Richard Pynson

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Printer's mark of Richard Pynson

Richard Pynson (1448 in Normandy – 1529) was one of the first printers of English books. The 500 books he printed were influential in the standardisation of the English language.[citation needed] Pynson, whose books make him technically and typographically the outstanding English printer of his generation[1] is credited with introducing Roman type to English printing.[citation needed]

Life and career[edit]

From General Prologue page of the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (the same image was reused to illustrate Knight's Tale in an edition printed by Richard Pynson in London, 1492)

Pynson was born in 1448 in Normandy, France, and may have been a glover[2] and/or a pouchmaker before he turned to printing.[3] It is possible that he is identical with one Richard Pynson who was enrolled as a student in Paris in 1464.[4]

He is also mentioned as being a bookbinder, although he probably did not bind the books himself.[5] It has been suggested[6] that Pynson at one time worked as an assistant to William Caxton – whom he called "my worshipful master" in the introduction to his Canterbury Tales, 1492[7] – but this is now considered highly unlikely.

Pynson began his printing career as early as 1492, the year in which he printed Alexander Grammaticus's Doctrinale, his first dated book. He had probably learned his trade from Guillaume Le Talleur, a printer in Rouen, whom he charged with printing at least two books in the early 1490s.[8] It is likely that he took over William de Machlinia's premises after de Machlinia's death;[9] it is also possible that Julian Notary in turn took over Pynson's vacated place in 1501.[10]

During the first years, he worked in St Clement Danes just outside Temple Bar, but he moved inside Temple Bar in 1501, possibly because of xenophobic riots,[11] but perhaps simply "[...] to be closer to the book trade, most of the leading men having their shops in the neighbourhood of St Paul's Cathedral."[12]

Pynson became King's Printer to Henry VII (and subsequently to Henry VIII) in 1506,[13] an office that carried not only great prestige but also an annuity of two pounds, later raised to four pounds.[14] Since this was a prestigious lifetime position, it is not surprising that he was naturalised in 1513.[15]

Works printed[edit]

Archbishop Morton's coat of arms, from the Morton Missal

Pynson’s press published law texts (e.g. statutes of the King and legal handbooks), religious books (e.g. Books of Hours and Missals), classical texts (e.g. the plays of the Roman poet Terence), popular romances (e.g. Sir Tryamour and a translation of the German Narrenschiff by Sebastian Brant), the famous “ancestor of science fiction,” Ways to Jerusalem by Sir John Mandeville,[15] and, most historically important, the Assertio septem sacramentorum adversus Martinum Lutherum (1521), which netted King Henry VIII the title of "Defensor Fidei".[16] Surprisingly[17], Pynson, along with all other English printers of his time, never printed any travel accounts by Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci, or other famous explorers, even though there were many versions in several European languages available at that time. He and the other English printers also, still surprisingly, didn’t print any of the works of the “alliterative revival” in English.

Pynson ran his printing business conservatively, not taking any great risks. He didn’t pay much attention to literary patronage, either, despite its importance in the early printing period (Lathrop, 1922/23, p. 93). His press featured high quality woodcuts and initials, exemplified by his exquisite Morton Missal initials of 1500, among others.[18]


Pynson printed more than 500 books during his lifetime, more than 75% of which were printed after 1500 and are therefore not counted as "incunabula". He was not as productive as for example Wynkyn de Worde, Caxton's one-time assistant, but his books were of a higher quality. Between them Pynson and Wynkyn printed about two-thirds of all books for the English market between 1500 and 1530 but their competitors had a somewhat larger share of the market after 1520 than they had before that.[16]

He must have had assistants himself, but only two of them are named in his will: John Snowe and Richard Withers.[17] He does not seem to have imported books, since his name does not appear on the Customs rolls.[18] This suggests that he was not really a bookseller in addition to being a printer.[dubious ]

Pynson died in 1529 at the age of 80 or 81. It is possible that his son, Richard, was meant to take over after his father’s death. Since Richard the son died before his father, the press was not continued as a family enterprise. It may be that Pynson sold his business to Robert Redman, his successor as the King's Printer.[19]

In sum, Richard Pynson seems to have been a very competent, quite risk-averse, and fairly successful printer. Judging by his will, he was moderately well-off but not as wealthy as, for example, Wynkyn de Worde.[20] One historian called Pynson "a systematic, careful man of business".[21] Another said he had "a sense of style that raised him above other English printers of the fifteenth century",[22] and yet another called his Morton Missal of 1500 "the finest book that had been printed in England up to that time".[23]

Pynson is often considered a more accomplished stylist than Caxton; he favored a dialect of English called Chancery Standard and contributed to the standardization of early Modern English. Pynson's usage of devices, title-pages, types, and other technical aspects lend support to the common image of him as a highly skilled craftsman and capable businessman who invented nothing but was quite good at improving upon innovations others had made before.


  1. ^ S. H. Steinberg, Five Hundred Years of Printing, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books; 2nd ed. 1961, p. 106
  2. ^ Plomer, 1922/23, pp. 49–51; the English record is of 1482
  3. ^ Plomer, 1925, p. 110.
  4. ^ Plomer, 1925, p. 109.
  5. ^ Plomer, 1925, p. 148.
  6. ^ Painter, 1976, p. 190,
  7. ^ Duff, 1906, p. 57; Glasgow University Library, Special Collection: Book of the Month May 2004: "a reference to his indebtedness to Caxton's second edition of the poem, upon which this publication was based".
  8. ^ Peddie, 1927, p. 179.
  9. ^ Duff, 1906, p. 56; Plomer, 1925, pp. 160ff.
  10. ^ Clair, 1965, p. 41.
  11. ^ Plomer, 1909, pp. 115–133.
  12. ^ Plomer, 1925, p. 65.
  13. ^ Neville, 1990.
  14. ^ Clair, 1965, p. 35.
  15. ^ Letters and Papers of Henry VIII, Vol. 1, No. 4373.
  16. ^ S. H. Steinberg, Five Hundred Years of Printing, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books; 2nd ed. 1961, p. 106
  17. ^ Plomer, 1903, p. 3.
  18. ^ Hellinga/Trapp, p. 140.
  19. ^ Plomer, 1925, p. 147.
  20. ^ Plomer, 1925, p. 145.
  21. ^ Bennett, 1952, p. 191
  22. ^ Chappell, 1970, p. 77.
  23. ^ Plomer, 1925, p. 120.


  • Bennett, H.S.: English Books and Readers 1475 – 1557. London 1952.
  • Bühler, Curt F.: The Fifteenth-Century Book. Philadelphia 1960.
  • Chappell, Warren: A Short History of the Printed Word. Boston 1980 (1970).
  • Christianson, C. Paul: "The rise of London’s book-trade". In: Lotte Hellinga / J. B. Trapp (ed.): The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain. Vol. III (1400–1557), pp. 128–147.
  • Clair, Colin: A History of Printing in Britain. Norwich 1965.
  • Driver, Martha: The title-page. Its early development 1460–1510. London 2000.
  • Duff, E. Gordon: The Printers, Stationers and Bookbinders of Westminster and London from 1476 to 1535. Cambridge 1906.
  • Hellinga, Lotte: “Printing”. In: Lotte Hellinga / J. B. Trapp (ed.): The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain. Vol. III (1400–1557), pp. 65–108.
  • Hirsch, Rudolf: Printing, Selling and Reading 1450 – 1550. Wiesbaden 1974.
  • The Printed Word: Its Impact and Diffusion. London 1978.
  • Hodnett, Edward: Five centuries of English book illustrations. Avon 1988.
  • Lathrop, H.B.: “The First English Printers and their Patrons”. The Library, 4th series (3), (192/23), pp. 69–96.
  • Letters and Papers of Henry VIII, Vol. 1, No. 4373.
  • Neville, Pamela A.: Richard Pynson, King’s Printer [1506–1529] : Printing and Propaganda in Early Tudor England. Diss., London 1990.
  • Painter, George D.: William Caxton. A Quincentenarial Biography of England's first printer. London 1976.
  • Plomer, Henry R. (ed.): Abstracts from the Wills of English Printers and Stationers from 1492 to 1630. London 1903.
  • "Great Britain and Ireland". In: R. A. Peddie (ed.): Printing. A Short History of the Art. London 1927.
  • "Richard Pynson, Glover and Printer". The Library, 4th series, (3), 1922/23, pp. 49–51.
  • "Two Lawsuits of Richard Pynson". The Library, 2nd Series (10), 1909, pp. 115–133.
  • "Wynkyn de Worde and his Contemporaries from the Death of Caxton to 1535. Folkestone 1974 (1925).
  • Steinberg, Sigfrid H.: Five Hundred Years of Printing. Harmondsworth 1955.

Further reading[edit]

  • Burger, Glenn (1988). A Lytell Cronycle: Richard Pynson's Translation (c 1520) of La Fleur des histoires de la terre d'Orient (c 1307). University of Toronto Press.

External links[edit]