Cambridge Historical Reader: Primary - Cambridge Press

The Story of Richard Whittington

Most of you have read of Dick Whittington and his cat—of the way in which a poor boy sold his pet cat for a large sum of money and was a rich man for the rest of his life. In this chapter, you will read what we believe to be the true story of Sir Richard Whittington.

In the reign of Edward III, there lived in the county of Gloucestershire a gentleman named Sir William Whittington. When he died, he left three sons, William, Robert and Richard. When the two elder brothers grew up to be men, each had an estate to live on; but there was very little left for the youngest.

Now Dick, as we may call him, had often heard his mother speak of a rich merchant, named Sir John Fitzwarren, who lived in the great city of London. She had known him when a boy, and, although she had not seen him for many years, still looked upon him as a friend.

So she sent a message to him, asking him if he would take her youngest son as an apprentice, to learn the trade of a mercer, for that was what Sir John was called. When, therefore, Dick's mother heard that her old friend was ready to take her boy, she felt pleased indeed.

Thus we find the lad, at the age of fourteen, setting out for the great city. We do not think he went alone. Very likely he travelled with a number of people for safety, as there were many robbers in those days, who were only too ready to rob lonely travellers.

On the journey, which would take four or five days, Dick would hear from his fellow travellers about the wonders of London. He would hear of the king and his court, of great feasts and merry-makings, of the ships in the river and of many other things, new and strange to a country lad.

But it is quite likely that, for a little while, Dick would feel lonely in his master's home. So we can very well fancy him saying, "I'll not stay here any longer, but will go back to the old place."

We can imagine him getting up early, walking as fast as he could and then stopping to rest on Highgate hill. While sitting there, he could very well hear the bells of Bow church, in Cheapside, and, as they rang, they seemed to say, "Turn again, Whittington, Lord Mayor of London." He then resolved to go back, and do his best to make the message of the bells come true.

We feel sure that, during his seven years as an apprentice, his master would be very kind to him, and would see that he learnt his trade well. Dick would have to work hard; but, all through the year, there would be many things to amuse him, in his spare time. Sometimes, he would go with lads of his own age to a place named Moor-fields, where in winter there would be skating and sliding. When there was no frost, they could play at quarterstaff or football. In summer, there would be archery or wrestling for the 'prentice lads.

Bow Church, Cheapside


Now, Dick's master, besides selling silks, satins and cloth of gold, often sent ships to countries far away to trade with the people there. Thus, the lad would get a chance to talk to sailors, who would tell him of the wonders of far-off lands.

Some people do not think there is any truth in the story of Dick's cat. But he may have had a cat, and may have sent it by one of the sailors, to a place where these animals were of great value. Then, with the money he got for it, he would start as a trader, like his master, and perhaps soon have a ship of his own. This he would very likely call "The Cat," in honour of the little animal which gave him a start in life.

Anyway, we know that, by the time he was thirty, Richard Whittington was a rich man. He did become mayor of London, holding that great office no less than three times. He was so rich that he lent king Henry V a very large sum of money, to pay his soldiers in the French wars.

While he was mayor for the third time, Whittington gave a great feast to the king and queen. Everything was of the best of its kind, and even the fires were made of cedar wood. Now, when Sir Richard lent the king money, he would get in return a written promise, or bond, saying that the money would be repaid.

Well, during this feast, Sir Richard threw the bond into the fire in the sight of the king and queen. This meant that he was making the king a present of the money. You may be sure this pleased king Henry very much, for he said, "Any king ought to be proud to have Sir Richard Whittington for a subject." To this, the polite knight replied, "Any subject ought to be proud of having such a king."

We also read, that Sir Richard married Alice, the daughter of his old master, and made many rich gifts to the city of London. He built schools for the young, almshouses for the old and hospitals for the sick.