The Cat And The Skull
So what do you think you know about Dick Whittington, Lord Mayor of London?
The story goes that an impoverished Whittington made his way into the City of London to seek his fortune on hearing that the streets were paved with gold.
Failing to make enough money to live on as a scullery worker in the house of a Mr Fitzwarren, the young Whittington decided to cut his losses and return back to rural Lancashire.
Having got as far as Highgate Hill / Bunhill (dependant on which version you read) he stopped for a rest and here he heard the sound of Bow Bells ringing out on the fresh morning air.
The bells seemed to say “Turn again Whittington, thrice Mayor of London“, so he promptly headed back to the city. On his return he invested what meagre savings he had in a cat.
This feline was deemed to be the best rat catcher ever and soon garnered a reputation that reached the attention of the captain of the ship Unicorn. Dick is persuaded to sell the cat to the captain in order to keep the vermin population onboard in check, in return for a share of the bounty from a trading expedition.
The ship is blown off course to the Barbary Coast, where the local king purchased the entire cargo for a chest of gold. He insisted on entertaining the traders with a sumptuous banquet, but the palace was overrun with rats and mice. However Dick’s cat comes to the rescue and polishes off the vermin. The locals, mightily pleased, purchase the cat and pay the captain a sum ten times greater than the gold they had paid for the cargo.
On his return the captain hands the money to Mr Fitzwarren at his house in Leadenhall, who calls Dick into his study and breaks the good news that his is rich beyond his wildest dreams. Dick subsequently marries Fitzwarren’s daughter, Alice and goes on to become Lord Mayor of London three times as prophesised by the bells.
And they all lived happily ever after.
Fact in this instance is not quite a strange as fiction, however Sir Richard Whittington’s life and works are well worth remembering.
He was born, probably in the early 1350s, into an ancient and wealthy Gloucestershire family, the 3rd son of Sir William Whittington of Pauntley, in the Forest of Dean.
As a younger son, he would not expect to inherit his father’s estate, and thus was sent to the City of London to learn the trade of mercer.
He became a successful merchant, dealing in silks and velvets, much of which he sold to royalty and nobility. He was also a major exporter to Europe of much sought after English broadcloth. In the 1390s he sold cloth to King Richard II worth £3,500 (£1.5 million today). He also became a money-lender, preferring this method of income to that of developing a pr0perty portfolio. To the end of the 14th century he was also lending large sums of money to the king.
In 1384 Whittington had become a Councilman of the City of London and as such was amongst the delegation summoned by the King. At the meeting in 1392 the King seized the City of London’s lands because of alleged misgovernment.
He was elevated to the rank of Alderman in 1393 and went on to become a Sheriff of the City of London.
On the death of the incumbent Lord Mayor, Adam Bamme in 1397, Whittington was imposed on the City as Mayor by the King as the replacement. After being in the post for less than a week, Whittington had negotiated a deal with the King to buy back the lands he had seized back in 1392, the cost was £10,000 (£4 million today). Hailed for his acumen, he was formerly elected mayor by the City in October 1397.
He was elected mayor again in 1406 and 1419 and during 1407 served as mayor of The Staple at Calais, still under the control of the English, representing the town’s merchants.
He married Alice FitzWaryn but she died in 1411 without producing any children.
In 1416 he became a Member of Parliament for the City of London. He was also influential with King Henry V, whom he lent large amounts of money.
During his lifetime Whittington donated much of his profits to the benefit of the City and financed a number of projects.
In 1417 he partially financed the rebuilding of the Guildhall and also the rebuilding of his parish church, St Michael Paternoster Royal where he was later to be buried.
The “Royal” has no regal connection. It is from Le Ryole that was a nearby street and a corruption of Le Reole a town in Burgundy so named due to the number of wine merchants in the street.
He financed Whittington’s Longhouse, a 128 seater Privy divided equally between the sexes. It used to stand on the site of Bell Wharf Lane on a pier over the Thames and was washed clean at high tide. Destroyed in 1666 during the great fire. It was rebuilt but demolished in the 1930s.
He seems to have had an interest in public hygiene, as he spent large sums on drainage systems for areas around Billingsgate and Cripplegate and after his death money was provided for the installation of public drinking fountains.
He also provided accommodation for his apprentices in his own house. He passed a law prohibiting the washing of animal skins by apprentices in the River Thames in cold, wet weather because many young boys had died through hypothermia or drowning in the strong river currents.
Whittington died in March 1423 and was buried in his local church alongside his wife Alice, however this wasn’t the end of his story.
In the 1540s a rumour circulated that Whittington had been buried along with a chest of gold and was subsequently dug up by the Rector Thomas Mountain.
Needless to say he found nothing other than two decaying bodies, so decided to remove Whittington’s remains from his lead coffin which he duly sold, reinterring the remains of the former mayor without a coffin.
Rest in perpetuity was again not forthcoming, as his remains were dug up in the 1550s to repair the gross indignity of Mountains excavations and he was placed inside a coffin befitting his former station.
He laid in this new casket for nearly four hundred years until during World War Two the church was hit and destroyed by a V1 rocket in 1944.
During the subsequent clearance prior to rebuilding the site of the Whittington’s interment was lost, however there is a strange footnote. While clearing the debris of the church, workers uncovered the grave of a mummified cat.
The cat motif seems to have started sometime in the 17th century, however the cat story cannot be traced to any early historical source, and there is insufficient evidence that Whittington ever owned a cat. Suggestions were made that the cat may be a corruption of the French achat meaning ” to purchase” or that it may come from the word “cat”, another name for a coal-carrying boat which Whittington may have engaged in his business but these explanations have been trivialised by subsequent scholars.
The engraving on the left is by Reginald Elstrack made in 1590 nearly seventy years after Whittington’s death. The print on the right in which the skull has been replaced by a cat is by Peter Stent produced in the 19th century, probably to meet popular expectations of the time.