2. Pestilence during the plagues

The plague arrived on a trading ship from Europe in 1348 and within months the pestilence had reached London and caused devastation. Deaths from the pestilence in the City of London had to be taken outside of the City, marked by the old Roman London Wall and disposed of at designated spots termed plague pits. Originally they were buried in the grounds of churches but the pestilence lasted across three centuries and mass graves became necessary. With a lot of London churches you can see the churchyard is above street level – that is because of the number of bodies underneath.

The following year in 1403, Henry IV granted his son, the later to be duke of Bedford, those estates that Fitzwaryn held by royal grant, in particular the estates at Wilton, Barford and Powerstock. These would revert to the crown following Fitzwaryn’s death.

It transpired that Alice fell ill in 1409 and her death followed shortly after. Fitzwaryn died in 1414 and Richard Whittington was one of the executors of that will. The reversion after Fitzwaryn’s death of estates in Wiltshire and Dorset left Eleanor Chideock as sole heir of the remaining Fitzwaryn estates.

This is the backdrop to the wealth of Richard Whittington. However his father albeit a nobleman was considered a minor landowner and Richard was the younger son and so would not expect to inherit. And so he headed for London to seek his fortune.

Richard Whittington became the wealthiest merchant of his day. He was not a poor orphan from the countryside but the son of a noble from Gloucester. The legend says that he came to London because he heard that the streets were paved with gold. An unlikely fantasy to believe, especially for an educated man of means. More credible is that during his mercer apprenticeship he learned that in London the finest fabrics were woven in gold.

So the story goes that he found work helping the cook of a wealthy merchant but the cook treated him so badly that he headed back home, some accounts place the blame on the cook’s wife. He left his cat behind and headed home and on Highgate Hill he heard the church bells of Bow beckoning him to turn back. On his return he found that the cat had been sold for to an African ruler whose kingdom was overrun with rats.

The African ruler had paid handsomely and Dick Whittington invested it and became a successful merchant. And to round off this fairy tale he married the boss’s daughter and became Lord Mayor of London no less than four times – The boss being Fitzwaryn of course.

The first question is why would he be heading out of London via Highgate Hill if he was travelling to Gloucester. Putting that aside most accounts say that he stopped at the foot of Highgate Hill to rest when he heard the peal of Bow bells and others place him at the top of the hill. Of course we will never know if he was actually ever on Highgate Hill at all, but evidence is cited of a stone that marks the spot. On that spot have stood a succession of stones marking first the distance to London and later marking the spot where a leper hospital stood.

The existence of a leper hospital on Salisbury Road facing Highgate Hill has by no means been proven without doubt but it almost certainly existed according to a few written testimonies. It was this leper hospital that first endowed the area with its medical heritage. The stone that marked the spot became the stone to mark the spot where Dick Whittington stopped.

The original stone lay flat on the ground broken into two pieces. They were removed and placed as curb stones against the posts at the corner of Queens head Lane, however I have not been able to verify this. One story states that the stone was placed on Highgate Hill by Richard Whittington after he had become successful to help him get on and off his horse.

The story of a cat sold for a fortune in a far-away country is a typical folkloric narrative, examples of which can be found in other countries well before the man himself was born. In 1612 a ballad called A Crowne-Garland of Goulden Roses tells that Dick Whittington left these shores with his cat and was fortunate to land upon a far land that had a rat problem which his cat resolved and for which the King rewarded him with heaps of gold. The ballad states that he went “to a land far vnknowne, With Marchandize of worth“.

In Wikipedia I read that Dick Whittington could not have possibly heard the sound of the Bow bells from Highgate Hill, and so I added the following text:

Indeed the Bow bells could have been easily heard from the foot of Highgate Hill. At the launch of the Times Atlas of London, a sound map of London was commissioned to show how far the sound of the bells reached in 2012 compared with 1851. They concluded that in 1851 the bells would have been heard from the City of London, across Islington, Hackney, Tower Hamlets and into parts of Camden, Southwark, Newham and Waltham Forest. However Dick Whittington was there 500 years before that, when ambient noise levels were virtually zero.

The legend developed in oral circulation into many tales and the narrative first appears in print in ballad form. But perhaps the safest bet is a play that was produced in 1605 called The Pauper, and entered into the records as: “The history of Ric Whittington, of his low birth, of his great fortune as it was played by the Princes Servantes.

A similar description from another source for this play dated 16 July 1605 reads: “The virtuous life and memorable death of Sir Richard Whittington mercer sometimes Lord Mayor of the honorable City of London.“. And another description reads: “A Song of Sir Richard Whittington, who by strange fortunes, came to bee thrice Lord Maior of London, with his bountifull guifts and liberallity giuen to this honorable Citty.

An embellished prose version of the Dick Whittington story, The Famous and Remarkable History of Sir Richard Whittington, appeared in 1656. Thereafter versions appear with varying storylines for the cat and the first visual representations appear of Dick Whittington with his cat. The first recorded pantomime version was produced in 1814.


In 1191 Richard I acknowledged the right of London to self-government and the first Mayor of London was elected in the following year. This right and tradition was confirmed by later monarchs. Westminster and the City of London had separate governments and The Mayor of London was the head of Government for the City of London with a Council elected from members of the merchant guilds.

The guilds of London controlled the City through commerce. Each guild had its own hall and a coat of arms until the Guildhall (1411-40) was built to accommodate the joint representatives. It was the London merchants that would one day support Edward IV when he grabbed the throne in 1461 after which many merchants received knighthoods.

In Richard Whittington’s time, he was based at the Guildhall during his successful merchant and political career. He had no children and amassed a fortune which he asked in his will to be used for the benefit of the city. From 1388 to 1422, he made at least 59 separate loans to the Crown of sums between £4 to £2,833. In 1412 his property in London was bringing in an income of £25 a year. By all accounts he was a benevolent and generous person, having provided in his will for a college of priests called Whittington College, the Whittington’s Almshouse, a library at Greyfriars, and was built the Gate of London called Newgate, among other projects.

Old burial grounds, Highgate – opposite the Gatehouse PH

There is little evidence of the location of plague pits but they are being discovered all the time. The Museum of London discovered one in Farringdon were it’s believed 50,000 victims were buried and Crossrail excavation at Liverpool Street uncovered a plague pit of 3,000 skeletons including the remains of Sir Ambrose Nicholas, Lord Mayor of London in 1575.

Smithfield today marks the southern boundary of Islington with the City of London. In 2013, a burial pit was discovered in Charterhouse Square, Smithfield, by Crossrail. The site dated to the first wave of the plague in the fourteenth century, and 25 bodies were found in two levels with a layer of clay between them and on top presumably to contain the disease.

It is known that Islington Green was one burial place of the 17th Century. Another was at Queens Wood in Highgate where it was reported that a plague pit was found in the 19th Century. Between these two locations the Holloway Road played a large part during the pestilence years. One story some decades ago was that Manor Gardens was a plague pit site but I have yet to find anything to back this up.

Leprosy was the other pestilence that abounded up until the 16th Century and vying with the Black Death for human prey. It had been around since the beginning of time. The disease attacks the skin and ultimately the body’s nerve cells and is caused by a bacterium similar to that responsible for tuberculosis.

One hundred years after the plague arrived in London, the independently funded leper hospital of St. Anthony was built in the fields along the west side of Highgate Hill in 1473 with a wayside cross situated at its front. The cross would be replaced much later with the Whittington stone.

Of the ten leper hospitals strategically sited on the main roads out of London, six were in Middlesex, located at Enfield, Hammersmith, Highgate, Holborn, Kingsland, and Mile End. In 1549 the administration of the City’s leper hospitals of Kingsland, Hammersmith, Highgate, Knightsbridge, Mile End, and Southwark was transferred to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. And in 1553, £60 was given to the leper hospitals on condition that the inmates did not beg within three miles of the city.

The lazar-house, or hospital for lepers sat on the site of Salisbury Road at the foot of Highgate Hill and was one of the oldest institutions in the area. Salisbury Road is no longer there having made way for the housing estate and pub.

One author noted that the lazer house named St Anthony had probably been a religious establishment perhaps of the same name, “… seized upon and demolished by Henry the Eighth.” But the Bishop Thomas Tanner, in his ‘Notitia Monastica’ published 1695, states “one William Pool, yeoman of the crown, founded the hospital below on the hill in the reign of King Edward the Fourth.” In the same work he adds, “being stricken with leprosy, he built an hospital for persons afflicted with the same distemper.

Additionally Thomas Cromwell’s work published 1835 would appear to agree almost verbatim. “On the lower part of the hill, William Poole, Yeoman of the Crown in the reign of Edward IV., being himself stricken with leprosy, founded an hospital for persons afflicted with that disorder.

It would be prudent to accept Thomas Tanner’s work as fact not least because his work ‘Notitia monastica’ was an historical record of religious houses in England and Wales and an account of all the abbeys, priories, colleges and hospitals that existed prior to 1540.

His grand work begins with the statement from a very learned gentleman: It is probable that from the druids, having been converted from the Pagan religion (whereof they were the priests) became our first monks. Do we need to look much further back in time than this.

Therefore we may surmise there existed a place for lepers sometime between the years of Edward IV’s reign, i.e. 1461 to 1483. Richard Cloudesley of whom we mentioned earlier as the Islington resident that helped to maintain the roads, also bequeathed 6s. 8d. “to the poor lazars of Hyegate.” And that perhaps the hospital stood until it was ‘seized upon and demolished by Henry the Eighth’, between the years 1491 to 1547.

Thomas Cromwell makes the assertion that, “Lazarcot Field, near Whittington, was no doubt the site of this hospital.

Leprosy is not a disease that affects everyone, in fact 90% of humans are immune to it and it’s known as Hansen’s disease today. Toes and fingers may be lost in its severest form but it is mainly a disease of horrendous sores and ulcerations, lesions and weakening of the skeletal frame. We hear of lepers from biblical stories and it’s believed that leprosy arrived in England in the 4th Century.

It was prevalent in Great Britain before 1200 CE since there were one hundred and eleven hospitals or ‘leproseries’ in the country as named in the ‘Monasticon Anglicanum – The history of the ancient abbeys, and other monasteries, hospitals, cathedral and collegiate churches in England and Wales’ written by Sir William Dugdale and published 1693. These grew to at least 320 lazar houses between 12th century and 1350.

In 1346 CE lepers were instructed to leave London and the suburbs and find refuge in the country. Any person harbouring a leper after this notice was to forfeit their house. The impact that leprosy had changed the landscape in terms of buildings that cared for lepers and other areas for lepers as well as the mindset of people.

John H. Lloyd states in The History of Highgate page 178, that on 26th October 1477, Edward IV granted Robert Wilson, a disabled soldier afflicted with leprosy, the new Lazar house at Highgate, for the term of his life without any payment and which had been constructed by William Pole.

On page 179 he writes that the next grant was to John Gymnar and wife Katherine given in December 1498 by Henry VII, of a Hospital with the chapel of St. Anthony, being between Highgate and Holloway. John H. Lloyd suggests that as there is no mention of leprosy it infers that neither the grantees nor the inmates were lepers, and that leprosy therefore was declining.

The decline of the Middlesex leper houses came in the 16th century with the extinction of leprosy and they were converted into houses for the reception of patients suffering other infectious disease. Of those in the neighbourhood of London seven remained in 1547; Mile End, Hammersmith, Finchley, Southwark, Knightsbriclge, Highgate, and Kingsland.

But the plague would have another serious impact in the second half of the 17th Century. Over 15% of London’s population was wiped out between 1665 and 1666 alone and it spread to many parts of England. Evidently the link between London and York remained strong because York was badly affected. Plague claimed an estimated 1.5 million British deaths, 25 million deaths in Europe and 75 million across the world.