Richard Whittington’s career
Nothing is known of Whittington’s early career – by 1379 he was already wealthy enough to contribute to a gift made by the City of London to the nobles of the land. He must have served an apprenticeship as a mercer, learning the trade of dealing in valuable textiles from abroad, such as silks, velvets and cloth of gold. The main market for these luxury imports was the royal court, and Whittington supplied large quantities to King Richard II (who owed Whittington £1000 when he was deposed in 1399) and to King Henry IV. Whittington became rich. After 1388 he often lent large sums of money to the king. In return he was allowed to export wool without paying customs duty on it.
He became a City alderman in 1393, a sheriff in the same year, and warden (master) of the Mercers’ Company in 1395. In 1397 the mayor, Adam Bamme, died in office and King Richard II chose Whittington to replace him. He was re-elected mayor the following year, and again for 1406-7 and 1419-20.
In 1402 Whittington acquired a large house near the church of St Michael Paternoster Royal, in the centre of the City, and at about this time he married Alice, the daughter of Sir Ivo Fitzwarin of Wantage, Berkshire. They had no children, and Alice died in about 1411.
Whittington’s benefactions began during his lifetime, when he paid for a ward at St Thomas’s hospital for the care of unmarried mothers, and the ‘longhouse’, a public lavatory beside the Thames with 64 seats for men and 64 seats for women. With no family to bequeath his wealth to, he left his fortune of about £7000 (equivalent to £7 million today) to be spent on good works. The almshouse he founded, which originally stood on a site between his own great house and the church of St Michael Paternoster Royal, was maintained by the Mercers’ Company. It still exists in the form of a small estate providing accommodation for old people in Felbridge, on the border of Surrey and Sussex.