No wonder 19th-century Britons embraced the story of Dick Whittington as the stuff that theatrical spectaculars are made of. Solid graft, dogged entrepreneurialism, heavyweight do-goodery and an ability to outwit Johnny Foreigner and profit from the experience, all apparently played their part in the life of the man who inspired the only pantomime in the repertory based on a real historical figure. At the heart of the story is an object lesson in perseverance. For all its villainous rats, shipwrecks and massively turbaned potentates, Dick Whittington never quite escapes the whiff of the pulpit. This is seasonal entertainment as sermon, and it’s been delighting this nation of Protestant workers since legendary comic Joseph Grimaldi first padded his bodice as Dame Cecily Suet in 1814.
The key scene takes place on Highgate Hill in north London. A despondent Dick, having failed to find fame and fortune in the capital, is heading back to Gloucestershire (evidently by a roundabout route, as even in the Neverland of pantomime, Gloucestershire is west, rather than north, of London). The sound of bells startles Dick. Well it might: it comes from the church of St Mary-le-Bow, five miles to the south. Dick listens to the message of the bells and turns back. From that moment on, things begin to change for the downtrodden country boy with the sonic range of a pipistrelle bat.
In A Crowne-Garland of Goulden Roses, published in 1612, Richard Johnson recorded Bow Bells’ fateful chime as “Turne againe Whittington: For thou in time shalt grow, Lord Maior of London”. It has become the stuff of nursery rhymes and it remains the best-known part of today’s pantomime. It’s almost certainly bunkum, but this timely spine-stiffener, in the form of a magical peal, transforms the real-life story of a medieval big shot into an exercise in feel-good wish fulfilment. When those bells ring for us, we tell ourselves between mouthfuls of popcorn, we too will listen to their call. It’s destiny with Christmas sparkle.
More than 200 years before Grimaldi frocked up, the Stationers’ Register of 16 July 1605 included an entry for “A ballad, called. The vertuous Lyfe and memorable death of Sr. Ri: Whittington mercer sometymes Lo. Maior of the honourable Citie of London”; a play was also first performed around the same date. Both shared with today’s pantomime their basis in the life story of a man acclaimed on his death in 1423 as a leading benefactor of medieval England. Depending on the source consulted, Whittington held the office of Lord Mayor of London ‘thrice’ (the version preserved by legend) or four times according to the history books.
To recap: in the pantomime a penniless Dick arrives in London, friendless and hell-bent on making his fortune. Instead he meets a cat and a pretty girl called Alice, who offers him a job in her father’s shop. There he is entrusted with guarding the safe. When King Rat empties the safe and hides its contents in Dick’s pockets, Dick is found out and dismissed. He decides to go home. Cue peel of bells on Highgate Hill. Dick turns back, heads for the docks and, as a stowaway with his cat under his arm, jumps on board a ship belonging to Alice’s father. Although the ship sinks in a storm, all the main characters safely reach the coast of Morocco. There the royal palace is overrun with rats. Inevitably Dick’s cat does the business and the Sultan, exultantly rat free, rewards Dick with half his riches. Dick returns to London a wealthy man, wins Alice’s hand in marriage and is appointed mayor. King Rat is killed and everyone else ends happily. Phew.
The young Dick of the story has only two characteristics: a longing to make his way (hence the seven-day walk to London, where the streets are reputedly paved with gold) and a certain affinity with cats. The man himself was more interesting and, though he struck it lucky financially, there’s nothing to suggest he owned a cat. The connection between felines and good fortune is an old one.
A polemic written in 1436 celebrated Richard Whittington’s commercial success, labelling him ‘that loodes starre and chefe chosen floure’ of English merchants. Early in the 17th century, Renold Elstrack engraved two versions of a portrait of Whittington, one with his hand resting on a skull, the second with the skull replaced by a cat. Evidence amply supports the first encomium. Even the discovery in 1949 of a mummified cat in the tower of St Michael Paternoster Royal, the church where Whittington was buried, failed to persuade historians that there was ever a real cat, far less that the cat was the key to Whittington’s meteoric ascent from minor rural gentry to royal insider and international cloth merchant.
The British relationship with success is typically a vexed one. Thanks in part to the remarkable longevity of class-consciousness we occasionally struggle to celebrate straightforwardly the bulging bank accounts of our countrymen. The real Richard Whittington made a packet. At his death he left in excess of £5,000, plus London property. His stage counterpart punctures our inclination to envy or spite: he owes all his considerable wealth to the cat; he is no more remarkable than you or me. With one pounce of those feline jaws, our medieval Richard Branson is transformed into potential Everyman. Dick’s cat is a metaphor. Dick himself becomes a forerunner of the bloke next door who wins the National Lottery, leaving us free to admire him (while absorbing the message that it was persistence and honesty that really won the day).
The pantomime also fudges Whittington’s background. Traditionally orphan Dick is skint and agreeably classless, the sum total of his worldly goods packing up inside a spotted handkerchief. In fact Whittington was a younger son of a Gloucestershire landowner, Sir William de Whittington of Pauntley Manor, who, in 1348, represented the county in Parliament. His mother was Dame Joan Mansell or Maunsell, daughter of the Sheriff of Gloucester. The Whittingtons were not rich – Pauntley generated an annual income of about £20 – and Sir William may have forfeited the Manor to the Crown as a result of his second marriage to a Lady Berkeley, which required a Royal sanction that Sir William omitted to obtain.
The case of young Richard, whose father died before his eighth birthday, was that of younger sons since time immemorial (or at least since the adoption of primogeniture): brought up to a certain way of life, he had no hope of inheriting the means to sustain that lifestyle. His elder brother obtained what remained following Sir William’s death and the Crown’s confiscation of Pauntley. Richard headed to London to become an apprentice to a city merchant, in his case one of the swankier trades, that of mercer, dealing in fine cloths. The date of Richard’s arrival in London is not known, but by 1379, he was sufficiently well established to contribute to a city fundraiser.
In later life, Whittington had an unblemished reputation for probity, despite his fortune deriving partly from money-lending. This honesty may explain how a young man without City connections so rapidly established himself in London’s most exalted circle, the Court. By the early 1380s, Whittington’s clients included Richard II’s favourite, Robert de Vere, John of Gaunt and the latter’s son, Henry Bolingbroke, later Henry IV, to whom Whittington sold costly imported velvets and damasks. His relationships with key clients appear to have been long lasting: between 1392 and 1394 he sold Richard II goods worth almost £4,000, while he continued to supply Henry IV after the latter’s children had grown to adulthood, providing cloth of gold for the marriages of the King’s daughters.
For undisclosed reasons, Whittington began lending money to Richard II as early as August 1388; he continued in that role to Richard’s successors Henry IV and Henry V until the year before his death. Clearly these relationships were amicable: Whittington’s first mayoralty, in June 1397, came about as a result of Richard II’s personal nomination. At the time, the position of mayor, formalised by King John in 1215 and not yet called Lord Mayor, was separate from Westminster, as today’s Lord Mayoralty remains, with responsibility for governance of the City of London. That it was a position of some power is indicated by Richard’s decision to involve himself in Whittington’s first candidacy. Whittington would also serve as mayor in 1398, 1406 and 1419.
Unlike Richard II, who repaid Whittington in cash, his successors had recourse to alternative means of payment, including the custom duty on wool. In 1401, a year after serving in Henry IV’s council, Whittington became collector of the wool custom in the City of London. He would enjoy revenues from this source on and off until 1410. Despite the crucial role of the wool trade in the economy of medieval England, it was evidently a detail of limited appeal to later theatregoers. Richard Whittington owed more to sheep than a ravening cat.
Fact and fiction merge in Whittington’s private life. Alice Fitzwaryn, daughter of Sir Ivo Fitzwaryn, was of landowning stock like Whittington’s own. Although their marriage was childless, it appears to have been happy. When Alice lay dying in the autumn of 1410, the couple received special permission from Henry IV to summon the eminent Jewish doctor, “Master Thomas Sampson from Mierbeawe”.
It was Whittington’s will, in which his whole estate was directed to charitable purposes, that began his legend and earned him epitaphs summarised by one Victorian commentator as “the model merchant of the Middle Ages”. He ‘began the Librarie of Gray-Friars in London;/And his Executors after him did build/Whittington Colledge, thirteene Almes-houses for poore men,/Repair’d S. Bartholmewes in Smithfield,/Glased the Guild-hall and built Newgate,’ records one character in Thomas Heywood’s If You Know Not Me, You Know No Bodie of 1606. He made provision for unmarried mothers, and also funded London’s first unisex public loo. Whittington’s Longhouse opened at Cheapside on 1 May, 1421, with space for 64 men and 64 women: every day, the Thames sluiced it clean at high tide. It was still in operation 200 years later. Six centuries after his death, The Charity of Sir Richard Whittington, which formerly oversaw almshouses in Highgate, has built new accommodation in East Grinstead. This provides 56 homes for elderly ladies and a few married couples. In addition, charitable grants and allowances are paid out annually from the estate.
With or without a cat, Whittington became a notably successful Londoner. Few rival his record as lord mayor or his testamentary generosity. As we anticipate next year’s mayoral election, it’s worth remembering, that when it comes to recognising where the bar is or what the template for mayor should be, history offers at least one answer. As the panto tells us: “It’s behind you . . .”
Matthew Dennison’s Behind the Mask: the Life of Vita Sackville-West is published by William Collins