Rags to riches
Dick Whittington’s role as the epitome of the poor boy made good in the classic Christmas pantomime has turned him into something of a mythical figure. So it may come as a surprise to many that fiction’s best known Lord Mayor of London was a real man, albeit one who was, even in his own times, larger than life. If you should find yourself on Highgate Hill in north London, you might come across a stone, topped with a cat, which marks the spot where young Whittington decided to accept his destiny. Running away from his apprenticeship to a London mercer, Dick heard the bells of St Mary-Le-Bow ringing out, calling to him to “Turn again,Whittington,Thrice Lord Mayor of London.” Returning, he discovered that he had made his fortune on a cat.
At least that’s how the story goes. Born around 1357, in reality Whittington accumulated his wealth supplying fine fabrics, not felines, to the royal court. By the time Richard II was deposed, he owed Whittington L1,000 — a fortune at the time. The successful mercer lent large sums of money to the King, in return for which he was granted the right to export wool without paying export tax — a rare privilege, and one which served to increase his wealth.
A City Alderman, a Sheriff and the Warden of the Mercer’s Company, Whittington went on to be elected Lord Mayor on three occasions — the fulfilment of the prophesy made by Bow Bells in the fictional version of his life.
What about that cat?
There is no evidence that Richard Whittington was ever in possession of a cat, but in the popular tale of Dick Whittington and His Wonderful Cat, his feline friend is the source of his great fortune. Sleeping in an attic at his master’s house, the young man buys a cat to keep down the mice. His master invites him to invest in a sailing voyage, and Dick puts up his only asset — his cat. Travelling to a far off land infested with rats, the cat proves worth its weight in gold, and is sold for an enormous sum, making Dick’s fortune. This story of the poor boy made good thanks to his rat-catching cat is a common folktale in Europe, and may have been adapted for the Whittington legend to explain the acquisition of his great wealth, something more…
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Truth of the matter
Although not a fictional character, stories surround the life of Dick Whittington and many local legends claim the famous mayor as their own. Perhaps the most likely — and certainly the most firmly held -belief is that of the people of Coberley in Gloucestershire, who say that Whittington was born or at least spent some of his childhood there. His mother did marry a Sir Thomas Berkeley of Coberley, but she did so before her wedding to Sir William Whittington of Pauntley. There is no reason, therefore, why she and her young son should return to live in Coberley. A statue of a boy carrying an animal found in another Berkeley house has been named as Dick with his cat, but there is no evidence to support this theory