Dick Whittington may well be known today as a pantomime character with a cat, but 600 years ago he was a clever businessman who became the Lord Mayor of London. Richard or ‘Dick’ Whittington was born during the 1350s. He was the younger son of Sir William Whittington, Lord of the Manor of Pauntley in Gloucestershire. When Sir William died, Richard as the younger son inherited nothing and travelled to London to find work.
Whittington eventually became a ‘mercer’, dealing in valuable cloth from abroad, such as silks, velvets and cloth of gold. He knew the market for luxury cloth and made a killing at the royal court where King Richard II was particularly partial to expensive gold cloth. When the King was deposed in 1399, he owed Whittington over £1000. Whittington continued to supply to the next King Henry IV, who allowed the previous debt to be paid by the Crown. Whittington became rich.
The port of Chichester had been exporting wool from Dell Quay since at least 1226 . In the late 13th century, English wool contributed to half the wealth of the kingdom. The Crown tried to control this trade by only allowing certain ports to export wool. These ports were called staples and exporters were expected to pay customs dues. In 1353 Chichester was made a staple port.
After 1397 Whittington often lent large sums of money to the Crown. He was almost certainly motivated more by a desire to influence matters of policy than the wish to make a financial profit out of his loans to the Crown. In return he was allowed to export wool without paying customs duty on it until the royal debt was paid. It may have been because of this that Richard Whittington first became involved with the wool trade.
Accounts for the port of Chichester for the years 1404, 1406 and 1413 record that Richard Whittington was exporting wool from Chichester. In 1406 he was licensed to retain £450 from Chichester customs, towards repayment of a loan to the king.
What is true about the Whittington story is that he did become Mayor of London; the first time as the King’s appointment in 1397. But he was re-elected three times between 1398 and 1420.
Richard (Dick) Whittington died in 1423 in London leaving a fortune of over £7000. He asked that his considerable wealth be used in a range of long lasting good causes and there is still a Whittington Charity today.
As far as we know, he never did have a cat !