Richard Whittington (c1350–1423) was born in Pauntley, Gloucestershire, the son of a minor landowner. He was apprenticed to a London mercer (a dealer in textile fabrics) before starting his own career trading in cloth and goods, and was supplying the royal family and prominent nobles by the late 1380s.
Some historians think Whittington made his real money in the export of English woollen cloth, but in any event he was rich enough to lend substantial sums to the crown and aristocracy.
He was widely admired, and held a large number of public offices – including mayor of London. He made donations to the church and the poor, and as he and his wife, Alice Fitzwarin, had no children, his will left all his money to charitable causes.
The panto story – penniless West Country lad working for a rich merchant makes a fortune from the sale of his cat in a foreign land plagued by mice – dates back to the 1600s or earlier. Some experts think the tale is an archetype, with elements that are common in many other cultures.
It’s probably the case that the story got grafted onto the name of a man of whom little was known except that he gave his fortune to the poor.
Answered by Eugene Byrne, author and journalist.