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Receipt from Richard Whittington and others for the purchase of the Manor of Oxhey, Hertfordshire, 1402.

​Receipt from Richard Whittington and others for the purchase of the Manor of Oxhey, Hertfordshire, 7 May 1402
Ref: LMA CLC/521/MS02903

 

Archive Treasures: The Real Dick Whittington

In the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) newsletter we have been running a series of articles putting the spotlight on archive treasures featured in London: 1000 years which showcases the holdings of LMA, Guildhall Library and Guildhall Art Gallery. Matthew Payne tells the story of the real Dick Whittington as revealed in archives held by the City of London.

Richard, or Dick, Whittington, was one of the major figures of medieval London, and a formative influence on the development of the City (and its library), quite apart from becoming the stuff of popular legend. The story of Whittington the poor orphan who came to London to seek his fortune, and who found it with the help of his cat and the sound of Bow bells recalling him, can be traced back at least as far as the early seventeenth century. It is wholly untrue, but Whittington himself was very real.

He was born in Gloucestershire around 1350, the son of a well-to-do landowner; he was apprenticed to a London mercer, and thus entered one of the more upmarket trades of the time, dealing in wool, fine cloth and the flourishing import-export trade in such materials. He became a successful mercer himself and during the 1380s and 90s was regularly supplying extensive orders for luxury fabrics to the royal court. The fortune he thus accumulated allowed him to diversify into what we would call banking and he made many loans to the successive kings Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V. 

He became a Common Councilman of the City in 1384, an alderman in 1393 and Lord Mayor in 1398. The one true part of the pantomime story is the reference to being three times Mayor, as he did serve again in this capacity in 1406 and 1419.  During the last of these terms his attempts to regulate the price of ale, and standardise its measures, brought him into dispute with the brewers. The City’s archives include numerous documents relating to Whittington, such as the receipt shown here, with his seal appended. When he died, childless and a widower, in 1423, he left not only a reputation for probity but also a considerable fortune, all bequeathed to charity. Much of this was expended in benefits for the City, including the rebuilding of Newgate Prison and of the south gate of St Bartholomew’s Hospital, the installation of public fountains, and the creation of the first Guildhall Library.

Published:
21 January 2015
Last Modified:
27 September 2018

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