Richard Whittington

From Academic Kids

Richard Whittington, medieval merchant and politician, was the real-life inspiration for the pantomime character, Dick Whittington.

Born in Gloucester in about 1358, he was actually from quite a well-off family, and was sent to London to learn the trade of mercer. By 1393, he had become an alderman, as well as a member of the Mercers' Company, and in 1397 he was elected Lord Mayor of London. He was mayor again in 1398, 1406, and 1419, becoming a living legend in the process. In 1416, he became a Member of Parliament, and was influential with both King Henry IV of England and his son, Henry V. He donated much of his profit to the city, he helped pay for the rebuilding of the Guildhall, set up a ward for unmarried mothers at St Thomas' Hospital, founded several libraries and a college. He died in 1423.

Some have suggested that one of the most popular legends about Whittington — that his fortunes were founded on the sale of his cat, who had stowed away on a merchant vessel, to the rat-beset Emperor of China — originated in a popular early engraving of the lord mayor in which his hand rested on a cat. Modern analysis of the engraving reveals that the oddly-shaped cat was in fact a later replacement for what had originally been a skull, a popular prop for illustrations of the period. Whether the engraving gave rise to the legend or the reverse is uncertain.

The Whittington hospital (at Archway, London Borough of Islington), is named after him, and a small statue of a cat along Highgate Hill further commemorates his legendary cat.

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