The City of London is a palimpsest richer and deeper than any rural historic monument arrested in time by the National Trust. In the Square Mile, the overriding daily demands of moneymaking have layered a global centre of digitised finance over a Victorian counting house. Beneath, is a medieval banking hub. Somewhere, near the bottom, is an imperial Roman commercial outpost.
If this unsentimental place has a hero, it is Dick Whittington, four times mayor of London. The hick from the sticks who makes it big in the metropolis never loses his currency. Pantomimes featuring a thigh-slapping youth with a magical cat play every Christmas in theatres across the UK.
Michael McCarthy, author and former politics lecturer, has chronicled the life of the historical Richard Whittington, whose career spanned the reigns of Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V, and in Citizen of London explains how he inspired an archetype.
Elements of the myth perish along the way. No cat is mentioned in scanty documentation of the merchant’s life. The feline, curiously similar to Puss In Boots in its ability to improve its owner’s fortunes, only became part of the Whittington story two centuries after his death in 1423.
Nor did Whittington start out as a poor scullion, so oppressed he fled London only to be lured back by the prophetic chiming of Bow bells. Instead, his apprenticeship was a career opportunity as valuable as a traineeship at Goldman Sachs or JPMorgan would be today. It made Whittington the protégé of Ivo Fitzwarin, a powerful merchant and soldier, and a member of his household.
Whittington later joined the family by marrying Alice, one of Fitzwarin’s daughters. That was fortuitous. But the establishment of Whittington as a City merchant in his own right was always part of the plan. It was the reason the Whittingtons, minor Gloucestershire landowners, would have apprenticed their superfluous son to Fitzwarin in the first place.
Whittington would have received a leg-up proportionate to his potential usefulness as a commercial and political ally in the seething streets of the medieval City. He made the grade. When he was only 21, he contributed a generous five marks to a bung from local merchants to “the great lords of the realm”. Fitzwarin had likely staked Whittington some working capital, returns on which allowed Whittington to start his career as a City bigwig in style.
The two men were mercers, traders in silks, damasks and other luxury fabrics. The rise of Whittington in parallel with that of his guild is at the heart of McCarthy’s engaging but necessarily suppositional book. It marks the transition of mercers from fancy goods pedlars to international merchants and bankers.
Mercery predisposed practitioners towards international trade. Long supply chains required more sophisticated financing than short, local ones. So did dealing with the King of England. This was a dangerous game at which Whittington became accomplished.
When Shakespeare prudently pilloried Richard II and praised usurper Henry IV two centuries later, it reflected a reality. The Plantagenet monarch Richard was a spendthrift. He dressed in the finest fabrics and ensured his court did the same. Buying cloth of gold on credit easily shaded into borrowing directly from Whittington.
He was the go-to guy because he was a risk taker. He kept substantial capital in liquid assets instead of tying it up in property as peers did. This allowed him to seize urgent opportunities.
Absolute rulers have never been the most reliable debtors. But Whittington was sharp enough to realise a loan need not be repaid in cash. One alternative was royal backing to become mayor and tilt the axis of City power towards the mercers and against their deadly rivals, the grocers and brewers. Another substitute was the franchise to collect duty on England’s hefty wool experts, advancing money upfront to the crown in return for future, recurring revenues.
The monarch was too grand to calculate the return on that trade. Whittington was not.
His bequests to build almshouses and modernise Newgate’s horrendous jail are the reason his name lived on, McCarthy surmises, spawning the Dick Whittington myth.
The life of the real Richard Whittington has lessons more useful to today’s ambitious young financiers than reliance on the mouse-catching abilities of a pet cat. Make wealthy friends. Woo powerful clients with flexible terms of business. Donate generously to charity. It could all pay a long-lasting reputational dividend.
Citizen of London: Richard Whittington — The Boy Who Would Be Mayor by Michael McCarthy Hurst £25, 432 pages
Jonathan Guthrie is the head of Lex
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