Richard Whittington: a famous benefactor of Rochester Bridge


This year sees the 600th anniversary of the death of Richard Whittington, thrice-elected Mayor of London and a legend thanks to his many philanthropic deeds. Commemorative events have been taking place in the City of London, but did you know the Trust has its own link to this famous historical figure?

Richard was one of four sons of Sir William Whittington of Gloucestershire, who was an MP for the county. He was not the eldest son and would therefore not inherit his father’s estate, so he travelled to London to become an apprentice mercer – a dealer in high quality textiles such as silk and velvet.

Such was his eventual success and subsequent wealth, that he came to move in the highest of circles and even supplied fabrics to Richard II – the same king who confirmed creation of the Wardens and Commonalty of Rochester Bridge (now Rochester Bridge Trust) in 1399.

But back to 1393, by which time Richard Whittington was a City Alderman, and soon in a position to loan money to the Royal Exchequer. In return, he received royal favours and in 1397 was made Mayor of London.

He died in March 1423 and was buried at the parish church of St Michael Pater Noster, in the City of London (where his wife Alice was buried).

So – apart from the previously mentioned king – how does the Rochester Bridge Trust fit into this story?

Whittington had been a Warden of London Bridge, meaning he was familiar with the management of complex finances and was also in contact with William Sevenoke who happened to be one of the Trust’s financial agents in London, drumming up financial support for Rochester Bridge.

When Whittington died without any living children, his executors dispersed his fortune to a number of charities, including £40 given to the Rochester Bridge Trust as arranged by William Sevenoke.

The Trust has documentary evidence of the legacy within its extensive archive collection. This extract is taken from the Wardens’ Roll of 1423/1424 and lists the amount Whittington’s estate gave, along with several other donations and legacies.

According to the National Archives website, the amount of £40 was the modern day equivalent of around £25,000.

During his life, Whittington was very much a philanthropist and funded many projects, including the first public toilet catering for both men and women. Providing seats for 128 people, it was known as Whittington’s Longhouse.

He also helped fund drainage projects; a ward for single women at St Thomas’ hospital; a college for priests in his own parish, as well as alms houses; he paid towards the rebuilding of his parish church and the City’s Guildhall.

His legacy helped establish the famous Guildhall Library, and a charity in his name still distributes funds via the Mercers Company.

One final detail about Richard Whittington. The original church where he is buried was lost in the Great Fire of London, meaning the exact location of his tomb is unknown. This also means there is no contemporary likeness of him, for instance a brass rubbing from his tomb.

The much published picture of him dates from the early 1600s, by which time he had already achieved legend status. The original picture was drawn with him holding a skull, but it was not as popular was when the skull was exchanged for a – rather odd-looking – cat. Houses in the middle ages may have kept cats to keep vermin at bay, but there is no evidence of the super cat attached to his legend.


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