Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Whittington, Richard
WHITTINGTON, RICHARD (d. 1423), mayor of London, was son of Sir William Whittington and his wife Joan (Monasticon, vi. 740). Sir Robert Atkyns, the historian of Gloucestershire, in 1712 affiliated Whittington to the family which acquired the manors of Pauntley, near Newent, in that county, and Sollers Hope in Herefordshire, by marriage with the heiress of John de Sollers towards the close of the thirteenth century. Samuel Lysons (1806–1877) [q. v.], in his ‘Model Merchant of the Middle Ages’ (1860), gave strong reasons for identifying his father with Sir William Whittington of Pauntley, who married (after 1355) Joan, daughter of William Mansell, sheriff of Gloucestershire in 1313, and widow of Thomas Berkeley of Cubberley, who held the same office at least three times (List of Sheriffs, p. 49; Cal. Inq. post mortem, ii. 172). Whittington bore the arms of the Pauntley family with a mark of cadency and a difference of tincture and crest (Lysons, pp. 7, 96), and lent a large sum of money to Philip Mansell, Joan's brother, in 1386 (Besant, p. 176). A little difficulty is involved in the fact that though he can only have been the third son of Sir William and Joan Mansell, and hardly born before 1359, Whittington was already a substantial London citizen in 1379 (cf. Lysons, p. 96, pedigree). Sir William Whittington was an outlaw in 1359, and it has been suggested that his offence was marrying without license Berkeley's widow, who survived him and died in 1372 (Cal. Inq. post mortem, ii. 217, 323, iii. 454). Their eldest son, William, died without issue in 1398–9 (ib. iii. 235), leaving the estates to his next brother, Robert, whose descendants still hold land in Gloucestershire.
Nothing is known of Whittington's settlement and early life in London. The legend converts the Dorsetshire knight, his father-in-law, into a London merchant and his master, which Sir Walter Besant accepts as historical fact. But his first authentic appearance belongs to 1379, when he contributed five marks to a city loan (Riley, p. 534). By trade a mercer, we find him supplying the household of the Earl of Derby, afterwards Henry IV, with velvets and damasks (Wylie, iv. 159, 162–3). In 1385, and again in 1387, he sat in the common council as a representative of Coleman Street ward (Riley, p. 535). Two years later he became surety to the chamberlain for 10l. towards the defence of the city. In March 1393 he was chosen alderman for Broad Street ward, and served as sheriff in 1393–4 (ib. p. 535; Fabyan, p. 538; Wylie, iii. 65). When Adam Bamme, the mayor of 1397, died during his term of office, the king appointed (8 June) Whittington to fill his place until the next election (Fœdera, vii. 856; Fabyan, p. 542). A month later Richard's long-deferred vengeance descended upon the lords appellant, and Whittington had to assemble the city militia to accompany the king to Pleshy to arrest the Duke of Gloucester (Annales, p. 203). It would be rash perhaps to infer that he was a thoroughgoing royal partisan, in view of his last instructions to the members of his college, directing them to pray for the souls both of King Richard and the Duke of Gloucester, ‘his special lords and promoters’ (Monasticon, vi. 740). In October he was elected mayor for the ensuing year, thus holding office continuously for a year and five months at a time of great excitement in the city, provoked by the king's arbitrary proceedings (Fabyan, p. 542). His name headed the humiliating submission extorted from the citizens (Gregory, p. 100). Richard, when deposed, owed Whittington a thousand marks, which he was fortunate enough to get repaid (Wylie, i. 64). His wealth made him very useful to Henry IV in his chronic pecuniary difficulties. The minutes of the privy council record his presence with William Brampton, another citizen, at a meeting on 15 June 1400, and there was some idea of summoning him to a great council in the following year (Ord. Privy Council, i. 122, 163). He furnished cloth of gold and other mercery for the bridal outfits of Henry's daughters married abroad in 1401 and 1406, and frequently advanced to the crown large sums of money on loan, on one occasion no less than 6,400l. (Lysons, p. 87; Wylie, ii. 442, 448, iii. 65; Ord. Privy Council, ii. 107, 114). As mayor of the staple at London and Calais and a collector of the customs and subsidy in both ports, he held good security for the repayment of his loans (Wylie, iii. 65; Devon, Issues, p. 322). Henry V also borrowed from Whittington and gave him various proofs of his confidence, entrusting the expenditure of the funds set aside for the restoration of the nave of Westminster Abbey to him with a single colleague, and forbidding the mayor of 1415 to pull down any buildings in the city without consulting Whittington and three others (Fœdera, ix. 79; Ord. Privy Council, ii. 169). But his knighthood is as legendary as his burning the royal bonds.
Whittington was mayor for the second time (third if his short tenure of the office in 1397 be counted) in 1406–7 (Riley, p. 565), and for the last time in 1419–20 (ib. p. 676). Lysons asserts (p. 50) that he represented London in one of the parliaments of 1416, but no returns seem to exist (List of Members, i. 287–8). In his last years he was very active in prosecuting the forestallers of meat and sellers of dear ale (Cotton. MS. Galba B 5).
On 5 Sept. 1421 Whittington made his will (Lysons, p. 80). He attended the city elections in the autumn of 1422, but died, it would seem, in the early days of the following March (ib. p. 71). His will was proved on the 8th of that month (ib. p. 80). In accordance with its directions he was buried on the north side of the high altar in the church of St. Michael de Paternoster-church in Riola, for whose collegiation he provided; an epitaph in somewhat obscure Latin verse, describing him as ‘flos mercatorum’ and ‘regia spes et pres,’ is preserved by Stow (iii. 5). His tomb is said (ib.) to have been rifled for treasure in the reign of Edward VI by the parson of the church, who abstracted the lead in which the body was lapped. It was replaced under Mary, but the tomb perished with the church in the great fire of 1666. Whittington's executors were instructed by his will to sell the house he lived in close by the church with other property in the city, and expend the proceeds on masses for the souls of himself, his wife, his father and mother, and all others to whom he was bound. The old house in Hart Street, off Mark Lane, which used to be traditionally known as Whittington Palace, would seem therefore to have no claim to that distinction. There are several engravings of this house, which was pulled down early in the present century (Gent. Mag. 1796, lxvi. ii. 545; Lysons, p. 76).
Whittington married (Monasticon, vi. 746) Alice, daughter of Sir Ivo Fitzwaryn, a knight of considerable landed property in the south-western counties, who on several occasions represented Dorset and Devon in parliament, by his wife Matilda or Maud Dargentein, one of the coheiresses of the well-known Hertfordshire family in which the office of royal cupbearer was hereditary (Hutchins, i. 327–8, iv. 174; Clutterbuck, ii. 541–2). She must have predeceased her father, who died on 6 Sept. 1414 and was buried in Wantage church, where his tomb remains, for he left only one daughter, Alianor, who became his heir (ib.; Ashmole, ii. 235; Wylie, iii. 65). Apparently Whittington had no issue by her.
The only portrait of Whittington at all likely to be authentic is the illumination at the beginning of the copy of the ordinances for his hospital at Mercers' Hall which represents him on his deathbed surrounded by his executors and bedesmen. It is engraved in the works of Malcolm (iv. 515), Lysons, and Besant. The face is long, thin, and smooth shaven. It has little or nothing in common with the portrait engraved by Renold Elstracke [q. v.] early in the seventeenth century. The chain of office in the latter is of sixteenth-century design, and the original picture was probably a work of that age. In the first impressions of the engraving Whittington's right hand rested upon a skull, but popular taste compelled Elstracke to substitute a cat in the remainder, and the former are now excessively rare (Granger, Biographical History, i. 63). The engraving in its second shape is reproduced in Lysons and the ‘Antiquarian Repertory’ (ii. 343). Malcolm mentions a small portrait at Mercers' Hall, which has since disappeared, in which he appeared as a man of about sixty ‘in a fur livery gown and a black cap such as the yeomen of the guard now wear,’ and with a black-and-white cat on the left-hand side. The inscription, ‘R. Whittington, 1536,’ suggests the possibility of its being an adaptation of a portrait of Robert Whittington [q. v.], the grammarian. The present portrait at Mercers' Hall is modern. It was engraved in Thornton's ‘New History, Description and Survey of London’ (1784).
Whittington was a good type of the mediæval city magnate. There had no doubt been more distinguished mayors of London. He played a less prominent part in the affairs of the kingdom than Sir John de Pulteney [q. v.] or Sir John Philipot [q. v.], and there is nothing to show that his contemporary reputation extended beyond the city. The chroniclers of his time who wrote in the country never mention him by name. But his commercial success, unusually prolonged civic career, and great loans to the crown seem to have impressed the imagination of his fellow-citizens if we may accept the evidence of his epitaph and the allusion to him in Gregory's ‘Chronicle’ (p. 156), written not long after his death, as ‘that famos marchant and mercer Richard Whytyndone.’ In a sense, too, he was the last of the great mediæval mayors, for the outbreak of the wars of the roses ushered in a period far less favourable to municipal magnates. Yet he would hardly have been permanently remembered had not his benefactions—mostly posthumous—associated him with some of the most prominent London buildings, and one of the few mediæval foundations in the city which survived the Reformation. As that of the rebuilder of the chief prison and the founder of the principal almshouse in London, Whittington's name was a household word with the Londoners of the sixteenth century, when many of the scanty facts of his life had already been forgotten.
Childless, and surviving his wife, Whittington was free to devote his wealth to public and pious objects. He arched over a spring on the bank of the city ditch, and inserted a public ‘boss’ or water-tap in the wall of St. Giles, Cripplegate (Stow). This or a similar one at Billingsgate gave Robert Whittington [q. v.], the grammarian, his nickname of ‘Boss’ (Lysons, p. 52). In his last mayoralty Whittington defrayed great part of the cost of the new library of the Greyfriars, on the north side of what was long the great cloister of Christ's Hospital (Chron. of Greyfriars, p. 13). With others he handed over Leadenhall to the corporation in 1411, and he opened Bakewell Hall for the sale of broadcloths (Lysons, p. 84; Besant, p. 169). By his directions his executors, one of whom was the well-known town clerk, John Carpenter (1370?–1441?) [q. v.], who compiled the ‘Liber Albus’ in Whittington's third mayoralty (1419), obtained license to rebuild Newgate, which served as a city prison, on the ground that it was ‘feble, over litel and so contagious of Eyre, yat hit caused the deth of many men’ (Fœdera, x. 287; Rot. Parl. iv. 370). They also contributed to the repair of St. Bartholomew's Hospital and the restoration and enlargement of the Guildhall (Stow, i. 261). But they were directed to use the bulk of his wealth for the foundation of a hospital or almshouse, and the collegiation of his parish church of St. Michael de Paternoster-church. He had taken some preliminary steps in his lifetime, though Stow's authority for the statement that he obtained a royal license in 1410 does not appear (Stow, iii. 3; cf. Lysons, p. 84). In 1411 he gave land for the rebuilding of the church (Riley, p. 578). His executors obtained the consent of the archbishop of Canterbury to the collegiation of St. Michael's, which was an archiepiscopal peculiar, on 20 Nov. 1424, and on 17 and 18 Dec. issued a charter of foundation and regulations for a college dedicated to the Holy Ghost and the Virgin Mary, to consist of five priests, one of whom was to be master. They were to reside in a building newly erected east of the church, and say masses for the souls of Whittington and his wife, his father and mother, Richard II, Thomas of Woodstock, and their wives (Monasticon, vi. 739–41). Further endowments and rules were added on 13 Feb. 1425 (ib. vi. 743). Reginald Pecock [q. v.] became master in 1431. The college was suppressed in 1548, and the building sold for 92l., but its memory is kept alive by College Street. Simultaneously with the creation of Whittington College, the executors founded (21 Dec. 1424) a hospital between the church and Whittington's house for thirteen poor men, one of whom was to be tutor, and whose prayers were to be offered for the souls of the persons mentioned above, and also for those of the parents of the founder's wife (ib. vi. 744–7). An illuminated copy of their ordinances is preserved by the Mercers' Company, who manage the hospital now removed to Highgate (Rep. Livery Companies' Commission, 1884, iv. 39–44).
It has been Whittington's singular fate to become the hero of a popular tale which has found an ultimate lodgment in the nursery. The Whittington of the old ballads, chap-books, and puppet play started life as a poor ill-treated orphan in the west of England, and made his way to London on hearing that its streets were paved with gold. Arriving in a state of destitution, he attracted the commiseration of a rich merchant, one Mr. Hugh FitzWarren, who placed him as a scullion in his kitchen, where he suffered greatly from the tyranny of the cook, tempered only by the kindness of his master's daughter, Mrs. Alice. From this state of misery he was presently released by a strange piece of good fortune. It was the worthy merchant's custom when sending out a ship to let each of his servants venture something in it, in order that God might give him a greater blessing. To the freight of the good ship Unicorn Whittington could only contribute his cat, which he had bought for a penny to keep down the vermin in his garret; but the vessel happening to touch at an unknown part of the Barbary coast, the king of the country, whose palace was overrun with rats and mice, bought the cat for ten times more than all the freight besides. Meanwhile her owner, unconscious of his good luck and driven desperate by the cook's ill-usage, stole away from Leadenhall Street early in the morning of All Hallows day, and left the city behind him, but as he rested at Holloway he heard Bow bells ring out a merry peal, which seemed to say:
Turn again, Whittington,
Lord Mayor of London.
Whereupon he returned to his pots and spits, and, the Unicorn soon coming in, married Mrs. Alice, and rose to be thrice lord mayor of London and entertain Henry V, after his conquest of France, at a great feast, in the course of which he threw into the fire the king's bonds for thirty-seven thousand marks. The story of the venture of a cat leading to fortune is in one form or another very widely diffused. It has been traced in many countries both of southern and northern Europe, and occurs in a Persian version as early as the end of the thirteenth century. The germ of the story seems suggested by the mention of the custom of shipmasters taking the ventures of the poor whose prayers were thought to bring good luck. Ralston and Clouston claim a Buddhistic origin for the tale. One of the reasons adduced in support of this view is that in some of the older versions the cat is saved from ill-treatment by the person whose fortune it is destined to make. The English version has more in common with the Scandinavian and Russian forms of the story than with those current in southern Europe. It stands almost alone, however, in selecting an historical personage as the central figure. The ‘legend’ of Whittington is not known to have been narrated before 1605. On 8 Feb. 1604–5 a dramatic version entitled ‘The History of Richard Whittington, of his lowe byrth, his great fortune, as yt was plaied by the prynces servants,’ was licensed for the press (Arber, Stationers' Registers, iii. 282). On 16 July 1605 a license was granted for the publication of a ballad called ‘The vertuous Lyfe and memorable Death of Sir Richard Whittington, mercer, sometyme Lord Maiour.’ Neither play nor ballad is known to have survived. The earliest extant references to the ‘legend’ figure in Thomas Heywood's ‘If you know not me, you know nobody’ (act i. sc. i.) published in 1606, and in Beaumont and Fletcher's ‘Knight of the Burning Pestle,’ which appeared five years later. Both references imply that serious liberties had been taken in the legend with the historical facts. The various attempts to rationalise the legend, by dragging in the use of the word ‘cat’ as a name for ships carrying coals from Newcastle, a mere humorous suggestion of Samuel Foote [q. v.], or by explaining ‘cat’ as a corruption of the French achats, fall to the ground when the real character of the story is recognised. Lysons's defence of the historical truth of the incident of the cat would hardly call for criticism if it had not been seriously revived in Sir Walter Besant's popular history of Whittington. Their corroborative proofs may be at once dismissed. The evidence of the portraits is of course worthless. The piece of sculpture found in an old house at Gloucester said to have once belonged to the Whittington family, and figured by Carr (p. xvi), represents a small boy, not ‘a fine sturdy youth,’ carrying a nondescript small animal, and there seems no satisfactory evidence for attributing the stone to the fifteenth century. The assumption that the cat carved on the front of Newgate when rebuilt after the great fire had existed on the building erected by Whittington's executors rests on a mere mistake of Pennant.[The first serious attempt to ascertain and bring together the facts of Whittington's life was made by Samuel Lysons, one of the authors of the Magna Britannia, in ‘The Model Merchant of the Middle Ages’ (1860); very little escaped him, but the value of his work is marred by his acceptance of the legend as genuine biography. The life by (Sir) Walter Besant and James Rice (1881; 2nd ed. 1894) adds a few details from the City Archives, but adheres to Lysons's uncritical standpoint, and is little more than an expansion of his work without his references and documents. The chief original authorities are the following: Rotuli Parliamentorum; Rymer's Fœdera, original ed.; Ordinances of the Privy Council, ed. Nicolas; Calendarium Inquisitionum post mortem; Devon's Issues of the Exchequer; Return of Names of Members of Parliament, 1878; Lists of Sheriffs, 1898; Monasticon Anglicanum, ed. Caley, Ellis, and Bandinel; Annales Ricardi II (Rolls Series); Fabyan's Chronicle, ed. Ellis; Gregory's Chronicle and Chronicle of Greyfriars (Camden Soc.); Stow's Survey of London, ed. Strype; Riley's Memorials of London. Also Brewer's Life and Times of John Carpenter, 1856; Malcolm's Londinium Redivivum; Hutchins's History of Dorset, 3rd ed.; Clutterbuck's History of Hertfordshire; Ashmole's History of Berkshire; Wylie's History of Henry IV. The legend is critically examined in Thos. Keightley's Tales and Popular Fictions, 1834, W. A. Clouston's Popular Tales and Fictions, 1887, and by H. B. Wheatley in the preface to his edition of the ‘History of Sir Richard Whittington’ (By T. H. ) for the Villon Society, 1885; compare also Reinhold Köhler, Orient und Occident (ii. 488), and Ralston's Russian Folk-Tales. The earliest form of the story in the British Museum Collection is a black-letter ballad of 1641, entitled ‘London's glory and Whittington's renown; or a looking glass for the citizens of London; being a remarkable story how Sir Richard Whittington … came to be three times Lord Mayor of London, and how his rise was by a cat.’ The prose series begins with ‘The famous and remarkable History of Sir Richard Whittington, three times Lord Mayor of London,’ by T. H. 1656, also in black letter, a later edition of which has been republished by the Villon Society. The story became a favourite subject of chap-books whose imprints include Edinburgh, Durham, Carlisle, and Newcastle-on-Tyne. Carr's Story of Sir Richard Whittington, 1871, is a modern version.]