WHITTINGTON, Richard (d.1423), of London.
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Family and Education
Common councillor, Coleman Street Ward 31 July 1384-6;2 alderman of Broad Street Ward 12 Mar. 1393-aft. 24 June 1397, Lime Street Ward by 13 Feb. 1398-d.; mayor, London 8 June 1397-13 Oct. 1398, 13 Oct. 1406-7, 1419-20.3
Sheriff, London and Mdx. Mar. 1393-4.
Commr. to make arrests, London Mar., Apr. 1394, Nov. 1407; of gaol delivery Oct. 1397, June 1398; oyer and terminer Sept. 1401 (ransom of the count of Denia), Mar., Apr., Oct. 1403, Nov. 1405 (bis), May 1406, Nov. 1407, June, July 1409, May 1414, Feb. 1416, Dec. 1417, Nov. 1418; to supervise the collection of Peter’s Pence in England Aug. 1409; of inquiry, London Jan. 1412 (liability for taxation), Dec. 1412 (seizure of merchandise), Jan. 1414 (lollards at large), July 1418 (possessions of Sir John Oldcastle*); to administer revenues for building work at Westminster abbey Dec. 1413; recruit carpenters for the same Mar. 1414.
Warden, Mercers’ Co. 24 June 1395-6, 1401-2, 1408-9.4
Member of Henry IV’s council 1 Nov. 1399-18 July 1400.5
Collector of the wool custom, London 6 Oct. 1401-5 Nov. 1405, 20 Feb. 1407-26 July 1410.6
Receiver-general in England for Edward, earl of Rutland, by 7 May 1402.7
Although legend would have us believe that Richard rose from obscure beginnings to become the greatest Londoner of his day, his family was neither poor nor undistinguished. As the youngest son of Sir William Whittington, a minor Gloucestershire landowner, he could not, however, expect to inherit any property, and turned instead to trade. He had settled in London by 1379, when he contributed five marks towards the ‘gift’ by which the citizens hoped to persuade the great lords of the realm to restore their favour and patronage. Before long he was established as one of the City’s leading mercers, selling goods worth at least £2,000 to Richard II’s favourite, Robert de Vere, as well as doing business with Hugh, earl of Stafford, and his young sons. In 1383, for example, Stafford’s receiver-general paid £80 to the mercer, who went on supplying the comital household for many years to come. Among his other customers were Thomas of Woodstock, duke of Gloucester, for whose soul he made provision in his will, and the latter’s elder brother, John of Gaunt, along with his son, Henry of Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV; but it was largely through his connexion with the royal court that he came to acquire such great wealth and influence.10
Between 1392 and 1394 alone, Richard II spent almost £3,475 on merchandise bought from Whittington, whom he clearly held in high regard. Despite his personal attachment to King Richard, Whittington continued under Henry IV to provide luxury goods for the use of the Court, although never on the same scale as he had done during the 1390s. His increasing preoccupation with the demands of royal finance led him to take less interest in the mercer’s trade through which his fortune had been made, and to concentrate upon the use to which his capital could be put. From 23 Aug. 1388 to 23 July 1422, he made at least 59 separate loans to the Crown of sums ranging from £4 to £2,833.11 He began lending heavily in 1397, the year in which Richard II secured his appointment as mayor of London in succession to Adam Bamme*, who died suddenly in office; and he was the only Londoner to offer Richard II significant credit during the last years of his reign. It is, no doubt, a mark of Whittington’s special relationship with the King that most of his loans were repaid in cash rather than by Exchequer assignments. He also lent large sums of money to Henry IV and Henry V, but was then almost invariably obliged to do so on the security of forthcoming revenues, often from the wool custom in various ports. Since repayment usually took the form of a licence enabling him to export wool free of duty, Whittington inevitably acquired an interest in the wool trade. At first he lacked the necessary capital for investment because of the substantial loans made by him to ‘divers lords of the realm’, but by 1402 he was regularly shipping out cargoes of wool from London and Chichester.12 His appointment as a collector of the wool custom in the City, moreover, enabled him to obtain preferment over less influential royal creditors. It is impossible to discover exactly how much money Whittington advanced to the Crown, as many of his loans were raised jointly with other merchants. A number of leading public figures were likewise in his debt: Sir Simon Burley, another of Richard II’s favourites, borrowed 400 marks from him at some point before 1387 on the security of two coffers of jewels; and at a far later date he lent John Beaufort, earl of Somerset, 1,000 marks and Sir Thomas Talbot £100 to finance their military operations. It also looks as if Sir William Bourgchier* (later count of Eu, and husband of Anne, dowager countess of Stafford), was one of his clients, for in 1411 he was paying off an advance of £200 from the mercer.13
Although Whittington made no appreciable additions to his great fortune after 1407, he never attempted to secure what he had earned through investment in land. He owned a sizeable—but not remarkable—amount of property in London, which in 1412 brought him an income of £25 a year; however, in marked contrast to most affluent city merchants of the period, he showed no desire to build up an estate in the country. Had his wife, Alice, not predeceased her father, Sir Ivo Fitzwaryn, he might have become a landowner of consequence in the south-west, yet even here it appears that he was prepared to sell out his interest for cash. Sir Ivo actually settled certain property in Somerset and Wiltshire upon him and Alice, but he chose instead to offer the title to his brother-in-law, John Chideok*, for a lump sum of £340, preferring to realize his assets right away. Most of the land which came into his hands was, in fact, either already mortgaged or pledged as security for the payment of debts. In February 1394 he lent his uncle, Philip Maunsell, £500; the latter defaulted upon his obligations, but subsequently conveyed his manor of Over Lyppiat in Gloucestershire to Whittington by way of settlement.14 Again, at some point before February 1397, Whittington held property belonging to James Sparsholt and Richard Monmouth on the Oxfordshire border until the two men had fulfilled the terms of certain statutes merchant.15
A similar transaction made in October 1404 is of particular interest since it involved Whittington in one of the few lawsuits brought by him during his career, other than those in which he appeared alongside his brother, the principal litigant. John Hert and his future wife, Joan, then bound themselves by statute of the Staple of Westminster to pay Whittington £651 within four months. Whittington had still to recover the debt 11 years later, although he was by then in possession of Joan’s house on London Bridge, which had presumably been mortgaged to him as security. Her efforts to defame him by claiming that it was he who owed her money were proved false in the courts, and in June 1419 he successfully defended his reputation against this, the only recorded slander made upon it.16 Whittington possessed a title to other scattered property outside London, but in most cases his interest was merely that of a feoffee-to-uses. He was, however, granted land in Over Lyppiat by the Crown, and he is known to have owned houses in Gloucester. His connexion with Coventry is harder to establish, although he and his wife were members of the Trinity guild there. Clearly, Whittington had business associates throughout the Midlands, for in November 1412 he began a lawsuit in the court of common pleas against Thomas Chapman of Market Harborough for failing to render an account as one of his agents. Towards the end of his life, he acquired a title to the manor of Morton Underhill in Worcestershire and other land in Warwickshire, but again it seems likely that he was acting as a trustee for others.17
Richard Whittington played a full and active part in civic life for over 30 years, during which he also came to exercise considerable influence in national affairs as well. He was one of the 24 leading commoners of London who were summoned to attend Richard II at Nottingham in June 1392 and hear his condemnation of malpractices in the City. Shortly afterwards, in March 1393, he was made an alderman; and in June 1397 he became mayor of London as a result of Richard’s unprecedented decision to appoint his own nominee to that office. The citizens of London were in too vulnerable a position to oppose this breach of the established custom, although the barons of the Exchequer refused to take Whittington’s mayoral oath—a task which the King appears to have performed himself.18 The Londoners were, however, as anxious to retain a mayor who stood well at Court as Richard II was to keep such a useful and loyal supporter in office, and Whittington clearly fulfilled all these expectations. During the first session of the September 1397 Parliament (which saw the arrival in London of several large baronial retinues, and which marked Richard II’s triumph over his old enemies, the Lords Appellant of 1388), he personally saw to the keeping of law and order in the City. According to The Brut, he ‘ordeined at euery yate and yn euery warde strong wacche of men of armez and of archers, and prinspally at euery yate of London duryng this same parlement’.19 Not surprisingly, when he stood for reelection as mayor a few weeks later, his candidacy was approved by the citizens without difficulty or protest. Yet even he fell victim to King Richard’s financial exactions, for besides sealing a blank charter on behalf of the City, he was among the 28 distinguished persons summoned before the royal council in April 1398 almost certainly to place their own personal seals on similar documents. In August of that year he obtained a papal indult for plenary remission of sins as often as he pleased. Far more impressive evidence of his standing is to be found in his appointment in November 1399 as a member of the royal council. Recognizing the need to maintain good relations with the City and its rulers, the newly crowned Henry IV made every attempt to cultivate Whittington’s support. Several marks of royal favour were shown towards him: in October 1410, for example, when his wife, Alice, was suffering from a fatal illness, he was given special permission by the King to engage the Jewish doctor ‘Master Thomas Sampson from Mierbeawe’ to attend her in England.20
Whittington was almost certainly motivated more by a desire to influence matters of policy than the wish to make a financial profit out of his loans to the Crown, and there can be little doubt that he used his position as a royal creditor to achieve such an end. The contents of a letter sent by Robert, duke of Albany and regent of Scotland, to Richard, earl of Cambridge, shortly before the latter’s treasonable conspiracy in July 1415, show how powerful the mercer had indeed become. Albany agreed to further the plot by releasing the pretender who claimed to be Richard II in return for a suitable hostage. As regards the latter, the duke was ready to accept any one of 18 prominent Englishmen, including the bishop of Norwich, the earl of Westmorland and two Londoners, one being the wealthy goldsmith, Drew Barantyn*, and the other Richard Whittington.21 In the City, Whittington’s reputation and authority were even greater. When, in 1400, two clerks of the privy seal sought to advance one of their own candidates as gaoler of Newgate, they felt that the most influential people to approach on his behalf would be the archbishop of Canterbury and Richard Whittington.22 A zealous, and perhaps unrealistic advocate of price control, he quarrelled repeatedly with the brewers over the rising price of ale. In 1422, during his third and last mayoralty, the wardens of the Brewers’ Company were fined for over-charging by a reluctant court of aldermen ‘bot for to plese Richard Whityngton, for he was cause of alle the forsaid juggement’. He was also prominent as a judge in a series of trials for usury held in London at this time, being a man whose rectitude in business matters was evidently above suspicion. His experience in dealing with the complex finances of London Bridge clearly stood him in good stead when it came to assisting in the endowment of the new bridge at Rochester. His contributions of money and advice earned him a place in the list of patrons, for whom obits were annually performed.23
Although he attended six of the parliamentary elections held in London between 1413 and his death, Whittington sat in only one Parliament—that of October 1416—during the whole of his career. He may well have sought election on this particular occasion because of a family feud involving his brother, Robert, and his nephew, Guy*, although their quarrel with Richard Oldcastle did not turn violent until the session was actually in progress. Father and son then took advantage of their kinsman’s presence in the House of Commons to present a petition complaining about their recent maltreatment at Oldcastle’s hands. It is worth noting, moreover, that Whittington’s friend and executor, John Coventry, and other members of the Mercers’ Company also had business before the House regarding their dealings with the master of the Mint at the Tower of London, so he had an interest to defend there, too.24
Whittington died early in 1423, and was buried beside his wife, Alice, in a tomb which he had built in the church of St. Michael Paternoster. In his will he made provision for the foundation of almshouses and a college of secular priests attached to the church. The ordinances drawn up by his executors for maintaining the almshouses include instructions for prayers to be said for the souls of Richard II and Thomas, duke of Gloucester. Among his other bequests he made provision for the support of ‘yong wemen that hadde done a-mysse in trust of good mendement’ at St. Thomas’s hospital, Southwark, as well as additional works of more conventional piety.25 In all, he appears to have left over £5,000 in ready money, jewels and plate, as well as his London property and whatever possessions he had retained in the country. He had no children, nor, after the turn of the century, does he appear to have made any close personal friendships. It is, however, worth noting that in February 1414 he offered bail of 1,000 marks on behalf of Sir Thomas Beauchamp*, who had been implicated in the unsuccessful lollard rising staged by Sir John Oldcastle*, a few weeks earlier. This undertaking may, of course, have been no more than a business transaction, but it is possible that Whittington had some sympathy for the views of the reformers, even though he served on two royal commissions directed against them.26 All in all, his success in life and his generosity to the City served to perpetuate his memory as one of the greatest merchant princes of medieval England. Within just a few years of his death, the foundations of the Whittington legend were already being laid. In 1436, the author of The Libelle of Englyshe Polyce, a polemic in favour of mercantile expansion, provided a fulsome epitaph:
And in worship nowe think I on the sonne Of marchaundy Richarde of Whitingdone, That loodes starre and chefe chosen floure. Whate hathe by hym oure England of honoure, And whate profite hathe bene of his richesse, And yet lasteth dayly in worthinesse, That penne and papere may not me suffice Him to describe, so high he was of prise, Above marchaundis to sett him one the beste! I can no more, but God have hym in reste.27
C66/347 m. 32v, 349 m. 35v.
Ref Volumes: 1386-1421
This biography relies heavily upon C.M. Barron’s detailed study ‘Richard Whittington’, Studies in London Hist. ed. Hollaender and Kellaway, 197-248. Unless otherwise stated, information provided in the text is taken from this article.