A Mayor’s Best Friend

With the annual Lord Mayor’s show coming up this weekend (surely a sign, after Halloween and Bonfire Night, that the pre-Christmas run up is in full swing), it got me thinking of one of London’s most famous Lord Mayors, the celebrated cat owner Richard Whittington.

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Born in 1354, this four times Lord Mayor of London was so renown during his lifetime as a wealthy merchant, politician, benefactor and friend of the Royal Court, that centuries later he became immortalised in English folklore as “Dick Whittington”.  A tale that has been shared with children throughout the generations and one of the few, all be it loosely, to have been inspired by a real person.

However, according to folklore, Dick Whittington was no lone hero, he was part of a double act, one where his partner, a cat, got equal billing and helped make Dick’s fortune by chasing rats – an important skill in post plague ravaged London. Unfortunately, in reality it would seem that this “purrfect” pairing may never have existed.  Portraits showing Richard Whittington with a cat, such as the popular 17th Century engraving by Renold Elstrache, in which Whittington’s hand is resting on a cat, have since been shown to have been altered to conform with the story already in existence and to increase sales of the print – yes, cat lovers were a powerful force even back then.

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Due to a lack of solid evidence to support the existence of a feline associate, speculation as to the origins of the connection between Richard Whittington and his cat continues.  Perhaps it arose from the type of boat he used for trading and which made him his fortune, known as a “cat”,  or possibly the word evolved over time from the French word achat, meaning to purchase – both seem plausible, if pretty disappointing explanations for those that were hoping for a real life feline side kick

There was one slight glimmer of hope in 1949 when, whilst searching for Whittington’s remains, a mummified cat’s body was discovered in the church where Whittington was originally buried in 1423. However, it’s since been pointed out that the church of St. Michael Patenoster Royal in the city of London was burnt down in the Great Fire of 1666 and re-built by Sir Christopher Wren – could he have planted the cat as a joke or reference to  “Dick” Whittington? We shall never know for sure but as folklore and pantomime have brought them together for centuries perhaps we should leave them that way, following their path to London like many others since them, looking to make their fortune on the streets paved with gold.

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