On the 29th September a new lord Mayor of London will be elected by the Aldermen of the city and take office amidst all the traditional pomp and ceremony that London is so renowned for. The Lord Mayoral office is an ancient role dating back to the reign of Richard the Lionheart and his brother bad King John. It was King John who in 1215 shortly after agreeing to The Magna Carta gave the barons of London the right to choose their own mayor, with the attendant right to lend their king as much money as possible !
The election of the Lord Mayor is followed six weeks later by the resplendent Lord Mayors’ show when floats of all shapes and sizes, together with marching bands, dancers and all types of strange vehicles process through the city. This procession has a historical purpose , it is enacted in order to accompany The Lord Mayor on his (or her) journey to The Royal Courts of Justice where the declaration of office is made and witnessed. Once upon a time the procession would have been waterborne as depicted in this famous picture by Canaletto and thus the floats would truly have been floating .
But why , you may be asking yourselves is a blogger about myths writing about an office of state such as the lord Mayor of London. Simply this dear reader, one of our most cherished children’s pantomime stories owes its origins to an actual Lord Mayor of London , this of course was the infamous Dick Whittington. For a devotee of myths and legends this one is fascinating because the process of transformation from reality into mythic tale is actually visible in the historical records, a very rare eventuality.
The pantomime story goes something like this :- Dick Whittington, a poor orphan from the country comes to London, where he believes the streets are paved with gold, to seek his fortune. He finds work in the kitchens of a rich merchant but he is badly treated by the cook and runs away home again. On his way back to the country he pauses a while on Highgate Hill where he hears the bells ring out ………
Turn again Whittington thrice Mayor of London
So he turns and goes back to the kitchens whereupon he finds that his cat ( did I mention the cat!) has been sold for an enormous sum of money to the King of the Barbary Coast. The cat was apparently an excellent rat catcher and the Barbary Coast had been experiencing a plague of them ! This then makes our hero Dick a very rich man and he consequently marries the merchant’s daughter Alice, becomes very successful, eventually becoming Lord Mayor of London and they all live happily ever after.
Oh yes they did……
Oh no they didn’t’ …….
It’s a lovely story and one that we have all grown up with, but what is the reality behind the myth, was there truly a poor orphan country boy who rose to become the Lord Mayor of London ?
Londoners certainly think so because on the very spot where Dick allegedly heard the famous bells they have placed an ancient stone marker, surrounded by stout iron railings and accompanied by a chubby cat, as a monument to their legendary Mayor. It is generally believed that Dick was born Richard Whittington, son of a country squire Sir William Whittington in the county of Gloucestershire round about the 1350s. Neither poor nor an orphan then but a younger son and younger sons had a need to find their fortunes as small estates were not divided but passed to the eldest son solely. He was probably sent to London rather than coming as a runaway and was apprenticed to a rich merchant Sir Ivo Fitzwarren , rather than working in his kitchens. Sir Ivo did indeed have a daughter called Alice and it was probably not the done thing for the daughter of the house to marry a poor apprentice boy. However, Richard was a very good apprentice and became a very successful trader in valuable textiles such as silk and velvet , impressing his future father in law and winning the hand of the lovely Alice.
As Richard’s career as a mercer progressed he came to the notice of the King , partly because the monarchy as usual was heavily in debt to the merchants of London. This king was Richard II and he chose our Dick to be his mayor in 1390, a solid historical fact. Dick was subsequently re-elected as Mayor another three times and thus the legend was born.
Dick became a very wealthy man and gradually included money lending amongst his activities, he had many distinguished clients including, John of Gaunt and his brother the Duke of Gloucester as well as King Richard II. The historical records indicate that Richard Whittington, as a master mercer, sourced the exquisite materials required for the weddings of Henry IV’s daughters Blanche and Philippa. He later financed the military ambitions of the most famous Lancastrian King Henry V himself and was thus instrumental in bringing about the success of the English at the battle of Agincourt (Hatfield 2015).
Richard Whittington used his wealth not only to further the ambitions of the monarchy but also to bring relief to his fellow Londoners, he was very much a Bill Gates of the medieval world. He financed a ward for unmarried mothers at St. Thomas’ hospital, had a public lavatory built by the side of the Thames with no less than 64 seats for the gentlemen and 64 seats for the ladies, a sight to behold I am sure! This deed alone must have ensured his legendary status!!
The list of his charitable endowments goes on and on :- drinking fountains; repairs to Newgate prison; almshouses; libraries; repairs to St. Bartholomew’s hospital; the building of St. Michael Paternoster church; as well as a total of £7000 bequeathed to charity in his will. He was a great public servant, serving as mayor of London in 1397, 1406 and 1407 , becoming an M.P. in 1416 as well as serving many times as a magistrate and a judge . He really cared for the people of his city even thinking of the overworked little apprentice boys by passing a law prohibiting the washing of animal skins in the Thames; because many young boys had died of hypothermia or drowned in the strong river currents. You begin to see why the people of London took him to their hearts and raised him to legendary status in the years after his death ( Hatfield 2015).
We know little about Richard Whittington’s private life except that he was married to Alice Fitzwarren and that they lived together in a sizable property in Paternoster Row near to the St Michael Paternoster church that he had endowed. Richard died childless in 1423 leaving the vast majority of his wealth to charitable causes. But he did not die in the realms of myth and legend, his perfect fairy story of a life, that took him from rags to riches just like Cinderella, made him the stuff of legend , this together with his caring nature and charitable deeds turned him into the Robin Hood of London storytellers and the perfect subject for a pantomime.
Dick Whittington is the only popular pantomime based on a real life person but as we have seen the reality and the myth intermixed to become a perfect fairy tale for the theatre, a pantomime story that took a mere 400 years in the making.
British pantomime has developed from various sources into the rather strange uniquely British art-form that it is today; containing girls dressed as boys ! men dressed as women! a great deal of rather risqué innuendo, some infantile slapstick and much singing and dancing always leading to a happy ever after ending !
Where on earth did it all begin?
We can trace the origins of pantomime back to the Romans’ Fabulae Attelanae , these were rustic, earthy, improvised farces beloved of the plebs and first performed in the countryside of the Campania in southern Italy . They used stereotypical characters such as the simpleton and the old fool and the plots were handed down orally from generation to generation until being set down as a literary form in the first century B.C (Lathan 2004). These traditional farces remained as part of rural life for many centuries , gradually developing into the Commedia dell’Arte of the 16th Century whose most renowned character, Harlequin, we still see popping up today . Here we really see the background for our pantomimes, The Commedia had many components, acrobats, clowning, dance, music, slapstick, farce and of course always a love story. The performers wore half-masks and standardized costumes so that the audience would always recognize them . Harlequin in his diamond patterned tunic and tights is immediately recognizable so the audience always knew how his story would progress . He was and is the subversive servant who manipulates the story and creates satire and humour , one of the ordinary folk himself but he always manages to out-maneuver the unsuspecting and slightly brainless rich boys, much to the audiences’ delight.
The Commedia spread through France where it intermixed with ballet-pantomimes or dance mimes and these in turn spread to England and became quite the rage in 17th century London. England after The Restoration of the Monarchy was a very ribald place, there was a taste for low-brow entertainment such as carnival, circus and pantomime , a need to be rude and risqué after the austere years of Cromwell and the puritan restraints. Into this atmosphere came The Italian Night Scenes, as the Commedia productions were known, they were called Italian but used English settings such as an Inn or a Fair and the central character was always Harlequin . They were performed at Lincoln’s Inn Fields to begin with, but soon their popularity grew and they spread all around the country. After these beginnings the genre developed its peculiarly British trappings by adding some burlesque and later some music-hall influences.
Pantomime was always meant to be rude and risqué and what better way to do this then to have the steamy cross-dressing innuendos that we still love today. The pantomime dames have their origins in the literary theatre of Shakespearean England where women actors were banned and all female parts had to be played by men. It was quite a commonplace affair in 16th century England for a man to play an old lady therefore and Pantomime just took this a bit further by turning a straightforward female role into a pantomime dame with all its attendant humour and burlesque.
Principal boys , who are always girls dressed as boys, come from this era of ribaldry and risqué as well. Women were banned on stage until 1660 and then suddenly they were permitted to dance, to sing, to act , to be admired. What better way to bring in the audiences than to have a very pretty girl, dressed as a boy in a short tunic and breeches, slapping her thighs and showing off her legs, a sure winner for the theatre impresarios.
Later when music hall was at its height , an obvious move would be to cast a popular music hall singer, such as Marie LLoyd, as principal boy in a pantomime, that way the audience could appreciate both her lovely voice and her lovely figure!!
The legendary story of Dick Whittington is therefore a wonderful mix of fact and fiction as indeed are all good legends. He was Lord Mayor of London thrice and he did marry Alice the daughter of the rich merchant who employed him after he came to London to seek his fortune. His father though was not a pauper and Dick was not an orphan when he was sent to London just a younger son with limited prospects. Whether or not he heard Bow Bells ring out Turn again Whittington is hard to say , probably not , but there is a stone marker stating very clearly that here is the definite spot where it happened so who are we to doubt that it did!!
He did not possess a cat as far as any records show , there is some conjecture that there might be a cat name associated with one of his ships, a Catt, and this would make sense as his fortune came from shipping fine silks and may therefore be a metaphor for his ship coming in . Another theory is the engraving by Robert Elstrache which is a portrait of Richard Whittington originally with his hand resting on a skull , allegedly an unpopular image which was consequently substituted for a cat .
Certainly the cat adds wondrously to the fairy tale elements of the story , lending it an Eastern flavor and giving us the marvelous character of King Rat to add to the atmosphere of the pantomime. We all love to hiss and shout at the evil wrong-doers in the pantomimes and watch the principal boy and girl outdo their evil intentions.
So well done to Richard Whittington for being truly the stuff of legends and well done to Londoners for preserving his spirit and turning him into a source of fun and pleasure for all generations to enjoy. He would have appreciated that I feel.
Hatfield. E. ( 2015) London’s Lord Mayors. 800 years of Shaping the City.
Lathan.P. ( 2004) It’s Behind You.