Discover more from The Chatner
Very Slight Counterfactuals: Dick Whittington Has Children
One of the earliest “counterfactual histories,” published in 1931, was an anthology called If It Had Happened Otherwise, edited by J.C. Squire, with contributions from Hilaire Belloc on Louis XVI’s flight to Varennes, G.K. Chesterton on Mary Queen of Scotts, Winston Churchill on the Battle of Gettysburg, and H.A.L. Fisher on Napoleon.
“In our own lives ‘If’ usually takes the form of ‘If only,’ and generally carries with it implications of regret: it is seldom that one hears oneself or anybody else say, ‘If only I had not done so-and-so I should not be so rich, wise, successful, and noble as i now am.’ As we confront history, happily, we do not (as we tend to do with regard to our personal lives) presume that, had it not been for some trivial thing, all would have been better, and even well. Though history be, as Gibbon remarked, (but he was talking of history as then written) ‘the record of the crimes and follies of mankind,’ we do sometimes think that if something had happened differently things would be worse. Of course, in respect to many things, much depends on the point of view…
But few would pause and sadly think, when presented with the conjecture ‘If Sodom and Gomorrah had not been destroyed,’ on how much brighter the subsequent human story would have been had the ‘calamity’ been averted.1 And none, I imagine, could feel a pang of regret at the question ‘If Tyrrell’s arrow had missed William Rufus.’2”
Speaking only for myself, I like the smallest counterfactuals best. Let us confine ourselves today to the figure of Richard Whittington, better known to you as Dick Whittington, “thrice Lord Mayor of London.”
If you are not English — and why on earth should you be — you may only have a vague sense of Dick Whittington, and what little you do know of him likely comes from the children’s book Dick Whittington and His Cat, by the well-known illustrator Marcia Brown (pushing it a bit — perhaps you know him from the Platt & Munk Co. 1934 rhyming edition, the one where the boy Dick Whittington sits looking forlornly at London with a Robin’s Hood cap on). You may only have the dimmest sense of what a Lord Mayor of London does that’s distinct from the regular mayor; none of that is especially important.3
He was Lord Mayor of London as often as FDR was president, which is to say technically four (appointed once, thereafter elected) times, as well as a Member of Parliament and at some point also one of the Sheriffs of London4. Before that, and probably just as importantly, he was a very wealthy merchant who subsidized a number of pretty-consequential public works projects during the late medieval era, and since he died without heirs, he left all his money to create the Charity of Sir Richard Whittington, which still exists today. (Later on he became the subject of a well-known folktale and pantomime in which for some reason, a spell of rat-catching was added in his rags-to-riches story.5 This is also not important.)
But being a wealthy City official in London during the late medieval era is pretty consequential — historically speaking, it’s probably one of the best eras and locations to maximize your return on investment. Since he never built a large estate for his heirs, he was in a position to grant both King Henry IV and London itself a number of significant loans, further cementing his importance to the city.
Let us propose that instead of dying without heirs and leaving his entire fortune to the City of London, the following alternate timeline:
Dick Whittington has one or more children with wife Alice FitzWaryn before her death in 1411, at least one of whom (DickWhit²) survives to adulthood
Dick Whittington makes out his final will and testament
While he still outlines several charitable bequests, as is common at the time, and particularly charges the recipients of these bequests to pray for his soul after death, the bulk of his estate is left to DW², and no significant civic projects are outlined in the will
The Chatner is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Dick Whittington dies and is buried at the church of St Michael Paternoster Royal. His fortune disappears into private hands, where it is just as privately dissipated over the next seventy-odd years by his heirs, the male line dying out shortly after the turn of the sixteenth century
As a result:
Newgate Prison is not renovated after its temporary closure due to an outbreak of “gaol fever” (typhus) in 1419. London prisoners are subsequently redistributed to The Clink at Southwark, Ludgate Prison, the Marshalsea, and Fleet Prison, leading to further overcrowding and greater civic participation in 1450’s Statute of Labourers’ riot and Jack Cade’s Rebellion in the same year. Battle of London Bridge lasts months rather than weeks, and Wars of the Roses kicks off several years earlier a result. Bartholomew Fair closes circa 1455 rather than 1855; as a result, Ben Jonson never writes the play of the same name, and Samuel Pepys does not describe it in his diary.
The Guildhall is not rebuilt; the Guildhall Library is not built, and therefore could not have been plundered by Edward Seymour circa 1549 to furnish Somerset House on the Strand. As a result, Seymour has additional difficulties collecting sufficient material for the Act of Uniformity, pushing back the imposition of the Book of Common Prayer by several years as well as the subsequent Prayer Book Rebellion. Seymour never imprisoned in the Tower of London, and is possibly never executed. As he is still pushed out of office, this makes relatively little difference to anyone but Seymour.
St. Bartholomew’s Hospital is not rebuilt; further deterioration means it cannot survive the loss of income after Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, which means there is no Hogarth Stair in the Great Hall, and William Hogarth does not paint either of his first history paintings, “The Good Samaritan” or “The Pool of Bethesda.” It is possible that Hogarth then spends a longer time trying to make a go of it as a history painter. It’s hard to convince myself of this, to be honest; at most it takes him a few more years to come out with “Marriage A-la-Mode,” but he knew when he had a hit.
Billingsgate and Cripplegate do not receive new drainage systems and are much harder-hit during the sweating-sickness outbreaks of 1485, 1508, 1517, 1528, and 1551; the neighborhoods’ population do not recover for over 100 years; Thomas Farriner is never born and does not open a bakery in Pudding Lane in 1649 as a result. Therefore the Great Fire of London is never started, which undoubtedly affects some future Doctor Who episodes, Robert Hubert lives to the ripe old age of 72, and Christopher Wren dies in mild obscurity, having rebuilt only two churches in need of repair.
St. Michael Paternoster Royal is not rebuilt. I don’t have anything good for this. People in that neighborhood go to another church a little further down the street.
Whittington’s Longhouse (the first public toilet in London to provide separate seating for men and women) is never built in Cheapside. The subsequent history of sex-segregated bathrooms, to say nothing of cottaging in England, looks remarkably different.
The Whittington Charity is not established, and quite a lot of Londoners go without lunch over the next 600 years. 10% of the time it makes very little difference, 10% of the time this proves to be the difference between life and death, and 80% of the time it makes life substantially worse.
c. 16th century
Cat legend, popular folktale, and eventual pantomime attributed instead to William Sevenoke, an orphan-turned-alderman of Bishopsgate Ward and Lord Mayor of London. “As sure as seven oaks” becomes a popular phrase in Kent and surrounding counties.
c. late 20th century
My pal Jo Livingstone is born at William Sevenoke Hospital instead
At least sixty elderly women in East Grinstead can no longer afford to live in London
See you all next time on Slight Counterfactuals with “Shirley Temple, Child Transitioner.”
Speak for yourself, etc, possibly with a belligerent little “bub” thrown in for good measure.
Just wait for my third novel!
Rather easy for me to say, isn’t it, given that I also don’t know much about Lords Mayor! What I mean is, where do I get off saying it’s not important to know much about the things I already don’t know much about, I’d like to know. Anyhow I went and looked it up, and London is presently on its 694th Lord Mayor. His name is Nicholas Stephen Leland Lyons KStJ DL, he is currently on sabbatical as chairman of something called the “Phoenix Group Holdings,” and his wife — in her capacity as Lady Mayoress — recently “present[ed] the Curriers’ Company London History Essay Prize at the Guildhall,” and if you can tell me what any of that means, I’ll be very grateful to you.
They had two going at any given time, and presumably still do.
Not really rags; his father was a knight, and both his older brothers and his father were themselves also Members of Parliament, as was his maternal grandfather. So pretty nice linen-to-riches, maybe.