How the real Dick Whittington lives up to his pantomime
Over the past 200 years, Dick Whittington has become one of Britain’s best-loved pantomime heroes. Yet, as Michael McCarthy tells Jon Bauckham, the real-life story that inspired Dick’s rags to riches tale is even more remarkable than the fiction
Every Christmas, British theatres are taken over by a ‘usual suspects’ roster of pantomines: Jack and the Beanstalk, Aladdin and Snow White being among the most common.
But while many of these stories are based on fables or fairy tales, one much-loved production – Dick Whittington, the story of the boy who heads for London in search of streets paved with gold – draws a surprising portion of its narrative from real-life events.
Who was the real Dick Whittington?
The titular ‘Dick’ is based on Richard Whittington, the medieval mayor of London who, just like his panto counterpart, left his home in the countryside and made his fortune in the big smoke.
But how much of the story, which has captivated theatre-goers for centuries, is drawn from reality? And how much is plucked from the realm of fantasy? And, perhaps most importantly, did Whittington really have a pet cat?
These are questions that have long fascinated Michael McCarthy, author of Citizen of London: Richard Whittington, The Boy Who Would Be Mayor, the first major study of Richard Whittington in several decades. The book sees McCarthy providing a detailed account of the real Whittington’s remarkable rise to prominence, which is no mean feat given the difficulties of piecing together aspects of Whittington’s early life.
“Whittington first arrived in London around 20 years after the Black Death, which had peaked in Europe in the mid-14th century,” says McCarthy. “However, the problem we have is that the pandemic killed around 50 per cent of England’s rural clergy, who were the main people responsible for the record- ing of births, marriages, deaths and other key events at this time. Due to the turbulence of the period, many of the records you would normally expect to find simply haven’t survived.”
The real Dick Whittington was not poor
Fortunately, by working backwards from later documents, McCarthy has deduced that Richard was born around the year 1358. And, in contrast to the impoverished pantomime character, Whittington certainly wasn’t of poor stock. In fact, he hailed from a prosperous family in Gloucestershire, and his father – Sir William Whittington – had represented the county in parliament.
Tragically, William died around the time of Richard’s birth, leaving his widow, Joan, to raise the couple’s children on her own. But if Whittington thought he was going to live a comfortable life on the back of his father’s wealth, then he was very much mistaken.
As the youngest of three sons, he was unable to benefit from the tradition of primogeniture, so was instead forced to make his own fortune. To this end, he was sent away to become an apprentice to Sir Ivo Fitzwarin, influential as a military figure, courtier and mercer, when he was about 10 to 12 years old.
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“Whittington’s mother, by now a single parent, would have likely gone to consult local mercers in the city of Gloucester, asking for their recommendations about who she should send her son to,” explains McCarthy. “Or, if she had already made her decision, she would have wanted to know that she was correct in the judgments she was making. But the Fitzwarin connection also ran deeper: Whittington’s father had served as a knight under Fitzwarin’s father during the Hundred Years’ War.”
Whether Whittington would have been aware of these military connections before he set foot in London is unknown, but it seems he soon settled into the life of a young apprentice. Taking up residence in the Fitzwarin household, he shadowed his master and became skilled in the art of selling expensive textiles – such as silks and velvets – to London’s great and good.
Importantly, he also began exporting raw wool to Florence and Venice, where it was turned into cloth of the finest quality. In contrast to the pantomime, Whittington’s story is perhaps best described as a tale of luxury fabrics, rather than rags, to riches.
Dick Whittington really did marry Alice Fitzwarin
Serving under Fitzwarin enabled Whittington to meet two hugely significant people in his life: Fitzwarin’s daughter, Alice, whom he went on to marry at some point between 1402 and 1410, and Richard II, to whom he was introduced in 1379 . As Whittington began building his own fortune, he even started acting as the monarch’s private moneylender. But it wasn’t just the king who came knocking.
“The Hundred Years’ War, combined with the upheaval caused by the Black Death, meant that London was in a state of social flux, with land changing hands on a frequent basis,” explains McCarthy. “However, unlike some of his contemporaries, who went round buying up houses along the Thames, Whittington kept his money liquid and developed a reputation for integrity; he was began approaching him for loans. I wouldn’t say that he was opportunistic, but he was certainly far-sighted and intelligent enough to use these connections to his advantage.”
How Dick Whittington became Mayor of London
By the final decade of the 14th century, Whittington’s star was truly in its ascendancy. In 1393, having already gained valuable experience as a common councillor, he was appointed sheriff of the City of London, which put him in prime position to land one of the most important roles of all.
“In the summer of 1397, the mayor of London, Adam Bamme, died in office,” says McCarthy. “Bamme had been a very popular mayor, having saved Londoners from starvation by negotiating an important grain deal some years before. But Richard II, who was deeply unpopular within the city, did not want to wait around for another election and feared instability. Instead, he turned to Whittington, by then a highly respected figure, and installed him in the post.”
Despite effectively being a caretaker mayor, Whittington proved that he was more than worthy of carrying on in the role on a permanent basis. After serving out the brief remainder of Bamme’s term, Whittington was formally elected mayor of London in the autumn of 1397. In total, he would serve in the post four times, winning further elections in 1406 and 1419.
The erroneous assertion in the pantomime, which sees Whittington becoming “thrice mayor of London”, stems from a basic historical error: whoever first coined that catchy phrase neglected to include his first stint filling in for his late predecessor.
As Whittington moved from early adulthood into middle age, he continued to serve as a supplier and moneylender to royalty – even in the cut and thrust world of medieval kingship. In fact, when Richard II was deposed by Henry Bolingbroke in 1399, Whittington did not find himself banished from the court: quite the opposite.
Having already been a long-standing client, Bolingbroke carried on using Whittington’s services even after he had taken the throne as Henry IV. Then, when Bolingbroke’s son Henry V became king in 1413, Whittington’s relationship with the crown only deepened, and he was even tasked with overseeing construction of a new roof at Westminster Abbey.
Was the real Dick Whittington a good mayor?
Despite his royal affiliations, Whittington felt his strongest sense of duty to the ordinary people of London. During his time as mayor, and in other civic roles, he embarked on several public building projects, including a ward for unmarried mothers at St Thomas’ Hospital and even a block of public toilets, known as the ‘Longhouse’, which survived until the Great Fire of London in 1666.
Whittington also took a personal interest in improving the lives of the capital’s prisoners, as McCarthy explains. “Very early on in his career, Whittington developed a huge anger and distaste for London’s prisons, and in particular Newgate, which was horrifically filthy and overcrowded. As his wealth grew, he made it his mission to see that the prison was rebuilt – something that was achieved shortly after his death.”
Much of Whittington’s philanthropy occurred posthumously, because, when he died in March 1423, he left his entire fortune to charity.
“Whittington’s wife Alice had already died, and the couple had not produced any children,” explains McCarthy. “So in 1421, Whittington began writing up his will with help from his friend, John Carpenter, who he also named as his chief executor. But that’s not all: Whittington placed Carpenter in charge of a four-man task and finish group, entrusted with spending Whittington’s money after he had passed away.”
Worth £7,000 – or around £7m in modern terms – Whittington’s bequest was enormous not only in volume, but also in the sheer breadth of how it was distributed. Remarkably, six centuries after his death, his generosity is still reflected across London today.
Today we still have a Whittington College, now based at Felgate; a Whittington Hospital, established in 1473; and a Whittington NHS Trust that oversees it. In London, there are schools, parks and community facilities named after Whittington.
Six centuries after he changed the face of the capital, the name of this extraordinary individual lives on.
Dick Whittington and his Cat: the true story
Richard Whittington certainly deserves to be more than a mere footnote in London’s history. But how did his story become synonymous with dames, horse costumes and frenzied shouts of “it’s behind you”?
The answer to that question, it seems, lies in a mixture of oral tradition and the written word. While the pantomime character of Dick Whittington didn’t properly develop until the early 19th century, versions of the story were already circulating soon after the real Whittington’s death.
“Thirteen years after he died, Whittington was described by an unnamed poet as the ‘sonne of marchandy’ – the ultimate mercer, if you will,” says Michael McCarthy. “But it seems that the story really started to take off around the 1530s, when some of his good works were beginning to bear fruit, through the auspices of the Mercers’ Company and other institutions that he had founded.
Playwrights were starting to hook on to his tale and think, ‘There’s an interesting story to be told here’.”
The story of the benevolent mayor was still doing the rounds among writers of the Stuart period, with evidence that Whittington’s life formed the basis of both a ‘drama play’ and a ballad in 1604 and 1605 respectively. And, according to a diary entry from September 1668, even Samuel Pepys recalled an outing to “Southwarke-Fair”, where he watched “the puppet-show of Whittington, which was pretty to see”.
By the 17th century, Whittington was no longer a boy from noble stock, as in real life, but a poor country lad who is said to have absconded from his master’s household, only to have been lured back by the sound of Bow Bells calling him to “turn again” and fulfil his destiny as “thrice lord mayor of London”.
Did Dick Whittington own a cat?
But what about Whittington’s beloved pet cat, who, in the pantomime, secures the boy his fortune after being sold to the sultan of a distant, rat-infested kingdom?
“There is no evidence to suggest that Whittington owned a cat,” reveals McCarthy. “However, is it possible that a young apprentice, entrusted with looking after parts of his master’s household, would have owned a cat as part of efforts to keep rats at bay? Absolutely. Whittington was serving his apprenticeship only 20 years after the Black Death, and would likely have been responsible for going into the cellars and hallways and keeping them free of vermin.”
McCarthy sees Whittington’s fabled feline companion as a possible allegory. “Cats were not only associated with witchcraft, they were also connected to good luck, so I don’t think it’s an accident that some versions of the story used the cat as the device that makes Whittington his fortune.”
- On the podcast | Dick Whittington: from medieval merchant to panto hero
Michael McCarthy is the author of Citizen of London: Richard Whittington, The Boy Who Would Be Mayor (Hurst, 2022).
This article was first published in the October 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine
Jon is the production editor at BBC History Revealed, where he is responsible for writing, editing and proofreading content. When he’s not poring over pages with a red pen, he can be found recording episodes of the award-winning HistoryExtra podcast, chatting to authors about subjects ranging from Lord Kitchener to Russian pianos.
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