The tale of Dick Whittington and his cat has become part of traditional folklore and is especially popular in pantomime form at this time of year. Although the real story of Richard Whittington may differ from the familiar classic in many ways it is no less inspiring. Details of his life and work can be gleaned from historic documents including his last will and testament which is recorded in the register of Archbishop Henry Chichele and held at Lambeth Palace Library.
Richard Whittington began his time in London apprenticed to a mercer. On completing his apprenticeship he became a freeman of the Mercers’ Company. He went on to become a leading merchant, accumulating a large fortune and playing an important part in London civic life including being elected Lord Mayor of London on four occasions. He died in 1423 and was buried with his wife at the church of St. Michael Paternoster, which was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666.
Richard Whittington made his will in 1421 and it was proved after his death in March 1423. Before the establishment of a new Court of Probate based in London in 1858, a complicated network of more than 200 church courts across the country were responsible for proving wills. During the first half of the 15th century the Archbishop of Canterbury also had the unique authority to prove wills of his own accord. As a result the Archbishop’s registers for this period contain a number of significant wills including those of royalty such as Edward III and Edward, Prince of Wales (more commonly known as the Black Prince) as well as notable citizens such as Whittington.
Wills can be illuminating historical sources, providing valuable insight into the lives of individuals and the time in which they lived. Concern for the welfare of the soul was paramount during the medieval period and charitable giving was a common feature in testaments of the time. Richard Whittington’s will is no exception citing some thirty separate bequests, most of which obliged the recipient to offer up prayers for Whittington and his wife.
Whittington gave to a plethora of causes including donations to monastic houses, towards the fabric of several London churches, legacies to poor prisoners in Newgate Gaol, and other London gaols, as well as inmates of assorted London hospitals. The rest of his estate was left to his executors to dispose of in works of charity for the good of his soul. They used it to set up a trust which contributed to various causes including the rebuilding of Newgate Gaol, the founding of a library at the Guildhall and improvements to the City’s water supplies. It was also used to establish a College of Priests and an Almshouse for poor men and women. The government of the College and Almshouse was assigned to the Mercers’ Company and although the College no longer exists the Almshouse (although essentially re-founded in the 19th century) continues to be administered by the Mercers’ Company under the name Whittington College.
The will of Richard Whittington can be viewed at Lambeth Palace Library on microfilm (ms film705, Register of Archbishop Chichele, folio 354). The register of Archbishop Chichele is also available published as part of the Canterbury and York Society series and also as an edition by Clarendon Press. More information on the Mercers’ Company and their history can be found on their website at: http://www.mercers.co.uk/.