Show Summary Details

Page of
PRINTED FROM Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. © Oxford University Press, 2019. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single article in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy).

Whittington, Richard [Dick]free

(c. 1350–1423)
  • Anne F. Sutton

Whittington, Richard [Dick] (c. 1350–1423), merchant and mayor of London, was born at Pauntley, Gloucestershire, the third son of Sir William Whittington (d. 1358), a lesser landowner of Gloucestershire, and his wife, Joan Maunsell. He was apprenticed to a London mercer and was sufficiently established in London by 1379 to contribute 5 marks towards a civic gift to the nobles of the realm. At this date a mercer of London dealt in silk, linen, fustian, worsted, and luxury small goods, and the wealthiest of the trade expected to participate in the export of English wool, woollen cloth, and worsted, and to import the other merceries.

As a mercer

Whittington's fortune was based in the first place on his skills as a mercer. He had become a major supplier of mercery to the royal court before 1388, when he sold goods worth nearly £2000 to Robert de Vere, favourite of Richard II; other customers included John of Gaunt, the earl of Derby (the future Henry IV), and the Staffords; from at least 1389 he was supplying Richard II, sales of nearly £3500 being made between 1392 and 1394. It is likely that Richard II and his uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, another lover of the luxuries of rank, were Whittington's most diligent and appreciative customers and 'promoters', as they were described in the foundation statutes of Whittington's college. This pattern continued under the succeeding dynasty: he supplied mercery to Henry IV's great wardrobe and for the marriages of Henry IV's daughters, Blanche and Philippa. In the last decade of Whittington's life such sales were less, and he took fewer apprentices, but he continued to import linens and deal in mercery.

Profits in London on imported mercery could be high but it is probable, although there is no precise evidence, that Whittington also engaged in trade with Italy and in the rapidly expanding export of English woollen cloth; he is known to have had close connections with Coventry and these may have derived from the cloth trade. His involvement in the wool trade seems to have occurred only after the accession of Henry IV, when he had to recoup royal debts from the wool subsidies. He was a large, if not remarkable, exporter between 1404 and 1416, and served as a collector of the wool subsidies in London from 1401 to 1403 and from 1407 to 1410. He also acted as mayor of the staple of Westminster from 3 July 1405 until his death (although it is not certain whether he was in office continuously) and of the Calais staple from at least 1406 to 1413.

As a moneylender

Whittington's wealth from trade, and his contacts with the great who were his customers, were the basis of his moneylending career. From 1388 he is known to have made nearly sixty loans to the crown, major loans occurring from 1397; his loans to Henry IV and Henry V were larger than any made to Richard II, and several were made in conjunction with others, such as the grocer, Thomas Knolles (1402), or a group of Calais merchants (1406–7); he also lent to private individuals like Sir Simon Burley and John Beaufort, earl of Somerset. His capacity to lend substantial sums consistently over a long period, especially from 1400 to 1423, shows his willingness to use his capital rather than tie it up in land; this willingness may have resulted from his lack of children, from a dislike of excessive personal display, or from a love of the mechanics of such loans and of the society of the often very highly placed persons who sought money from him. His gains would have come in the form of financial profits, together with access to the royal ear and a position of influence. He is unlikely ever to have engaged in usury in the sense deplored by the church; Whittington himself sat as judge in usury trials in London in 1421, a sure sign that he was regarded as above suspicion. This capacity to avoid almost all criticism suggests a character of austere correctness coupled with an ability to inspire trust. His position as a royal financier was at times of great service to the city as well as to his own purse and the crown.

Civic career

Whittington's civic career followed the usual pattern: he had become a common councilman for Coleman Street ward by 31 July 1384, and held this office intermittently until 12 March 1393 when he was elected alderman of Broad Street ward; he moved to the ward of Lime Street in June or July 1397 and remained there until his death. In June 1392 he was one of the twenty-four citizens 'of the second rank of wealth in the city' (Chronicon Henrici Knighton, 2.319) summoned to Nottingham by the king to answer charges, with the mayor and aldermen, of misgovernment—an inquiry which allowed the king to seize the city into his own lands. On 21 September 1393 Whittington was elected sheriff, and at midsummer 1395 he was elected a warden of the Mercers' Company for the first time. Meanwhile he was selling mercery to Richard II and acquiring the king's trust. This trust showed itself when the mayor, Adam Bamme, died in office on 6 June 1397 and Whittington was appointed to the vacancy two days later by Richard II at his most high-handed. Within days Whittington had negotiated that the city might purchase its full liberties from the king for £10,000; his fellow citizens showed their gratitude when they elected him mayor on the following 13 October for a complete term. Despite his good relations with Richard II, Whittington was in April 1398 one of those who had to seal blank charters placing themselves and their goods at the king's pleasure. His role during the usurpation of Henry IV is unknown: however personally loyal to Richard he may have been, he acquiesced in the change, and his wealth and status ensured that the new king had as much need of him as had his predecessor; a close associate and fellow mercer, John Shadworth, had suffered imprisonment at Richard's hands and probably took a more active part in the usurpation. Significantly both men sat on the first council of Henry IV from 1 November 1399 to 18 July 1400.

The other details of Whittington's civic career hardly match the anxieties and political manoeuvring of the 1390s. He was warden of the Mercers' Company again in 1401–2 and 1408–9. His first mayoralty had seen the organization of Blackwell Hall as the sole place where non-citizens and aliens could buy and sell cloth. His second full term as mayor, from 13 October 1406, was distinguished by the decision to make customary the mass that had been held before his election. He served for the only time as MP for the city in 1416, a year when the city was quiet and when he made no loan to the crown. On 13 October 1419, when he was certainly in his sixties, he was elected mayor for the third time by his fellow citizens. His attempt to regulate the price of ale and standardize its measures during this term provoked an acrimonious dispute with the Brewers' Company which continued for several years, Whittington winning his point against more temperate advice. Later the brewers were placated by the diplomacy of John Carpenter, common clerk of the city and Whittington's executor. The dispute reveals not only how greatly the old man was respected but also how severe, even embarrassing, his rectitude could be in matters of trade. Only for the last years of his civic career can some assessment be made of his day-to-day involvement: between 1416 and his death in 1423 he attended 50 per cent of meetings of the court of aldermen and all but two of its meetings during his mayoralty year of 1419–20.

Concomitants of Whittington's success and ability were his appointments to commissions and other civic duties: he had been a custodian of the goods of the politically exiled mercer, John More, in 1384; in 1397 as mayor and escheator he had the task of seizing the forfeited goods of Thomas of Woodstock, duke of Gloucester, his old 'promoter', in London; he sat on fifteen commissions of oyer and terminer between 1401 and 1418; he was appointed to supervise the collection of papal revenues in England in 1409; he and Thomas Knolles drew up the list of London citizens liable to pay a subsidy in 1412; between 1413 and 1421 he was one of the supervisors and accountants of the renewed work on the nave of Westminster Abbey begun by Richard II, to which he himself had contributed in 1401/2; and in 1414 and 1418 he was on commissions to seek out Lollards and their goods.

Marriage and estate

Whittington's preference for liquid capital, borne out by his failure to acquire a large landed estate, may have been connected with the fact that he had no children. He married Alice, daughter of Sir Ivo Fitzwarin (d. 1412), a Dorset landowner, possibly as late as 1402. Alice was seriously ill by October 1410, when Whittington was licensed to have a Jewish doctor attend her, and she probably died the following 30 or 31 July (the date of her obit). At his death Whittington had few holdings outside the city. The manor of Over Lypiatt, Gloucestershire, was acquired from his maternal uncle, Philip Maunsell, in 1395, in lieu of a debt of £500; it was successfully claimed by his brother, Robert, as a deathbed bequest. He also held lands in Dorset during the life of his father-in-law, possibly in repayment of loans. His most notable purchase in the city was his great house in the Royal, next to the church of St Michael Paternoster Royal, made in February 1402, the possible date of his marriage. His rebuilding of this church was begun in 1409 to provide a suitable resting place for himself and his wife; he undoubtedly planned to make the church collegiate and establish an almshouse there, projects completed by his executors. This almshouse still survives as Whittington College, administered by the Mercers' Company.

Philanthropy

Whittington gave to good works throughout his life and a few details are known: a library at the London Greyfriars; Rochester Bridge; a longhouse at St Martin Vintry (public lavatories and almshouse); and a refuge for unmarried mothers at St Thomas's Hospital, Southwark. By 5 September 1421, when he drew up his will, he had decided to leave his entire fortune to charity. His will was largely impersonal, making bequests to the standard charities, and was designed to control his executors but not trammel them. Its substance was that all the estate was to be realized in cash and spent on good works, a sum estimated as in the region of £7000. Until his death on 23 or 24 March 1423 (the date of his obit) major projects must have been discussed with his executors: completing the college of priests and almshouse at St Michael Paternoster Royal; rebuilding Newgate prison, to which money was also left in his will for distribution among the prisoners; rebuilding the south gate of St Bartholomew's Hospital; establishing a library at Guildhall; and installing public fountains in the city.

Whittington's personal interests and friends are difficult to identify. His patronage of two libraries and the known interest of John Carpenter, his chief executor, in education, as well as the association of John Colop, one of those who distributed Whittington's estate in alms, with the dissemination of pious books now known as 'common profit books', argue that Whittington, too, wished to foster the religious knowledge of both clergy and laity. Other important friends were John White, the master of St Bartholomew's Hospital and before that rector of St Michael Paternoster Royal, and John Coventry, mercer, both his executors; Richard Clifford, keeper of the great wardrobe during the period of Whittington's large sales to Richard II, and later bishop of London (1407–21), one of the few men for whom Whittington acted as executor and another promoter of clerical education; and the unknown Roger, once rector of St Margaret, Lothbury, for whom Whittington arranged prayers in his will. Most enigmatic are his relationships with Richard II and Thomas of Woodstock, who with their wives, Anne of Bohemia and Eleanor de Bohun, were to be prayed for at Whittington's foundations in perpetuity.

The legend of Dick Whittington

It is one of the curiosities of history that this austerely noble figure should have become the subject of nursery rhymes and Christmas pantomimes. By the early seventeenth century the story was being circulated how Whittington, an orphan from the west country, had travelled to London, where he became a scullion in the kitchen of the wealthy merchant Hugh Fitzwarren (a figure unrepresented in fifteenth-century records); there his master's daughter, Alice, befriended him against an overbearing cook. Like all Fitzwarren's servants he was allowed to contribute to the freight of his master's trading ship, the Unicorn, but the only thing he could offer was his cat, for which he had paid just 1d. When the vessel touched on the coast of north Africa, the king there, driven to distraction by the rats and mice which had overrun his palace, bought the cat for ten times more than the price of the whole of the rest of the ship's cargo. Back in London Whittington had meanwhile despaired of fame and fortune, and set out to leave the city, only to be recalled by the chime of Bow bells, which seemed to be pealing to the words 'Turn again, Whittington, lord mayor of London.' He duly turned, and the return of the Unicorn, bearing the money from the sale of his cat, allowed Whittington to marry his master's daughter and rise to be lord mayor. The elements of folklore discernible in this story—common in north and south Europe and even in Persia—may have flourished all the more strongly because its hero's own personality had been obscured by all the factual evidence for his benefactions. The impression of the historical Whittington as a remote, rather isolated, figure may indeed be overstated by the lack of personal records. What has survived, to be cherished and turned into a legend after his death, is the sense of civic and humanitarian duty which made him leave his personal fortune to the poor.

Sources

  • C. M. Barron, ‘Richard Whittington: the man behind the myth’, Studies in London history presented to Philip Edmund Jones, ed. A. E. J. Hollaender and W. Kellaway (1969), 197–248
  • J. Imray, The charity of Richard Whittington: a history of the trust administered by the Mercers' Company, 1424–1966 (1968), chaps. 1–2, appx 1
  • M. Sargent, ‘Walter Hilton's Scale of perfection: the London manuscript group reconsidered’, Medium Aevum, 52 (1983), 189–216, esp. 205–6
  • P. E. Jones, ‘Whittington's longhouse’, London Topographical Record, 23 (1974), 27–34
  • C. M. Barron, ‘The quarrel of Richard II with London, 1392–7’, The reign of Richard II: essays in honour of May McKisack, ed. F. R. H. Du Boulay and C. M. Barron (1971), 173–201
  • C. M. Barron, ‘The tyranny of Richard II’, BIHR, 41 (1968), 1–18, esp. 5–6, 10–14
  • A. Goodman, ‘The character of Thomas Woodstock’, The loyal conspiracy: the lords appellant under Richard II (1971), 74–86
  • A. F. Sutton, The Mercers' Company's first charter, 1394 (1994)
  • W. Scase, ‘Reginald Pecock, John Carpenter and John Colop's “common-profit” books: aspects of book ownership and circulation in fifteenth-century London’, Medium Aevum, 61 (1992), 261–74
  • Chronicon Henrici Knighton, vel Cnitthon, monachi Leycestrensis, ed. J. R. Lumby, 2 vols., Rolls Series, 92 (1889–95)
  • W. A. Clouston, Popular tales and fictions (1887)

Archives

  • Mercers' Hall, estate papers, property deeds, almshouse ordinances

Likenesses

  • W. Abell, grisaille painting, 1445–1450, Mercers' Company, London, Whittington estate archives, almshouse ordinances
  • R. Elstrack, line engraving (after unknown artist), BM, NPG

Wealth at Death

approximately £7000: Imray, The charity, 23–4

Podcast

Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research
Canterbury and York Society