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Dick Whittington, London

Just about everybody in Britain knows the story of Dick Whittington, or rather a story of Dick Whittington, as there are many variations. The children's fable and pantomime versions are interesting enough, but the truth or truths behind the story are far more fascinating.
The myth has Dick Whittington, a poor lad from Gloucester , setting out for London with his worldly goods in a knotted hankie on a stick over his shoulder (it's behind you Dick! - and I was doing so well till now), there to make his fortune. His early days in the capital are hard and fruitless, and Dick sets out to return to Gloucester, only to hear Bow Bells ringing as he climbs Highgate Hill, their peal to him sounding like a message to turn again and try once more.
The poor boy's perseverance is rewarded when his master invites him to send goods on a trading voyage to exotic climes, and as all the lad has is his cat Tommy he sends that, much to the amusement of his superiors. In another variant he travels abroad with the cat. But it turns out Dick, prototype modern businessman, has supplied not a cat but a solution, in his case to the problem of rat infestation at the Chinese Emperor's palace (or King of Morocco's if you prefer). He is showered with gold, and can marry his sweetheart Alice Fitzwarren. And Dick's fortune and power grows, with him being made Lord Mayor of London three times, loved for his charitable works and admired for his wealth.
All very jolly, with much slapping of shapely thighs. But the story behind the story is at least its equal.
Dick Whittington was born around 1350, a younger son of a minor member of the gentry from Gloucester. Oh no he wasn't! (sorry, unable to resist it any longer). Shropshire legend has it that Dick Whittington was the son of a blacksmith, born in the hamlet near Ellesmere called The Newnes, where there is still a Dick Whittington's cottage. You pays your money and takes your choice.
The Gloucester version is the one with most detail behind it, with well verified facts: Dick as a younger son would inherit nothing from his father, so had to make his way in the world. He left his home in Pauntley and came to London , was apprenticed to the Mercer's Guild (cloth traders), rising through guts and genius to membership of the guild and eventually being made its Master. Whittington had many dealings with the crown, supplying both Henry IV and Richard II with luxurious cloths - damasks, silks, velvet, and cloth of gold. His business grew to such an extent that he branched out into banking, loaning both the named kings huge sums, for which he received benefits like control of the wool tax at England's ports, and the Mayoralty of the City of London. He proved a good mayor too, and for once fact beating fiction was mayor four not three times, leaving a legacy of good works done in his lifetime, and £5,000 to fund more after his death. And yes he did marry Alice Fitzwarren.
The Shropshire version is more mysterious, the blacksmith's son sent to Clerkenwell to serve the Knights Templar at their English HQ there by the local priest who also served the Templars, going on to win fame and fortune in the capital.

1 Response to Dick Whittington

From Steve Morgan on 15th August 2011
I heard he was always made Mayor of Calais under Henry v!

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