn’t loan that money for nothing, either.
Aside from his commercial successes, Whittington was also civic minded. Richard was an alderman, a sheriff, and even briefly a Member of Parliament (in 1416). He is most famous, though, for being Lord Mayor of London three times. The first was in 1397, when he was initially appointed to the position by Richard II following the death of the preceding mayor. Richard Whittington did such a good job that the citizens of London elected him for a full term, which ran from October 1397 to October 1398. Richard was mayor again in 1406-7 and 1419-20.
Although Richard had a wife named Alice (who he might have married as late as 1402), the two never had children. Alice died in 1411, and Richard did not remarry. Since he died without heirs, Richard left his wealth (around £7,000) to charity. Coupled with gifts during his lifetime, Richard Whittington financed (or helped finance) numerous projects, including: a hospital ward for unwed mothers, drainage systems, a public toilet, rebuilding the London Guildhall, rebuilding Newgate Prison, founding an almshouse, rebuilding a hospital, and installing some of the first public drinking fountains. While not all of these projects sound glamorous, they were all incredibly useful. The public toilets (cleaned by the rising water of the Thames) and the drinking fountains must have helped with the smell and hygiene of the city. Amazingly enough, the Whittington Charity, which Richard started and which the Mercers’ Company still maintains, continues to give money to needy people even today, nearly six hundred years later!
Given the facts, it seems like Richard Whittington was a pretty good guy. However, evidence about him is relatively scant, meaning we know very little about him aside from financial transactions and the list of his benefactions. Perhaps because Whittington had given away so much money but people knew so little about him, he became an easy character on which to map a fanciful biography.
And that’s where Dick Whittington and his cat come in. The Dick Whittington of “and his cat” fame is a pantomime and fairy-tale character who rises from rags to riches in an epic show of luck and hard work. Little orphan Dick moves from Gloucestershire to London in an attempt to make his way in the world/not starve to death. In some versions he has a cat that accompanies him to London; in other versions he buys the cat while in London because he has to live in a rat-infested hellhole. Anyway, once in London, little Dick gets a job as a kitchen boy in the household of a rich merchant, where the merchant’s daughter Alice befriends Dick and helps protect him from the bitch-tastic cook. When Dick’s master lets his servants invest in his shipping vessel, Dick can only offer his cat, which is duly placed aboard (in some versions, Dick leaves with his cat). The ship ends up in a place that has no cats and a terrible rat and mouse problem. Dick’s cat totally saves the day, and the king of this cat-free land buys the feline for an astronomical sum. Dick has hit the jackpot! This, of course, is unknown to Dick, for whom life sucked so much he nearly left town; however, he returned because he heard the Bow Bells of London calling him, foretelling that he would be Lord Mayor of London three times. Dick returns to his daily grind and soon finds out that he is incredibly rich thanks to the sale of his pussy (alternatively, if he went on the ship, he returns with his money). Now wealthy, Dick marries Alice, becomes a successful merchant and lord mayor, and lives happily ever after.
Now, you might be wondering why Dick became associated with a cat. It seems pretty random and there is nothing in Richard’s actual biography to suggest he was a cat fancier. Apparently, there is an old folktale about an orphan that becomes rich through his cat. This story might have a Persian origin, but it was also common in Europe. So someone decided to take a nameless orphan with a cat and combine it with a backstory-less benefactor and - presto! - a legend was born. Meow!
As always, I am indebted to the DNB and Wikipedia. Check out the real Richard Whittington’s page here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Whittington.