St John the Evangelist, Pauntley, Gloucestershire

Dick Whittington

Yes, he was a real person, but the pantomime tale isn't quite the truth........      

The story goes that Dick was  a poor orphan country lad who, hearing that the streets of London were paved with gold, bravely made his way there to seek his fortune.

Life in the great city was hard, but he managed to find himself employment in the kitchens of a rich merchant's house, where he was cruelly treated by the cook.  In this harsh existence his only friend is his cat, which brings him good fortune when it gets rid of the rats plaguing the palace of a king of the Barbary Coast, with whom the London ships were trading.  Dick is richly rewarded, but this would never have happened had not the young lad, running away from the oppression of kitchen life, heard the bells of Bow as he rested on Highgate HIll, seeming to chime the words ' Turn again Whittington, thrice worthy citizen, turn again Whittington, Lord Mayor of London'.  Believing this message he never looked back and his cat continued to bring him good luck.

The story goes that the rewards of this mediaeval 'Pest Controller' made him so wealthy that he was able to set himself up in business and become a merchant of such renown that he became one of the most important men in London city.  He married the daughter of his former employer, prospered greatly and became a kind, thoughtful and generous Lord Mayor of London - as Bow bells had foretold.

This story was first published in 1605.

However, the true story of Dick Whittington is somewhat different, though every bit as fascinating.

The Whittington family came into possession of the Manor of Pauntley by marriage, in 1311.  Whittington College records ( authenticated by Richard himself ) state that Richard Whittington was the son of Sir William de Whittington and Dame Joan, who was probably the daughter of William Mansell, Sheriff of Gloucester in 1313.  In the absence of Parish Records at the time, it is assumed that Richard Whittington was born during the 1350's, and there is little doubt that he was baptised at this Church, adjacent to the Manor House where he was born.
Richard's father, Sir William de Whittington, represented the County in Parliament in 1348 but his fortunes later took a turn for the worse. In 1352 he married the  widow of Sir Thomas de Berkeley  and it was said that he was outlawed for marrying a Berkeley widow without Royal sanction and that he was still outlawed when he died on 17th March 1358. On 12th March 1358, five days before he died, his estate at Pauntley was escheated ( i.e. confiscated ) to the Crown, as a result of his outlawry, on a suit of William de Southam, for debt.

Richard had a brother, also named William - possibly by a different mother - who was 23 at the time of their father's death and who received such inheritance as remained.  Was this the turning point for Richard?  A young man of good birth who had no  desire to become a Knight at Arms nor to enter the Cloister, deciding to go to London and become a merchant in the city?  At any rate, in the absence of Parish registers at that time, it is assumed that Richard Whittington was born during the 1350's.  There is very little doubt that he was baptised at this Parish Church, which was adjacent to the Manor house in which he was born and which had so many associations with the Whittington family.

Certainly, he was not the poor orphan boy of the fable, but he could not have been especially wealthy since Pauntley was not a rich manor, being assessed at the time at about a Knight's fee, then £20 per annum.

Presumably received into a London merchant's household, Richard must have quickly learnt the skills of a merchant trader, and how the City and Country's economy worked, because by 1379, probably still in his 20's, he was of sufficiently independent standing to contribute 5 marks to a city loan. He was the mercer who supplied the Earl of Derby, later Henry IV,  with his velvets and damasks, and he was on the Common Council of the City in 1385 and 1387.  A little later, he was surety to the Chamberlain for £10 towards the defence of the city.

In 1393 he was made an Alderman and became Lord Mayor of the City of London in 1397 and in the following year, 1398, as well.   When Richard II was deposed in 1399, he was found to owe Whittington 1,000 marks.  Henry IV also borrowed from him when in financial difficulties.  It is recorded that among his frequent loans to the Crown was one for the enormous sum of £ 6,400!

We can judge the class of his business from the fact that he supplied ' cloth of gold' and other materials for the wedding of Henry IV's daughters, and the extent of his royal esteem from the fact that he was present at one Privy Council meeting at least.  His royal favour extended into four, if not five, reigns, and Henry V was also much in debt to him.

Richard Whittington was Lord Mayor not 'thrice' but four times, if we count his first two successive years as separate offices, and was Mayor again in 1406/7 and finally in 1419/20.

The respect for his judgement and administrative ability is reflected by the fact that in 1415 he was one of three persons whose consent the Lord Mayor had to seek ( under Royal Command ) before any building in the city was pulled down; also that he was entrusted with the responsibility for the Nave of Westminster Abbey.  It is thought that he represented London in Parliament in 1416. 

He married Alice Fitzwaryn, daughter of Sir Ivor Fitzwaryn, a country gentleman rather than a City merchant, and owner of large estates in the south-west of England.  She died before him and as they apparently had no children, his wealth went to charitable concerns.  Among his gifts to the City of London, was the provision of  a public water tap on the wall of St Giles, Cripplegate; he bore most of the cost of the new library at Greyfriars ( now the north side of the great cloister of Christ's Hospital ); with others he handed over Leadenhall to the Corporation in 1411, and opened Bakewell Hall for the sale of broadcloths.  He built St Michael's Church and gave generously to the bridge and chapel of Rochester.

For tracing the connections between fact and fable, a great debt is owed to the Reverend Samuel Lyons, a notable Gloucestershire antiquary, and his book ' The Model Merchant of the Middle Ages'.  Rev Lyson tells us that Richard Whittington gave generously to the repair of Gloucester Cathedral.  We know that the young Richard II held Parliament there in 1378 when his ministers were not popular in London.  We also know that the fine fan vaults, the first to be constructed in any cathedral cloisters on this scale in Britain, were designed and built during a period of 30 - 40 years from 1373.  The Cathedral records include a deed, circa 1414 - 1422, stating that Richard Whittington, ' citizen and Mercer of London' acquired property and land at Matson and other places near Gloucester.

Richard Whittington died in March 1423, three years after his last mayoralty, and was buried in the Church of  St Michael-de-Paternoster on the north side of the high altar.  The Church, and the tomb, were destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666, but Stow's Annals preserve his epitaph which included such phrases as ' Flos Mercartorium' and 'Regia Spel et Pres'.  In accordance with his will, dated 5th September 1421, his executors ( one of whom was the celebrated Town Clerk of London, John Carpenter ) obtained a license to rebuild Newgate prison, and contributed to the repair of St Bartholemew's Hospital and the restoration and enlargement of the Guildhall.  They were directed to use the bulk of his wealth for the foundation of a hospital or almshouse and the collegiate of his parish church, St Michael - de- Paternoster.  This college was suppressed in 1548, but College Street remains.  The hospital, now removed to Highgate, was taken over by the Mercer's Company.

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