One of the traditional British pantomime tales, Dick Whittington tells the story of a young man (Dick) and his cat, who travels to London to seek his fortune after hearing that the streets are paved with gold in the city. After spending a miserable few days and nights trudging around and discovering that there certainly aren't any gold paving stones there, Dick despondently sets out to return home. As he rests his weary legs on Highgate Hill he hears the bells of the city churches ringing out, and what he hears in their melody is:

"Turn again Whittington, thrice mayor of London"

He returns to London, where after a series of adventures he meets the girl of his dreams, makes his fortune and does indeed become Lord Mayor of London three times.

The true story upon which this tale is based is also worth telling. Richard Whittington, far from being born a poor man, was the son of of Sir William Whittington, a wealthy landowner from Gloucestershire. We know that Sir William died in 1358 and not long after that his teenage son travelled to London where he was apprenticed in the Mercer's (Merchants) Guild -- a very respectable trade in medieval London and a position which he would not have got were his father not so well-known.

Whittington turned out to be an excellent merchant, and their main goods were rich silks, velvets and other valuable Oriental imports. Their main customers were therefore the élite of London society, as well as the royal court, and Whittington became both very wealthy and very well-known. In 1393 the king recognised this by making him an alderman of the City of London, and in 1397 he was appointed Lord Mayor, a position which he did indeed fill a further two times.

Dick Whittington was for many years the richest merchant in London, and three successive English kings appointed him their banker. However he did try to use some of his vast fortune for good: he personally funded the following, all of which were badly needed in early 15th Century London:

As if all this weren't enough, Dick Whittington ensured that his name would be forever remembered fondly by Londoners by making bequests in his will. After his death in 1423 his estate paid for: Although the name of Dick Whittington has been known to all Londoners for many centuries, very little of his influence remains in the city today. Most of the public works he helped build were destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, by which time the tale had already metamorphosised into the pantomime version mentioned at the top of this writeup. A wall plaque marks the location of his old house on College Hill in central London and a stone has been erected on Highgate Hill where the legend tells he heard the church bells tolling.

Whittington College is still in existence, although its physical location has moved twice since Whittington's time: the first time to Highgate in north London, and again in 1965 to Felbridge in West Sussex near the south coast of England.

The Legend of Dick Whittington and his cat goes something like this:

Dick was a poor farm boy who had been raised by a family of farmers with no blood ties to him for as long as he could remember. He knew nothing about his father and mother, and no one else seemed to either. All he knew was farming. But as he grew to be a young man, he got tired of such an unfulfilling life, and vowed to set off for London, where he had heard the streets were paved with gold.

He walked for days and days, spending nearly all of his meagre funds on food for the trip. When he finally got to the city, he was extremely disappointed to find just cobblestones on the street, like any other city. Cold, tired, and depressed, he curled up to sleep in an alley.

The next morning he went looking for work or food. Finally, just as he was about to give up, late in the afternoon, he found a merchant, a wealthy one, who would take him in and feed him in exchange for help in his business. The merchant's cook was put in charge of the boy's food and lodging. But she was cruel and harsh with him. She fed him, as ordered, but made him sleep in the loft. So with the last of his money, he bought a cat to kill the mice, both for companionship and to rid the dusty place of mice.

The cook was so harsh and unkind to him that after a few weeks he curled his cat under his arm and set off for home, away from the cruel woman. But as he neared the edge of town, he thought he heard the bells calling to him, saying

"Turn again, Whittington,
Thrice lord mayor of London."

With this charge and this hope he retraced his steps back to a harsh scolding from the cook.

One day some months later, the merchant called all of his servants together and said he was sending a ship away with many beautiful items to sell, and each of them could send something along to see how they fared. Dick owned nothing in the world but his cat, but at his master's request sadly sent her along.

The ship set off for the orient, and the captain, upon his arrival, was welcomed to the palace and seated to a feast with the emperor and his emperess. But no sooner was the food laid on the table than hoards of rats and mice swarmed out, devouring everyting in sight and biting all in reach. The emperess shrieked and stamped and the emperor hung his head. "Every meal it is like this. It seems there is nothing to be done about these creatures. I would offer treasures beyond belief to anyone who could rid us of them." The captain smiled and excused himself, promising to return very soon.

He collected Dick's cat from the ship and hurried back to the palace. He asked the emperor to have his cooks fix another meal, and lay it out. As soon as it was put out, again the rodents swarmed over the food, and it was then he released the cat. She had not hunted mice in many weeks, and was very eager to have at the little beasts. She caught and killed easily a score of them and sent the rest shrieking back to their dens. Her bloodlust satiated, she curld up in the empress' lap and fell asleep, purring. Both the emperor and his wife were amazed by the creature, he by her fierceness and the lady by her beauty, grace, and softness. He highly praised the little animal and sent chests of gold and jewels to the captain's ship.

The captain returned to London somewhat later, and when he told the story the merchant called Dick into his office, saying "all these chests of riches are yours, my boy". Dick was astonished and asked how this was possible. Upon becoming rich, he joined the merchant as a partner.

Over the years he fell in love with and married the merchant's daughter, and the two of them took over the business when her father died. Dick was very shrewd and had a good head for business, but he was always fair. He became so loved by the people that after a time he was made Lord Mayor, and he was so loved in this office he was given the title twice more.

And as for the cat, she was pampered and doted on, systematically killing every rat and mouse in the palace. She lived a good long life, all of it as the cherished favorite of her mistress. When she died, word was sent back to Dick, and he mourned her loss a second time, knowing he owed all of his fortune to her.

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