Word Origin & History
The story is an old one, told under other names throughout Europe, of a poor boy who sends a cat he had bought for a penny as his stake in a trading voyage; the captain sells it on his behalf for a fortune to a foreign king whose palace is overrun by rats. The hero devotes part of his windfall to charity,
which may be why the legend attached in England since 16c. to Sir Richard Whittington (d.1423), three times Lord Mayor of London, who died childless and devoted large sums in his will to churches, almshouses, and St. Bartholomew's Hospital.