William Caxton

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Caxton showing the first specimen of his printing to King Edward IV and Queen Elizabeth at the Almonry, Westminster (painting by Daniel Maclise)
Stained glass to William Caxton, Guildhall, London

William Caxton (c. 1415 – c. March 1492) was an English merchant, diplomat, writer and printer. He is thought to be the first English person to work as a printer and the first to introduce a printing press into England, which he did in 1476. He was also the first English retailer of printed books (his London contemporaries in the same trade were all Flemish, German or French). In 2002 he was named among the 100 Greatest Britons in a BBC poll.[1]


Early life[edit]

The printer's device of William Caxton, 1478

William Caxton's parentage is uncertain. His date of birth is unknown, but records place it in the region of 1415–1424, based on the fact his apprenticeship fees were paid in 1438. Caxton would have been 14 at the date of apprenticeship, but masters often paid the fees late. In the preface to his first printed work, The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, he claims to have been born and educated in the Weald of Kent. Oral tradition in Hadlow claims that Caxton was born there; the same with Tenterden. One of the manors of Hadlow was Caustons, owned by the Caxton family. A house in Hadlow reputed to be the birthplace of William Caxton was dismantled in 1436, and incorporated into a larger house rebuilt in Forest Row, Sussex.[2]

Caxton was in London by 1438, when the registers of the Mercers' Company record his apprenticeship to Robert Large, a wealthy London mercer, or dealer in luxury goods, who served as Master of the Mercer's Company, and Lord Mayor of London in 1439. After Large died in 1441, Caxton was left a small sum of money (£20). As other apprentices were left larger sums, it would seem he was not a senior apprentice at this time.

Printing and later life[edit]

Facsimile of page 1 of Godefrey of Boloyne, printed by Caxton, London, 1481. ---- The Prologue, at the top of page, begins: Here begynneth the boke Intituled Eracles, and also Godefrey of Boloyne, the whiche speketh of the Conquest of the holy lande of Jherusalem. (the blank space on this page was for the insertion by hand of an illuminated initial T)

He was making trips to Bruges by 1450 at the latest and had settled there by 1453, when he may have taken his Liberty of the Mercers' Company. There he was successful in business and became governor of the Company of Merchant Adventurers of London. His trade brought him into contact with Burgundy and it was thus that he became a member of the household of Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy, the third wife of Charles the Bold and sister of two Kings of England, Edward IV and Richard III. This led to more continental travel, including travel to Cologne, in the course of which he observed the new printing industry, and was significantly influenced by German printing. He wasted no time in setting up a printing press in Bruges, in collaboration with a Fleming, Colard Mansion, and the first book to be printed in English was produced in 1473: Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye,[3] a translation by Caxton himself. His translation had become popular in the Burgundian court and requests for copies of it were the stimulus for him to set up a press.[4]

Bringing the knowledge back to England, he set up a press at Westminster in 1476 and the first book known to have been produced there was an edition of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales (Blake, 2004–07). Another early title was Dictes or Sayengis of the Philosophres (Sayings of the Philosophers), first printed on 18 November 1477, translated by Earl Rivers, the king's brother-in-law. Caxton's translation of the Golden Legend, published in 1483, and The Book of the Knight in the Tower, published in 1484, contain perhaps the earliest verses of the Bible to be printed in English. He produced the first translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses in English.[5]

Caxton produced chivalric romances (such as Fierabras), the most important of which was Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, classical works and English and Roman histories. These books appealed to the English upper classes in the late fifteenth century. Caxton was supported by, but not dependent on, members of the nobility and gentry.

Death and memorials[edit]

Caxton's precise date of death is uncertain, but estimates from the records of his burial in St. Margaret's, Westminster, tend to show that he died near March of the calendar year 1492. However, George D. Painter makes numerous references to the year 1491 in his book William Caxton: a biography as the year of Caxton's death, since according to the calendar used at the time (24 March being the last day of the year), the year-change hadn't happened yet. Painter writes, "However, Caxton's own output reveals the approximate time of his death, for none of his books can be later than 1491, and even those which are assignable to that year are hardly enough for a full twelve months' production; so a date of death towards autumn of 1491 could be deduced even without confirmation of documentary evidence." (p. 188)

In November 1954 a memorial to Caxton was unveiled in Westminster Abbey by J.J. Astor, chairman of the Press Council. The white stone plaque is on the wall next to the door to Poets' Corner. The inscription reads:

"Near this place William Caxton set up the first printing press in England.

Caxton and the English language[edit]

Caxton printed four-fifths of his works in the English language. He translated a large number of works into English, performing much of the translation and editing work himself. Caxton is credited with printing as many as 108 books, 87 of which were different titles. Caxton also translated 26 of the titles himself. His major guiding principle in translating was an honest desire to provide the most linguistically exact replication of foreign language texts into English, but the hurried publishing schedule and his inadequate skill as a translator often led to wholesale transference of French words into English and numerous misunderstandings.[6]

The English language was changing rapidly in Caxton's time and the works he was given to print were in a variety of styles and dialects. Caxton was a technician rather than a writer and he often faced dilemmas concerning language standardization in the books he printed. (He wrote about this subject in the preface to his Eneydos.[7]) His successor Wynkyn de Worde faced similar problems.

Caxton is credited with standardising the English language (that is, homogenising regional dialects) through printing. This facilitated the expansion of English vocabulary, the regularisation of inflection and syntax, and a widening gap between the spoken and the written word. However, Richard Pynson, who started printing in London in 1491 or 1492, and who favoured Chancery Standard, was a more accomplished stylist and consequently pushed the English language further toward standardisation.[8]

It is asserted that the spelling of "ghost" with the silent letter h was adopted by Caxton due to the influence of Flemish spelling habits.[9]


William Caxton printer's device, Thomas Jefferson Building, Library of Congress
  1. ^ "100 great British heroes". BBC News. Retrieved 15 February 2014
  2. ^ Joan Thirsk, ed. (2007). Hadlow, Life, Land & People in a Wealden Parish 1460 ~ 1600. Kent Archaeological Society. pp. 107–109. ISBN 978-0-906746-70-7. 
  3. ^ STC 2nd ed.; item 4920
  4. ^ Duff 1907
  5. ^ Blake, N. F. (1990). William Caxton and English literary culture. London: Hambledon. p. 298. ISBN 9781852850517. 
  6. ^ James A. Knapp, "Translating for Print: Continuity and Change in Caxton's Mirrour of the World," in: Translation, Transformation, and Transubstantiation, ed. Carol Poster and Richard Utz (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1998), pp. 65–90.
  7. ^ Caxton's Chaucer – Caxton's English
  8. ^ Baddeley, Susan; Voeste, Anja (2012). Orthographies in early modern Europe. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton. p. 148. ISBN 9783110288179. 
  9. ^ Simon Garfield, Just My Type: A Book About Fonts (New York: Gotham Books, 2011), pp. 82. ISBN 978-1-59240-652-4

Further reading[edit]

About Caxton:

Works translated or printed by Caxton:

External links[edit]