Dick Whittington and His Cat is the English folklore surrounding the real-life Richard Whittington (c. 1354–1423), wealthy merchant and later Lord Mayor of London. The legend describes his rise from poverty-stricken childhood with the fortune he made through the sale of his cat to a rat-infested country. However, the real Whittington did not come from a poor family of common stock, and there is no compelling evidence supporting the stories about the cat, or even whether he owned one.
Another element in the legend is that Dick attempted to flee his service as a scullion one night, heading towards home (or reached Highgate Hill in later tradition), but was dissuaded by the London church bells he heard, which promised he would be mayor of London one day.
Written forms date from the early 1600s, long after the death of the historical Whittington. A drama play (1604–5) and ballad (1605) are lost, and Richard Johnson's ballad of 1612 is the earliest surviving piece that refer to Whittington making his fortune with his cat. This early ballad already contains the tradition that Whittington fled his scullion's service and traveled towards home, but was beckoned back by the London bells which predicted his future of becoming mayor.
The earliest known prose rendition is The Famous and Remarkable History of Sir Richard Whittington by "T. H." (Thomas Heywood), published 1656 in chapbook form, which specified that the bells were those of Bow Church (St Mary-le-Bow), and that the boy heard them at Bunhill. Common chapbooks of a later period wrote that the boy reached as far as Holloway on the night he fled. Links to this village has not been corroborated in early folklore or literature, and is thought to be an 18th-century invention. But based on this tradition, the landmark Whittington Stone at the foot of Highgate Hill is commonly perceived to be the place where Dick Whittingon stopped and heard the famous bells.
The story was adapted into puppet play by Martin Powell in the early 18th century. Later, it has been performed as stage pantomimes and children's plays. It has also been retold as a children's story by a number of printers and authors to this day.
A number of foreign and medieval analogues exist that exhibit the motif ("Whittington's cat" motif, N411.2), where the hero obtains wealth by selling a cat, typically in a rodent-infested place direly in need of one. The tale is catalogued Aarne–Thompson (AT) tale type 1651, "Whittington's Cat".
The following summary gives a comparison of three textual sources. B = Johnson's ballad, H = prose by Heywood, signed T. H. (Wheatley ed.);[a] C = Late chapbook (18th to 19th-century printing by J. Cheney):
Dick Whittington was a poor orphan boy, languishing in Lancashire (B), or some unnamed place in the country (H, C).[b] He set off to seek his fortune in London (B, H, C), enticed by the rumour that its streets were paved with gold (C). But he soon found himself cold and hungry,[c] and fell asleep at the gate of the home of a wealthy merchant named Fitzwarren (H, C).[d] Fitzwarren gave him lodging and hired him to be the scullion in the kitchen (B, H, C).
In the prose versions, an account of the Dick Whittington's cat subsequently follows, but in the ballad, it is preceded by Dick's flight and church bells episode.
In the prose legend, Dick is provided quarter at the Fitzwarrens' garret (room in the attic) (H, C), which was infested with rats and mice (H, C). But Dick owned a cat (B, H, C), that the prose versions say he had bought for a penny he earned by shining shoes (H, C).[e] The cat controlled his rodent problem, which made her an indispensable companion.
When Fitzwarren organized a trade expedition sending the merchant ship Unicorn (H), Dick's cat was "ventured" to this mission to be sold for profit abroad (B, H, C). The versions also differ regarding the circumstances: either Dick relinquished the cat of his own volition, hoping its sale in a foreign land might reap a "store of gold" towards the fulfillment of the omen of the bells (B), or, Dick was compelled to do so by Fitzwarren, who maintained a steadfast rule that everyone in his household should have some article of worth riding on the venture, with due dividends forthcoming from the proceeds (H, C).
Dick became disenchanted with the scullion's lot and attempted to flee, either because he received room and board only for his labours and was denied monetary wages (B), or because the kitchen maid (H) or female cook named Mrs. Cicely (C) abused and physically beat him beyond his tolerance. He ran as far away as Bunhill (H) or Holloway (C), where he heard "London Bells" (B), Bow bells (C), or the bells of "Bow Church" (H), that seemed to be telling him,
"Turn again Whittington, Lord Mayor of London" (H).
which persuaded him to retrace his steps. (The wording of the bells' message differ slightly according to the textual source).
The ship was driven off course to the Barbary Coast, where the Moorish king purchased the entire cargo for a load of gold, and insisted on entertaining the English traders with a feast. But the banquet was swarmed with rats and mice, whereby the English "factor" (business agent) informed their hosts that they were in possession of a creature which could exterminate these vermin (H, C). Thus Dick Whittington's cat was immediately put to the test, chasing and destroying the rodents. The Moors, even more pleased to learn that the cat was pregnant, paid more (H) (or ten times more (C)) for the cat than the rest of the cargo combined.
The ship returned to London and Fitzwarren who was apprised of the success of the venture (at his home on Leadenhall (H)), summoned the besmirched scullion Dick Whittington to the parlour (H) (or compting-room (C)) and sat him in a seat, addressing him in dignified fashion as Master (H) or Mr. Whittington. Dick was upset at first that this was being done in mockery, but Fitzwarren insisted it was all in earnest, explaining that the profits from the ship now made Dick a richer man than himself (C, H). Dick married his former master's daughter Alice Fitzwarren (C, H), and joined his father-in-law in his business (H). In time, Whittington became the Lord Mayor of London three times, just as the bells had predicted. Whittington's acts of charity included the building of a college, a church (B, H, C), and Newgate Prison (B, H, C). He also burnt the bonds he owned, which the Crown had issued to fund the war (B, H).
Today, on Highgate Hill in front of Whittington Hospital, there is a statue in honour of Whittington's legendary cat on the site where, according to late versions of the story, the distant Bow Bells beckoned young Dick back to London to claim his fortune. The cat statue was placed atop the Whittington Stone later, in 1964.
The site of the Whittington Stone lies within confines of "Upper Holloway" according to 19th century writers, which corresponds with some chapbooks that say the boy ran away to as far away as "Holloway".[f]
It is not clear how far back this marker can be dated. Whittington biographer Lysons felt it stood there as a marker for "many centuries", even if it was actually just the debris of an old cross with only the plinth or base remaining, as some had suggested. Henry B. Wheatley argued that Whittington's association to "Holloway" must have been a later embellishment, as it is lacking in the early T. H. text (in which the boy only goes as far as Bunhill, just north of London). He thus does not think the stone could be dated anywhere near-contemporaneously to Whittington's lifespan, but he does allow that a purported stone was removed in 1795, so that the tradition at least predated the relocation of Whittington College to Highgate.[g]
Wheatley also observed that Holloway was at such a distance that it would have been difficult for a child to have reached there by foot and returned the next morning. and that it was only barely within earshot of the bells of "Bow Church".[h]
The earliest recorded instance of the folklore in written form is a registry notice dated 1604-5 for a theatrical play.
The drama The History of Richard Whittington, of his lowe byrth, his great fortune was licensed for the stage 1604–1605. Based on the only remaining evidence, which comes from the record at the Stationers' Registers, there is no proof beyond doubt whether the play accounted for Dick's rise from "lowe birth" by means of a cat, but it is considered likely, since a play from the contemporary period entitled Eastward Hoe (1605) makes an explicit cat association with the line: "When the famous fable of Whittington and his puss shall be forgotten". This line also stands as the earliest surviving literary reference of Whittington and his cat.
A lost ballad is also known to have existed from the Stationers' Register of 1605. It records "A ballad, called The vertuous Lyfe and memorable death of Sr Ri: Whittington mercer sometymes Lo. Maior of the honorable Citie of London" licensed on 16 July 1605 to be printed by John Wright. The earliest surviving complete text of the legend in any form is the ballad written by Richard Johnson on the subject. The 17-octave piece, included in Johnson's Crowne Garland of Goulden Roses (1612), begins with the following lines:
"Here must I tell the praise / Of worthie Whittington..."
This ballad of 1612 already contains the tradition that the hero made an attempt to flee his service as a scullion and headed towards "his country", but was persuaded to abort his flight when the London bells beckoned him back, seeming to tell him "Whittington, back return" and pronouncing the omen that he would eventually become Lord Mayor. The ballad goes on to tell[i] how Whittington had a very humble past working as a kitchen scullion, but that he "had a cat...And by it wealth he gat". This ballad was sung to the tune of "Dainty come thou to me". Chappell prints the musical notation to a tune that accompanied the ballad of Richard Whittington, which he suggests may be the same one as "Dainty".
Of intermediate date is a version entitled "An Old Ballad of Whittington and his Cat," printed and sold in Aldermary Church Yard, London, dated 1750(?). A copy is owned by the Bodleian library (bequest of the Francis Douce collection), and in the U.S., by the Huntington Library and Yale University. These copies show the same woodcut illustrations. A later edition dated to 1773 was part of the Roxburghe Collection of Broadside Ballads.[j]
Other broadside ballad printings have been made into the 19th century. A version entitled London's Glory and Whittington's Renown; or, A Looking-Glass for Citizens of London, printed for R. Burton at the Horse-Shoe, in West Smithfield, c. 1650, has been reprinted from the Roxburghe collection. Another is a broadside published in London by J. Pitts (between 1802 and 1819).
The story was also set in prose, especially in the form of common chapbooks.
The Famous and Remarkable History of Sir Richard Whittington by "T. H." (first edition, 1656) is the earliest extant chapbook version of the tale in the estimation of its editor Henry B. Wheatley.[k] The author's identity is only given as "T. H.", but the work is ascribable to Thomas Heywood. Heywood certainly knew the cat story, for it is spoken of by the cast of characters in his play If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody (1606).
A number of other chapbook editions appeared,[l] such as the one datable to 1730. Perhaps the latest chapbook example is The Adventures of Sir Richard Whittingon, printed by J. Cheney, 1788–1808 which is quoted in full by Wheatley in his introduction. The later chapbooks contain embellishements such as London being a town with the reputation of being paved with gold, or the boy reaching Holloway, which is several times farther (than Bunhill).
The localization in Holloway or Highgate Hill that appeared in common chapbooks is not found in any early versions, and Wheatley believed it to be an 18th-century invention. Holloway is situated in a historically inconsistent direction since it lies up north, which contradicts the tradition that the boy was fleeing towards home;[m] the real Whittington's place of origin being Gloucester, lying westward.
The artist George Cruikshank published an illustrated version of the story in about 1820. The American Joseph Jacobs printed a version that is a composite of three chapbook texts in his English Fairy Tales (1890).
The story is only loosely based on the life of Richard Whittington. Although Alice Fitzwarren, Dick's love interest in the play, is named after the historical Richard Whittington's wife, the cat story cannot be traced to any early historical source, and there is insufficient evidence that Whittington ever owned a cat.
It is unknown how the cat story came to be attached to Whittington. Suggestions were made that the cat may be a corruption of the French achat meaning "purchase" (Henry Thomas Riley), or that it may come from the word "cat", another name for a coal-carrying boat which Whittington may have engaged in his business (Samuel Foote),[n] but these explanations were downplayed as implausible by later commentators.
The Elstracke portrait of Whittington and his cat probably dates to around 1605, and does not predate the times of the earliest literary adaptations. But commentators have strived to demonstrate that various pieces of art and architecture might be allusions to the legend of Dick Whittington and His Cat that predate the early 1600s (See §Relics).
Antiquarians have noticed similarities to foreign tales of medieval origin, which tells of a character who makes his fortune selling his cat abroad. The motif was later catalogued "Whittington's cat" (N411.2) in Stith Thompson's motif-index scheme.
Two Italian examples can be noted. One was told by Lorenzo Magalotti (d. 1732), regarding a 16th-century merchant Ansaldo degli Ormanni who made his fortune selling his cat to the king of the isle of Canary (Canaria). Another, the Novella delle Gatte ("Tale of the she-cats") told by Piovano Arlotto (d. 1484), was published in the collection of witticisms (Facetiae) attributed to him.
A similar tale is "also found in a German chronicle of the thirteenth century", but the tale is localized in Venice, Italy. Albert von Stade in his Chronicon Alberti Abbati Stadensis, writing on the events in 1175,[o] sidetracks into a legendary tale involving two early citizens of Venice. The rich man about to mount on a trade expedition offers to take a consignment of merchandise from the poor man (who could only afford 2 cats), and a great profit is realized to reward the poor friend. Keightley, who identified the tale as a parallel Whittington's, said the legend "was apparently an old one in Italy", although nothing was certain beyond it being known in the 13th century.
A Persian story localized around Keish (Kish Island) tells of a certain widow's son who lived in the 10th century and made his fortune in India with his cat. This tale occurs in the Tarik al-Wasaf (Tārīkḣ-i Waṣṣāf), a 14th-century chronicle. The similarity was noted by James Morier, Second Journey (1818), and William Gore Ouseley, Travels (1819).[p]
A convenient source of the parallels is Keightley, who devoted Chapter VII of his Tales and Popular Fictions (1834) to the topic, boasting of the largest compilation of these parallels ever. though he was not the first to make note of the parallels in published form.
"Whittington and his Cat" is listed as one of the analogues grouped under Grimms' tale KHM 70 Die drei Glückskinder ("The Three Sons of Fortune") in Bolte and Polívka's Anmerkungen. The list organizes parallel folktales by different language (including Dutch and German printings of "Whittington and his Cat").
In modern folkloristics, tales with the same plot structure are classified under Aarne–Thompson (AT) tale type 1651 "Whittington's Cat". Examples of the tale type need not feature a cat, and the helper can be replaced by the angel St. Michael or St. Joseph.
The story has been adapted into puppet play, opera, dramatic play, and pantomime.
There is an early record of puppet performance of the legend, dating to Samuel Pepys's diary of Sept. 21, 1668, which reads: "To Southwark Fair, very dirty, and there saw the puppet show of Whittington, which was pretty to see".
At Covent Garden, performances of "Whittington and his Cat" were put on by the puppeteer Martin Powell (fl. 1710–1729). Powell was a successful showman, providing such a draw that the parish church of St. Paul would be drained of its congregation during hours of prayer when his plays were on. An advertisement bill of the puppet show has been copied out in Groans of Great Britain, once credited to Daniel Defoe but since reattributed to Charles Gildon (d. 1724), with a description of some of the many extraneously added characters and elements:
"At Punch's Theater in the Little Piazza, Covent-Garden, this present Evening will be performed an Entertainment, called, The History of Sir Richard Whittington, shewing his Rise from a Scullion to be Lord-Mayor of London, with the Comical Humours of Old Madge, the jolly Chamber-maid, and the Representation of the Sea, and the Court of Great Britain, concluding with the Court of Aldermen, and Whittington Lord-Mayor, honoured with the Presence of K. Hen. VIII. and his Queen Anna Bullen, with other diverting Decorations proper to the Play, beginning at 6 o' clock".
The puppet play Whittington and his Cat was reviewed by an anonymous correspondent in The Spectator, No. 14, dated March 16, 1711, soon after it opened.[q] It featured Punch (of the Punch and Judy shows) as did all of Powell's puppet plays. Punch danced a minuet with a trained pig in the opening scene. Punch also gave his "reflections on the French" that was a breach of "the Moral", as was King Harry (Henry VIII) resting his leg on his queen in an immodest manner. Little else on the performance can be gleaned, except that the hero's role (i.e., Punch's role) was performed in a squeaky high voice, just like the lead of the Italian opera Rinaldo and Armida, the rival draw at the time at Covent Garden which the anonymous reviewer was simultaneously critiquing. The reviewer concludes "as the Wit of both pieces are equal, I must prefer...Mr Powell, because it is in our own language".
An opera production that never came into realization was a topic in Joseph Addison's piece in The Spectator (1711). Addison states he was "credibly informed that there was once a Design of casting into an Opera the Story of Whittington and his Cat, and that in order to it, there had been got together a great Quantity of Mice," but that Mr. Rich (Christopher Rich) who was proprietor of the playhouse (he managed several including Drury Lane theatre[r]) objected that the rodents once released will not be thoroughly collected.[s]
Whittington, with music by Jacques Offenbach and English text by H. B. Farnie was first produced at the Alhambra Theatre over Christmas 1874–75, and in 1895 the comic opera Dandy Dick Whittington written by George Robert Sims and composed by Ivan Caryll played at the Avenue Theatre.
Ella Shields (Camden Theatre, 1907), Sybil Arundale (Theatre Royal, Birmingham, 1908), Helen Gilliland (Lyceum, 1925) are among the actresses who have played the principal boy. Cast in other productions are listed below.
The pantomime has introduced an arch villain, the Pantomime King Rat (or King of Rats),[u] as well as the usual pantomime fairy, the Fairy of the Bells, personifying the London bells. An early record of King Rat and fairy occurs in an 1877 production at Surrey Theatre. This production pitches the archvillain King Rat against the Fairy Queen, for whom the fairy Beau Bell serves as messenger. "King Rataplan (Rat-a-plan)" occurs even earlier, alongside "Queen Olivebranch" who assigns Cupid to uplift Dick Whittington from poverty, in a Charles Millward script for the Theatre Royal, Birmingham production of 1870.
In some versions, Dick and his cat Tommy travel to Morocco, where the cat rids the country of rats. The Sultan rewards Dick with half of his wealth.
The pantomime version remains popular today. Other notable pantomime productions included an 1877 version at the Surrey Theatre described below, as well as the following:
There are various pieces of art and architecture which have been used to try to date the Whittington association to earlier than the 1600s. The Elstracke engraving providing Whittington's portrait with a cat had been ascribed a c. 1590 date by some 19th century authors. A Newgate statue claiming to be Whittington's cat was actually a Libertas goddess statue, and though there were suggestions it was made by the executors of Whittington's will when they rebuilt the prison, the existence of the statues prior to the Great Fire of 1666 cannot be firmly established.
Other relics are a relief tablet of a boy and animal said to be found at a home that belonged to the family, a chariot with a cat carving that was the gift of the family.
A Whittington portrait painting depicting the mayor with a cat, allegedly dating to 1532, was once kept at the Mercers' Hall. The original has been lost, prompting Wheatley to remark that the disappeared artwork "can scarcely be put in evidence". However, a facsimile of it has been reproduced in engraving in The New Wonderful Museum (1805) edited by William Granger and James Caulfield (see image at top).
The portrait painting that did exist at Mercers' Hall, affixed with a 1536 date had been witnessed and described by James Peller Malcolm (d. 1815) in Londinium Redivivum, Vol. 4 (1807). The painting was in the apartment of the clerk of Mercers' Company at Mercers' Hall. According to Malcolm, this portrait of Whittington's had "on the left hand.. a black and white cat, whose right ear reaches up to the band or broad turning down to the shirt of the figure". Malcolm admits that the 1536 date had been repainted at a later date after the canvas was cropped, but commented that "it is hardly to be supposed" that this date "was then invented".
This painting had disappeared by the time Rev. Samuel Lysons, who published the mayor's biography in 1860, requested a viewing of it Mercer's Hall. Another portrait was available for him to see, but it was more modern and did not correspond to Malcolm's descriptions. At Mercer's hall also had on display an engraved portrait of Whittington and his cat by Guillaume Philippe Benoist. The Benoist was published 1766, and according to the caption represents the Whittington and cat portrait then still hanging at Mercer's Hall.[w][x]
There was also an early engraving by Reginald Elstrack (1570 – after 1625). This engraving, entitled the "True Portraicture" or Vera Effigies Preclarmi Domini Richardi Whittington Equi Aurat is reproduced in the inset of Lyson's work. The engraving cannot be definitely dated; Lysons noted that the printmaker flourished c. 1590, and this is the date assigned by Sir Walter Besant and James Rice, but other sources give a 1605 date. On the prints can be read "R. Elstrack Sculpsit" at bottom, which is truncated in Lysons's reproduction.
It has also been noted that the engraving originally depicted Whittington with a skull under his hand, but had been replaced with a cat underneath, to cater to public taste, "as the common people did not care to buy the print without it".[y]
The antiquarian Thomas Pennant believed that a statue of Whittington with his cat was installed in a niche in Newgate) in 1412, by the executors of Whittington's estate, but that it was damaged in The Great Fire of 1666 and replaced. Lysons and others had lent some credance to this statement by Pennant. But much of Pennant's assumptions here have been subjected to corrections and refutations.
This "assertion that a carved figure of a cat existed on Newgate gaol before the great fire is an unsupported assumption," or so it was pronounced by historian Charles Lethbridge Kingsford. Work on Newgate at Whittington's bequest did not commence during his lifetime in 1412, but in 1442. A copy of Whittington's will kept at Guildhall that prescribes this fails to mention a statue, or him and his cat.
This statue was actually the female Liberty ("Libertas" carved on the hat) with a cat at her feet, but it was "alluding to" Richard Whittington, as explained by Maitland. The stone Liberty was one of a set of seven, the others being Peace, Plenty, Concord, and Justice, Mercy, and Truth.
This Whittington statue (Liberty statue) was taken down when the old Newgate was being demolished, in 1766 or 1776, to be placed in the new Newgate Prison.[z] The Liberty statue could later be seen at the new Newgate Prison, but the cat was not with her.
It was purported that in 1862 at the site of a former residence of Whittington (in Gloucester), there was unearthed a piece of stone, possibly chimney stone, bearing a basso relievo of a boy holding a cat. It was allegedly of 15th-century workmanship. The relic came into the possession of Samuel Lysons. Besant and Rice called this "remarkable proof" that the cat story was in the family, but Wheatley thought "this find, however, appears rather suspicious". This artwork could have been acquired after the cat legend was established, as American folklorist Jennifer Westwood points out,[aa] and the supposed "cat" looked more like a lamb to others. The cat has been preserved at the Gloucester Folk Museum (now called Gloucester Life Museum), but taken off display.
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