Dick Whittington. Myth and reality.

Dick Whittington neither had a cat nor was he born poor 💕😉. The news story that the Christopher Wren church in London where Dick Whittington (1354-1423) was buried (and possibly his cat) is to be sold off resulted in a backlash from many quarters and it prompted a Times journalist, Ben Macintyre, to review the familiar story of this well-known man who, according to folklore and pantomime, became the Lord Mayor of London three times and who adopted a cat given the name of Thomas in pantomimes.

Dick Whittington
Dick Whittington. Click for a larger version which is free to use. Image: MikeB
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And Ben Macintyre has pooh-poohed the entire story. The major differences in the folklore and the real story are itemised below in a table.

The mythThe reality
Whittington was a poor, an orphan from another countryBorn rich, the son of Sir William Whittington, a wealthy Gloucestershire landowner and parliamentarian.
Whittington had a catThere is no evidence that he ever owned a cat.
He worked in a scullery, cleaning pots.No, born with money. And born British.
He was the Major of London three times.He was the Major of London four times.
He made his money with the help of his rat-catching cat companion.He did not have a cat as mentioned and made his considerable fortune – worth £7.5m (in today’s money) at death having been a huge philanthropist and given away a lot of money. He made his money through smart trading first by exporting wool to Florence and Venice and selling silks to London’s rich. He lent money to kings and charged interest. Richard II was a customer as was Henry IV and Henry V. In 1397 he was lending money to the crown. These connections led to him being appointed lord mayor.
He adopted his cat by buying him at a market near the Tower of London after polishing shoes for money.As mentioned, no hard evidence of a cat. It is possible that the story of a young man who made good through graft was embellished using a 13th century Persian tale about an orphan who wins a fortune in India through his cat. You can find various versions of this story in Indonesia, Germany, Italy and Finland. Or the cat element of the story may have arisen from a pun, a version of the French word ‘ashat’ meaning ‘purchase’ which describes Whittington’s business. Or the slang word for a coal-hauling boat: a cat.
Rags-to-richesBen Macintyre describes his life as ‘rags-to-charity’ and he was ‘one of the earliest and most important British philanthropists whose impact on the capital endures tody’. As a merchant baron he financed the building of the Guildhall, the drainage system for East London and a ward for unmarried mothers at St. Thomas’s Hospital to name three charitable enterprises. There are many more examples of his generous charitable work.
The basic elements of the fictional story have hardly changed in six centuries.Today the reality of his life story is all over the internet. I guess it was much easier to create myths and legends hundreds of years ago. Now social media exposes the minutest of news.
Table showing the differences between the folklore of the Dick Whittington story and the real story

I can’t do better than to finish up quoting Ben Macintyre again as he sums it up very well.

The Dick Whittington story has been embroidered and burnished over the years, in ballads, poems, puppet shows, plays and pantomimes, a tale to encourage those who owned nothing to believe that, if they listen to the promise of destiny, they might gain everything. But the true story is both more credible and, in some ways, more modern: a business mogul who made a fortune in a difficult business climate and dangerous political times, and then deployed it to do things that might be useful to the future. The Bill Gates of mediaeval England, Dick Whittington amassed a staggering wealth and power, and left behind hospitals, accessible drinking water and a truly magnificent loo.

Ben Macintyre

The loo (toilet) that he refers to is perhaps one of his most important charitable enterprises namely the creation of London’s first dual-gender public toilet. A triumph of ‘lavatorial ingenuity’ which was called Whittington’s Longhouse. It had 64 toilet seats for men and 64 toilet seats for women. It was cleaned when the tide on the Thames came in twice daily! It’s provided a service to the citizens of London from May 1, 1421 until it was finally destroyed in the Great Fire in 1666.

Imagine; his public toilets stood for 245 years! 👍

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