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William Caxton

William Caxton
Born ca. 1422
Died ca. 1491
Resting place St. Margaret's, Westminster
Occupation merchant, diplomat, writer, printer
Period Late Plantagenet, Early English Renaissance
Notable work

Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye
Dictes or Sayengis of the Philosophres

Brut Chronicles

William Caxton (c. 1422 – c. 1491) 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 trade were all Flemish, German, or French. In 2002, he was named among the 100 Greatest Britons in a BBC poll.[1]


  • Biography 1
    • Early life 1.1
    • Printing and later life 1.2
    • Death and memorials 1.3
  • Caxton and the English language 2
  • References 3
  • Further reading 4
  • External links 5


Early life

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 that 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.[2] Oral tradition in Hadlow claims that Caxton was born there; the same with Tenterden.[3] One of the manors of Hadlow was Caustons, owned by the Caxton (De Causton) family.[2] 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, East Sussex.[3] Further evidence for Hadlow is that various place names nearby are frequently mentioned by Caxton.[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 that he was not a senior apprentice at this time.

Printing and later life

A page from the Brut Chronicles (printed as the Chronicles of England), printed in 1480 by Caxton

Caxton 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 named Colard Mansion, and the first book to be printed in English was produced in 1473: Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye,[4] 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.[5]

Caxton's 1477 edition of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

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 (1483) and The Book of the Knight in the Tower (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.[6]

Caxton produced chivalric romances (such as Fierabras), the most important of which was Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur (1485); 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

Stained glass to William Caxton, Guildhall, London

Caxton's precise date of death is uncertain, but estimates from the records of his burial in

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

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. He is credited with printing as many as 108 books, 87 of which were different titles, including the first English translation of Aesop's Fables (1484). 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.[7]

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

The English language was changing rapidly in Caxton's time and the works that 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 standardisation in the books that he printed. (He wrote about this subject in the preface to his Eneydos.[8]) His successor Wynkyn de Worde faced similar problems.

Caxton is credited with standardising the English language through printing—that is, homogenising regional dialects. This facilitated the expansion of English vocabulary, the regularisation of inflection and syntax, and a widening gap between the spoken and the written word. Richard Pynson started printing in London in 1491 or 1492 and favoured Chancery Standard, and he was a more accomplished stylist and consequently pushed the English language further toward standardisation.[9]

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.[10]


William Caxton printer's device, Thomas Jefferson Building, Library of Congress
  1. ^ "100 great British heroes". BBC News. Retrieved 15 February 2014
  2. ^ a b c
  3. ^ a b
  4. ^ STC 2nd ed.; item 4920
  5. ^ Duff 1907
  6. ^
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ Caxton's Chaucer – Caxton's English
  9. ^
  10. ^ Simon Garfield, Just My Type: A Book About Fonts (New York: Gotham Books, 2011), pp. 82. ISBN 978-1-59240-652-4

Further reading

About Caxton:

  • N. F. Blake, "Caxton, William (1415~24–1492)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 accessed 1 July 2006
  • N. F. Blake. Caxton: England's First Publisher (1976)
  • N. F. Blake. Caxton and His World (1969)
  • Loades, David, ed. Reader's Guide to British History (2003) 1: 236-37; historiography
  • Lienhard, John H. (2006): How Invention Begins: Echoes of Old Voices in the Rise of New Machines. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-530599-X pp. 165–168.
  • Painter, George D. (1976): William Caxton – Biography. Chatto & Windus.

Works translated or printed by Caxton:

  • The Game and Playe of the Chesse. Ed. by Jenny Adams. (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2009) (TEAMS Middle English Texts Series).
  • The English Charlemagne Romances, Parts III and IV, The Lyf of the Noble and Crysten Prynce Charles the Grete, Translated from the French By William Caxton And Printed By Him 1485.
  • Caxton's Canterbury Tales: The British Library Copies Images and full transcripts of the whole of Caxton's two editions of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

External links

  • Works by William Caxton at Project Gutenberg
  • Works by or about William Caxton at Internet Archive
  • Works by William Caxton at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
  • Canterbury Tales, printed by Caxton from the Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection
  • Images from Myrrour of the Worlde from the State Library of Victoria
  • Caxton's apprenticeship to Robert Large
  • A book of the chesse moralysed From the Rare Book and Special Collections Division at the Library of Congress
  • AL Ingratitude vtterly settying apart, we owe to calle to our myndes the manyfolde gyftes of grace ... From the Rare Book and Special Collections Division at the Library of Congress
  • Cordiale quattuor novissimorum. From the Rare Book and Special Collections Division at the Library of Congress
  • Here begynneth the prohemye vpon the reducynge, both out of latyn as of frensshe in to our englyssh tongue of the polytyque book named Tullius de senectute. From the Rare Book and Special Collections Division at the Library of Congress
  • Here begynneth the table of the rubrices of this presente volume named the Mirrour of the World or thymage of the same. From the Collections at the Library of Congress
  • Livre des faits d'armes et de chevalerie From the Rare Book and Special Collections Division at the Library of Congress
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