Everyone in England knows of the story of Dick Whittington and his cat. The tale of the poor boy who becomes Lord Mayor of London has been a staple of British pantomimes since at least the nineteenth century. But where did this classic home-grown English fairy tale come from? And what basis did the Dick Whittington story have in reality? In this post, we’ll offer a brief plot summary of the story and then discuss its origins and meaning, with some notes towards an analysis of the Dick Whittington ‘legend’.
In summary, then: Dick Whittington is a poor boy whose mother and father have both died. He lives in a poor parish and has nothing to eat and no work, so stays alive by eating whatever scraps he can find or beg for. He has heard exciting stories about a glorious city called London, whose streets, the stories say, are paved with gold. So one day, when a wagon comes through the village on its way to London, Dick befriends the wagoner and travels with him to London.
When he arrives in London, however, Dick Whittington is very disappointed to discover that the streets are not paved with gold, but with dirt. There is no work, and no food. Tired and starving, he sits outside the home of a wealthy merchant named Mr Fitzwarren, but the cook tries to shoo him away. Luckily, Fitzwarren returns home for dinner and sees the boy and takes pity on him when Dick explains how he has tried to find work but hasn’t eaten for three days. Fitzwarren takes Dick into his home, feeds him, and gives him employment as the cook’s assistant.
The cook doesn’t like Dick Whittington one bit, and makes his life a misery, scolding him and beating him – that is, until Alice, the merchant’s daughter, intervenes and tells the cook to stop mistreating Dick. Dick sleeps in a small garret at the top of the merchant’s house, and the garret is overrun with mice and rats. When Dick earns a penny for shining a man’s shoes, he buys a cat from a girl, and the cat becomes his mouser, solving the rat infestation problem for him.
When Mr Fitzwarren is making a venture overseas, he asks everyone in his household to put something forward to send away to sea and make their fortune. But as Dick Whittington only has his cat, he reluctantly parts with that, and sends it to sea. The cook – annoyed that Alice and others in the house are showing the orphan boy such kindness – takes against him even more, and starts taunting him for sending his cat to sea to make his fortune for him.
Poor Dick felt so miserable that he decided to leave London, so he packed together his few belongings and left the merchant’s house, getting as far as Highgate Hill, where he sat down and rested on a stone (called ‘Whittington’s stone’ to this day; there is a statue of the cat, pictured right, to commemorate the supposed site of Dick’s change of heart). But at that moment he heard the bells of Bow Church in Cheapside ringing, and he thought they were saying to him, ‘Turn again, Whittington, Lord Mayor of London!’ He took this as a sign, so he turned back and returned to the merchant’s house.
Meanwhile, Dick Whittington’s cat has proved herself resourceful on the ship’s voyage to north Africa, killing all the rats on board. When the captain is dining with the king and queen of the kingdom, he discovers they are overrun with rodents, and offers to sell them Dick Whittington’s cat, arguing for a good price. When the cat comes in and proves what a good mouser she is, the king and queen see that she and her kittens would prove invaluable to the kingdom, so they give the captain a huge sum of money for her.
When the captain arrives back in London, he tells the merchant about the huge fortune he had received for Dick Whittington’s cat, and the merchant insists that Dick keep all of the money and become a gentleman. Dick is too kind-hearted to keep every penny, so he makes a gift to everyone, such as Alice, the merchant’s daughter, and even the cook who had beaten him. Now he was a gentleman, and treated Alice so well, Mr Fitzwarren proposed that Dick and his daughter should marry, which they did. They had several children, Dick Whittington was Lord Mayor of London three times, and he was knighted by the King, Henry V.
That, in summary, is what happens in the traditional fairy tale of Dick Whittington and his cat. However, perhaps the term ‘fairy tale’ is inaccurate for this story, since there is nothing supernatural about it: Dick makes his fortune through a series of fortunate but entirely natural events, and through the kindness showed him by Mr Fitzwarren and Alice. His cat, of course, plays her part, being exceptionally good at catching mice and rats.
Instead, if we can classify the story of Dick Whittington as a fairy tale, it is because it contains many of the plot features we associate with classic fairy tales: it has an orphan child as its protagonist, who absents himself from home at the earliest opportunity (a common feature of fairy stories and folk tales). It is a ‘rags to riches’ tale: again, a common trope in many children’s fairy tales. It features an animal helper who proves invaluable in making the hero his fortune. And although it relies less on the ‘rule of three’ than many other fairy stories, it’s worth noting that Dick hasn’t eaten for three days when Mr Fitzwarren takes pity on him, and Dick later becomes Lord Mayor of London (note that Mayor of London, a much more recent office, is a twenty-first-century role and different from the ancient office of Lord Mayor) three times. Of course, the hero from humble origins ‘gets the girl’, too, and marries, if not a princess, then a wealthy merchant’s daughter who was (at least originally) his social superior.
Dick Whittington was a real figure: Richard Whittington (1354-1423) was indeed a wealthy merchant who became Lord Mayor of London (three times). However, the real ‘Dick’ Whittington didn’t come from humble origins, and no accounts of the real Whittington even mention him owning a cat. The story as we know it was around by the early seventeenth century, in a ballad of 1612 by Richard Johnson, who mentions the cat that made Whittington his fortune and the detail about Whittington fleeing London, only to be called back by the sound of Bow bells.
But the association between Dick Whittington and his cat must have been around earlier than this. In 1605, in the play Eastward Hoe (co-written by Ben Jonson, George Chapman, and John Marston), we find the line, ‘When the famous fable of Whittington and his puss shall be forgotten’, which suggests the story was of some vintage even by the early seventeenth century.
Yet why Whittington became the (largely fictional) protagonist for the famous tale is by no means clear. It’s true that the real Whittington did marry a lady named Alice Fitzwarren, and became Lord Mayor of London, but he was not a poor orphan boy and as far as we know, he didn’t have a cat to thank for the making of his fortune. Where did the cat come from?
In the 1634 Italian book Pentamerone, in a fairy tale that is a forerunner to the Puss in Boots story, we find the story of a beggar’s son who inherited nothing from his father but a cat. The cat promised to make him rich, and every morning the cat went to catch fish which it took to the King of Naples, claiming they were from a mysterious benefactor named Lord Gagliuso. Eventually, the King wanted to meet this generous Lord, so on the day on which a meeting was arranged, the cat turned up and pretended that his master had had all of his possessions stolen in the night, so he didn’t even have any clothes to wear in which to visit the King. The King sent some of his own clothes (via the cat), and the cat promptly gave them to the beggar’s son and told him to dress up in them. The beggar’s son was wined and dined by the King, and the cat told the King that ‘Lord Gagliuso’ was so wealthy that the King would be wise to forge an alliance with his Lord. The beggar’s son ends up married to the Princess, the cat having negotiated a large dowry from the King for the marriage – money which ‘Gagliuso’ used to buy a large estate.
This tale obviously features some similarities with the Dick Whittington story: the useful feline helper, and the boy who builds himself up from nothing to marry a wealthy woman and become very rich himself. All thanks to a cat. Which version influenced which (if either) we cannot say, but the story of the real Richard Whittington may well have been reworked into a version of the ‘poor boy and his cat’ motif we find in other fairy tales like ‘Puss in Boots’ – perhaps as an attempt to create an English equivalent of the Italian story that later found its way into the Pentamerone.
Image: by Duncan Harris via Wikimedia Commons.