Ballads and plays about Dick Whittington – the oldest extant examples of which date to the early 17th century – describe an impoverished orphan making his fortune in London after his beloved cat is bought by a foreign king. He promptly marries his master’s daughter, Alice, and becomes Lord Mayor of London.
The real Richard Whittington (c1350–1423), was actually the son of a Gloucestershire landowner. After training as a mercer in London, he made his name by supplying luxury textiles and lending money to the very wealthy, including three successive kings: Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V.
His wife was indeed called Alice Fitzwarin, and he was elected as mayor in 1397, 1406 and 1419 – but no contemporary records make mention of any feline companion. This element of the story may simply derive from other folkloric traditions of a man making his fortune with the help of a cat.
Dying a childless widower in 1423, Whittington bequeathed his entire fortune to charity, cementing his position as an English folk hero. The somewhat mythical version of his life remained popular throughout the Georgian and Victorian eras and indeed is still seen on stage today.
This content first appeared in the August 2014 issue of BBC History Revealed magazine