Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: Renaissance)
Article abstract: In 1476, Caxton set up the first printing press in England, and before he died, around 1491, he had published some hundred items, many of them his own translations, at the same time helping to determine the variety of English in which printing would be done.
Little is known of William Caxton’s early life, and both the date and place of his birth (somewhere in Kent) remain uncertain. He was apprenticed in 1438 to Robert Large, a successful mercer. This suggests a birth date between 1422 and 1424, because apprentices usually began their work between fourteen and sixteen.
Presumably Caxton’s father was the William Caxton buried in St. Margaret’s churchyard at Westminster in 1478. Whether Oliver Cawston, buried at St. Margaret’s in 1474, Richard Caxston or Caston, a monk there from 1473 until his death in 1504, or John Caxston, known to have belonged to the church from 1474 to 1477, are related to the William Caxton who became a printer in Westminster remains uncertain.
When Robert Large, who became Lord Mayor of London in 1439, died in 1441, Caxton went to Bruges, the hub of the brisk European wool trade, settling into the comfortable life of an English tradesman in the Lowlands. He remained there about thirty years, in the course of which he became wealthy, influential, and highly respected.
By 1453, Caxton was a member of the livery of the Mercer’s company. Ten years later, he held the enormously influential position of Governor of the English Nation of Merchant Adventurers. During this time, the British government often called upon him to transact delicate trade negotiations for the Crown.
Indirect evidence suggests that Caxton married a woman named Mawde around 1461 and that she died in England in 1490. In that year, the vestry accounts of St. Margaret’s Church record the cost of torches and tapers for the burial of a Mawde Caxston. In the same year, Caxton left off the printing of Fayts of Arms (1489) to turn his attention to completing The Arte and Crafte to Know Well to Die (1490), a piece of circumstantial evidence that suggests that the Mawde Caxston who was buried in 1490 was his wife and that as a result of her death he was preoccupied with death.
Caxton apparently had one child, a daughter. The Public Records Office has a copy of a document recording the separation of Elizabeth Croppe from her husband in Westminster on May 11, 1496. This document identifies Elizabeth as William Caxton’s daughter and refers to her late father’s will.
Resigning his governorship around 1470, Caxton entered the service of Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy, who was the sister of King Edward IV of Britain. Although Caxton continued in governmental service until 1475, around 1469, Caxton became extremely interested in literature.
A man of energy and perseverance, Caxton did not begin his life’s most significant work until he was nearly fifty. Already distinguished as a mercer and as a royal servant, Caxton, around 1469, turned his energies to translating compiler Raoul Le Fèvre’s Recueil des histoires de Troye (1464; The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, 1475), which he finally completed at the behest of Margaret of Burgundy, on September 19, 1471, in Cologne, where Caxton lived from 1470 until 1472.
Caxton, complaining that his pen had become worn from copying, now bought a printing press and two fonts of type. Colard Mansion of Bruges helped Caxton set up his press, and in 1475, Caxton printed in Bruges his translation of Recueil des histoires de Troye, the first book ever printed in English. He followed this book with his translation of a French allegory, The Game and Playe of the Chesse, in 1476, the same year that he printed two or three books in French. (The original work, which Caxton translated, was itself a translation of 1360 by Jean de Vignay of Jacobus de Cessolis’ De ludo scaccorum, c. 1300.)
In 1476, Caxton returned to England, where he spent the rest of his life. At an age when many people of his position would have retired, Caxton embarked on the demanding new career that assured him his place in history. In the city of Westminster, in an area behind and to the right of the transept of Westminster Abbey, William Caxton set up the first printing press in England. From it was to issue the first document known to have been printed in England, an indulgence from Abbot Sant dated December 13, 1476.
The first book from Caxton’s press, Dicteis or Sayenges of the Phylosophers (1477), was translated from the French by the Earl Rivers, who commissioned Caxton to print it. The only extant copy of this book, which exists in two later printings, has been dependably dated as being issued before November 18, 1477.
Scholars have questioned Caxton’s reasons for setting up his press across the Thames in Westminster rather than in London, the hub of cultural and mercantile activity of his...
(The entire section is 2083 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Apprenticed to a London silk merchant, Caxton went to Bruges in the 1440’s, where he engaged in wool trading. After he saw an early printing press in Cologne decades later, he established his own press in Bruges. His book translation The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troy (1475) was the first book printed in the English language. After returning to England, Caxton founded a press in Westminster in 1476. Over the next fifteen years, he printed nearly one hundred works, including Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1478), his own translation of the German classic Reineke Fuchs as Reynart the Fox (1481), and Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur (1485). Literacy increased as English books replaced the Latin of the medieval manuscripts. Caxton published the first English illustrated book, and his publication of Malory popularized the romances of King Arthur and Camelot.
Early in Caxton’s career as a printer there was an appreciation of the potential power of the press. In 1476, the English government prohibited printing anything without royal permission. Prelicensing continued into the seventeenth century, eliciting John Milton’s essay Areopagitica (1644). Caxton himself was aware of the press’s power. He divided Malory’s Morte d’Arthur into chapters, tightened its language, and set a model for English vocabulary and pronunciation. Standard English became that of Caxton’s London and southeast England, flavored with French that he acquired on the Continent.