Richard Whittington

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Anon. (1605?)


Historical Records

Stationers' Register

8 February 1605

Tho. Pavyer.     Entred for his copy. vnder thandes of the
Wardens. The history of Ric Whittington
of his lowe byrthe. of his lowe byrthe  vjd
his great fortune as yt was plaied by the
prynces servantes

(Book C, fol. 119v, Records, reel 2; cf. Arber 3.282)

Theatrical Provenance

Prince Henry's at the Fortune.

Probable Genre(s)

Pseudo-History (Harbage)

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

The play was surely based on the story of Richard Whittington (c. 1350–1423), the celebrated merchant, philanthropist, and mayor of London. Accounts of the contributions of Whittington and his executors to the city of London—the establishment of almshouses, the library at Greyfriars, Whittington College, Newgate, the expansion of St. Bartholomew's Hospital—were documented in Stow's Survey of London and other city histories, where he was esteemed as an exemplar of civic virtue. Thus the full account in Grafton's Chronicle:

This yere [1406] a worthie Citizen of London named Rychard Whittyngton Mercer and Alderman, was elected Maior of the sayde Citie, and bare that office three tymes: This worshipfull man so bestowed his goodes and substaunce to the honor of God, to the reliefe of the pore, and to the benefite of the co[m]mon weale, that he hath right well deserued to be regestred in the boke of fame. First he erected one house or Church in London, to be a house of prayer, and he named the same after his awne name Whittyngtons Colledge, and so it remayneth to this day. And in the same Church, besyde certeine Priestes and Clerkes, he placed a number of poore aged men and women, and buylded for them houses and lodgynges, and allowed vnto them Wood, Cole, Cloth, and weekly money, to their great reliefe and comfort. This man also at his awne costes, builded the Gate of London called Newgate, in the yere of our Lord. 1422. which before was a most vgly & lothsome prison. Also he buylded more then the halfe of saint Bartholomewes Hospitall in west Smithfielde in London. Also he buylded of hard stone, the bewtifull Librarie in the gray Friers in London, now called Christes Hospitall, standyng in the North part of the Cloyster thereof, where in the wall his armes is grauen in stone. He also buylded for the ease of the Maior of London and his brethren, & of the worshipfull Citizens, at the solempne dayes of their assemblie, a Chapell adioinyng to the Guyldhall, to the entent they should euer before they entered into any of theyr affayres, first to go into the Chapell, and by prayer to call vpon God for his assistaunce. And in the ende ioynyng on the South part of the sayde Chapell, he buylded for the Citie a Library of stone, for the custodie of their recordes and other bookes. He also buylded a great part of the East ende of the Guyldhall, besyde many other good workes that I knowe not. But among all other, I will shewe vnto you one very notable, which I receyued credibly, by a writyng of his awne hande, which also he willed to be fixed as a Scedule to his last will and testament, the contentes whereof was, that he willed and commaunded his Executors as they would aunswere before God at the day of the Resurrection of all fleshe, that if they found any debtor of his, that ought to him any money, that if he were not in their consciences well woorth three tymes asmuch, and also out of the debt of other men, and well able to pay, that then they shoulde neuer demaund it, for he cleerely forgaue it, and that they should put no man in sute for any debt due to hym. Looke vpon thys ye Aldermen, for it is a glorious Glasse. (sig. 2P2-2P2v)

Alongside these antiquarian narratives of Whittington as model Londoner, the play may well have drawn upon (and perhaps even helped to shape) the popular mythology of the Lord Mayor's youth that was emerging around the same time: namely the story of the impoverished young Dick Whittington and his lucrative cat. Dramatic allusions (see For What It's Worth) constitute the earliest extant references to this familiar folktale, and the narrative itself seems to have first appeared in print in ballad form. An entry by John Wright in the Stationers' Register for "A ballad, called. The vertuous Lyfe and memorable death of Sr Ri: Whittington mercer sometymes Lo. Maior of the honorable Citie of London" is dated 16 July 1605 (Book C, fol. 126v, Records, reel 2; cf. Arber 3.296), shortly after the entry for the play. The broadside version of this ballad does not survive. It may or may not be the same as the ballad on the life of Whittington that was published in Richard Johnson's A Crowne-Garland of Goulden Roses (1612) as "A Song of Sir Richard Whittington, who by strange fortunes, came to bee thrice Lord Maior of London, with his bountifull guifts and liberallity giuen to this honorable Citty" (sig. B5-B7v). The ballad tells of Whittington's childhood in Lancashire and then London, "Where with a Marchant man, / soone he a dwelling had. / And in a Kitchin plast, / a scullion for to be." Penniless, he attempts to run away, but is stopped by the sound of London bells calling to him: "turne againe Whittington: / For thou in time shalt grow, / Lord Maior of London." He resolves to stay and to reward the city if the prophecy should prove true. Later, the merchant decides to sail "to a land far vnknowne, / With Marchandize of worth"; Whittington ventures his only property, a "poore Cat," on the voyage. Fortunately, the ship arrives at a land overrun with rodents and Whittington's cat proves an invaluable commodity, purchased by the local king for "heapes of gold." With his new capital, Whittington is able to leave his "Scullions life" to become a merchant himself, and eventually the "thrise Maior of London." He is charitable to both high and low: he bankrolls the King's wars in France (after loaning the money, he playfully burns the bonds at a feast and refuses repayment) and gives lavishly to the city's poor. After his death, his legacy as the "flower of Charity" lives on.

It's impossible to know for certain whether or not the dramatic "Richard Whittington" included what would become the most memorable feature of the story: the young Dick Whittington's cat. However, the fact that the play began with Whittington's "lowe byrthe" necessitates that his ascent to prosperity was a feature of the story, and the fact that his feline companion is referred to so often in the extant drama of the following years suggests that it may well have been a part of the story.

(A more extensive prose version of the Richard Whittington legend was published in 1656 as The Famous and Remarkable History of Sir Richard Whittington by "T.H.". Wiggins (109) offers a more detailed conjectural reconstruction based on this pamphlet, suggesting that its author may have seen the dramatic version.)

References to the Play

Beaumont, The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1607)

Cit. No sir, yes sir, if you were not resolu'd to play the Iacks, what need you study for new subiects, purposely to abuse your betters? why could not you be contented, as well as others, with the legend of Whittington, or the life & death of sir Thomas Gresham? with the building of the Royall Exchange? or the story of Queene Elenor, with the rearing of London bridge vpon wool-sackes? (sig. B-Bv)

Critical Commentary

Greg notes that this play "is mentioned among other civic dramas in the Induction to The Knight of the Burning Pestle [316] printed in 1613 but probably written by Beaumont as early as 1607" (BEPD 2.971).

Wiggins considers two possibilities for the play's original performance date: either it was "first staged by the Admiral's Men without Henslowe's financial involvement during the period 1597–1603, and the Stationers' Register entry merely used the company's current name; or it was newly staged by the Prince's Men in 1604, and was released to the printer after no more than ten months in the repertory"; he selects the latter as the most likely context for the original production (109). On staging possibilities, he notes that it seems unlikely that the play actually dramatized the scene in which Whittington's cat catches the mice; however, the play "probably culminat[ed] with his election as Lord Mayor in 1397."

For What It's Worth

Possible References and Analogues

Heywood, If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody, Part Two (1605)

  Now: This sir Richard Whitington three times Maior,
Sonne to a Knight, and Prentise to a Mercer,
Began the Librarie of Gray-Friars in London;
And his Executors after him did build
Whittington Colledge, thirteene Almes-houses for poore men,
Repair'd S. Bartholmewes in Smithfield,
Glased the Guild-hall, and built Newgate.
  Hob. Bones of mee then I haue heard lyes,
For I haue heard he was a scullion,
And rai'sd himselfe by venture of a Cat.
  Now: They did the more wrong to the gentleman.

Part 2 entered in Stationers' Register on 14 September 1605 (Arber 3.301). See The Knight of the Burning Pestle below. As Bowers notes, Dean Nowell's description of Whittington closely follows Stow's antiquarian account, whereas Hobson's contribution represents the popular myth (34, 38n).

Chapman, Jonson, and Marston, Eastward Hoe (1605)

I cannot containe my selfe, I must tell thee, I hope to see thee one o'the Monuments of our Citty, and reckon'd among her worthies, to be remembred the same day with the Lady Ramsey, and graue Gresham: when the famous fable of Whittington, and his Pusse, shalbe forgotten, and thou and thy Actes become the Posies for Hospitals, when thy name shall be written vpon Conduits, and thy deeds plaid i'thy life time, by the best companies of Actors, and be call'd their Get-peny. This I diuine. This I Prophecie. (sig. G2v)

Entered in the Stationers' Register 4 September 1605 (Arber 3.300). The play was performed in late July or August of 1605, a response to Westward Ho. The combination of Gresham and Whittington appears in The Knight of the Burning Pestle.

Dekker, The Seuen Seadly Sinnes of London (1606)

"Prouidence was but of meane birth, the ladder by which he climbd to such high fortunes, as to be a councellor to Money, being made by himselfe, much giuen to study, yet no great scholler, as desiring rather to be free of the City, then to serue a long threed-bare Prentiship in the Uniuersities. He is rarely seene in Minerals, and distillations, and will draw Aurum potabile, or fetch quick-siluer out of horse-dung, he will grow rich, and be in time the head warden of a company, though he were left by his friends but three shillings three pence stocke to set vp, such another he was as Whittington, a very cat shall raise him if he be set vpont" (sig. D3v)

Parrot, Epigrams (1608)

Qui quondam Lixa, Lanista.
T'is said that Whittington was rais'd of nought,
And by a Cat, hath many wonders wrought;
But Fortune (not his Cat) makes it appeare:
Hee may dispend a thousand markes a yeare. (sig. A3v)

Chambers identifies this as a possible allusion to the play, perhaps based on the playhouse associations of "Fortune" (3.189). The Latin motto can roughly be translated: "He who was once a scullion, is now a fencing master." (In Cooper's Dictionary, lixia is defined as a "scullion, drudge, or slaue to cary wood and water in an army, or to a kitchin" and lanista as a "maister of sword players: he that taught fighting birdes: a maister of fence.")

Whittington and His Cat

The story of Whittington's liberation from his life as a scullion through the fortunate sale of his cat is one of the most familiar parts of his reputation. The episode is, predictably, ahistorical, and the story of a cat sold for a fortune in a far-away country is a typical folkloric narrative, examples of which can be found in other countries well before the historical Whittington himself was born (Clouson 2.65-78; Thompson 5.105). It's unclear, however, when it became associated with the biography of Whittington. The earliest extant allusions appear in the plays of 1605 (Eastward, Ho and 2 If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody). While it's possible that the legend may have been well established in oral circulation, it's just as possible that its creation may date to the first years of the seventeenth century. (Bowers, for example, speculates that it may have been stimulated by the publication of Stow's Survey in 1598, suggested by the association of municipal authority with "Catte Streete," the location of the medieval Guildhall [35-37].) On the other hand, however, it seems to have been well-known by 1605: taking Touchstone's remark in Eastward, Ho at face value, it was already a "famous fable." Despite the attempts of antiquaries like Heywood's Dr. Nowell to debunk the historical pseudodoxia epidemica, the story remained popular and profitable. Johnson's ballad was reprinted with additions as Londons Glory, and Whittingtons Renown (Wing L2930, dated 1641) and an embellished prose version of the story, The Famous and Remarkable History of Sir Richard Whittington, appeared in 1656. An early seventeenth-century engraving of Whittington by Renold Elstrack also testifies to the popularity of the myth in visual culture. The engraving exists in two states: in the first, Whittington's hand rests on a skull; in the second, the skull is replaced by a cat, a modification apparently made to accord with public demand (O'Donoghue 4.465).

Works Cited

Beaumont, Francis. The Knight of the Burning Pestle. London, 1613.
Bowers, Rick. "Dick Whittington, Stow's Survey, and 'Catte Street'," ELN 43.1 (2005): 33-39.
Chapman, George, Ben Jonson, and John Marston. Eastward Hoe. London, 1605.
Clouson, W.A. Popular Tales and Fictions: Their Migrations and Transformations. 2 vols. Edinburgh, 1887.
Dekker, Thomas. The Seuen Seadly Sinnes of London. London, 1606.
Grafton, Richard. A Chronicle at Large and Meere History of the Affayres of Englande. London, 1569.
Heywood, Thomas. The Second Part of, If You Know Not Me, You Know No Bodie. London, 1606.
Johnson, Richard. A Crowne-Garland of Goulden Roses. London, 1612.
O'Donoghue, Freeman. Catalogue of Engraved British Portraits Preserved in the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum. 6 vols. London: British Museum, 1908.
P[arrot], H[enry]. Epigrams. London, 1608.
Records of the Worshipful Company of Stationers, 1554–1920. Ed. Robin Myers. Microfilm. 115 reels. Cambridge: Chadwyck-Healey, 1985.
Stow, John. A Suruay of London. London, 1598.
Thompson, Stith. Motif-Index of Folk-Literature. Rev. and enl. ed. 6 vols. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1955-58.
Wiggins, Martin, in association with Catherine Richardson. British Drama, 1533–1642: A Catalogue. Volume V: 1603–1608. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2015.

Site created and maintained by Misha Teramura, Reed College; updated 21 May 2015.

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