Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2083
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 day. Church records indicate that numerous Caxtons (Caxstons, Cawstons, Caustons, Castons) were associated with St. Margaret’s Church in Westminster during the fifteenth century, suggesting that Caxton had family connections there. Also, Westminster was then inhabited by people of means who had the leisure to read, so that Caxton could sell his output more easily there than he might have elsewhere.
Caxton was probably also attracted by the royal court of Westminster, to which he had easy entrée because of the favor in which he was held by the royal family, whom he had served well. Certainly Caxton realized that being close to the Abbey would assure him regular printing jobs because of the volume of written material that issued from the Abbey regularly in manuscript form. That Caxton was in the good graces of John Esteney, the Abbot of Westminster, is indicated by the fact that the abbot provided choice space near the Abbey for Caxton to set up his press, today marked by a commemorative plaque. Members of the Commons, who met in the Abbey, passed Caxton’s printery when they left to go to the Chapter House, as did members of the royal family, who usually entered the Abbey through the south door. Caxton was assured that those in the best position to use his services would be reminded frequently of his availability.
The humanism that had earlier ignited in Italy now spread through much of Europe and began to be felt in England. The demand for writing in Latin and Greek was substantial, but Continental printers, who exported their books to England, met this need. Caxton realized that his best market was in original works or translations in the vernacular. It was in this field, as a precursor of Martin Luther and other Humanists who called for works in the vernacular that common people could read, that Caxton made his most significant contributions.
In 1481, the first illustrated book in English, The Myrrour of the Worlde (1481), came from Caxton’s press. Caxton’s books found a ready market among the nobility and the rich merchants who flocked to London during Caxton’s later life. Because his books were printed in the vernacular, however, and because many of them were illustrated, it is clear that Caxton reached a broader audience than merely the nobility and rich merchants.
Caxton’s press ran at capacity most of the time. When it was not in use printing books, it was fully engaged printing shorter documents for the Church or the Crown. Printing was a profitable commercial enterprise, but Caxton’s motives were not strictly financial. He felt keenly his responsibility to provide useful reading material to a public hungry to read.
Caxton was meticulous in his editing. He issued Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400) around 1478, but, in 1484, when deficiencies in the earlier edition were pointed out to him, he printed an improved version of the work from a more reliable manuscript. From Caxton’s press came editions of most of the important literature of England—in 1485 Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’ Arthur, in 1483 John Gower’s Confessio Amantis (1386-1390), and most of the writings of John Lydgate.
Caxton translated twenty-four books and was actively engaged in translating from French, Dutch, and Latin until the very day of his death. He was a careful editor of the books his press printed, often writing prologues or epilogues for them. Modern critics regarded his editing of Malory’s Arthurian legends as remarkably sensitive. Caxton’s prologue to Malory’s Le Morte d’ Arthur is knowledgeable and intelligent.
In his fifteen years as a printer at Westminster, Caxton published more than one hundred titles. In so doing, he helped to preserve and promote the canon of early English literature. Although the exact date of his death has not been established, Caxton probably died in 1491, a year after the death of the Mawde Caxston who, supposedly, was his wife. Church records at St. Margaret’s similar to those mentioning Mawde Caxston’s burial expenses contain a bill for torches and tapers for the burial of William Caxton in 1491. Although some books with his imprint are dated as late as 1493, presumably those are editions he left behind that his faithful assistant, Wynken de Worde, printed and published after Caxton’s death.
Upon Caxton’s death, his printing shop, which had been expanded in 1483-1484 to the almonry adjacent to Westminster, did not pass to his heirs, suggesting that no son survived him. The press was instead taken over by Wynken de Worde, who continued to run the operation.
William Caxton’s greatest contribution to later generations is twofold. By printing most of the notable English literature that existed in his day, he established and preserved the canon that constitutes early English literary studies. As important as that achievement was, however, there was perhaps even greater significance in Caxton’s conscious determination of the level of English usage to be employed in printed books.
A year before his death, in the prologue to Eneydos (1490), a paraphrase of Vergil’s Aeneid (first century b.c.e.) that Caxton had translated from the French, Caxton commented on the problems that face translators and printers. Acknowledging that he could not please everyone, Caxton explained that he would employ in his books an English between the “rude and curious.” In doing so, he helped to establish a standard for English and to fix that standard so that the broad regional variations in the language that he observed during his lifetime would eventually be minimized.
Caxton tells of a merchant who, when he was traveling, “came into a house and asked for food; and asked especially for egges. The good wife answered that she could speak no French, and the merchant was angry, because he also could speak no French. And then another said that he would have eyren. The good wife said that she understood him well.” Caxton asks, “What should a man in these days now write, egges or eyren?”
By grappling with such problems, Caxton determined for all time the level of usage that would predominate in printed works. For this contribution he will be longest remembered.
Baugh, Albert C., and Thomas Cable. A History of the English Language. 3d ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1978. The portions on Caxton are excellent. They help define his contributions to English literature and language. A good starting point for those unfamiliar with Caxton.
Blades, William. The Biography and Typography of William Caxton, England’s First Printer. London: Trübner and Co., 1877, 2d ed. 1882. Updates Blades’s The Life and Typography of William Caxton (1861, 1863); was the standard work on Caxton and until Blake’s biography (below).
Blake, N. F. Caxton and His World. New York: House and Maxwell, 1969. A thoroughly researched biography of Caxton, written in lively prose and organized well. Certainly the best full-length work on Caxton since Blades’s pioneering work in the nineteenth century.
Blake, N. F, ed. William Caxton: A Bibliographical Guide. New York: Garland Publishing, 1985. The most comprehensive bibliography to date of Caxton’s publications and of publications relating to him. Blake is exhaustive in his coverage and has presented a guide of immense use to Caxton scholars. Clear, succinct annotations.
Childs, Edmund. William Caxton: A Portrait in a Background. London: Northwood Publications, 1976. Reads well but is not always accurate or shrewd in its judgments. Should be used with caution and checked against Blake (1969) for factual accuracy.
De Ricci, Seymour. A Census of the Caxtons. London: Oxford University Press, 1909. An indispensable book for serious Caxton scholars. Lists all extant copies of works known to have been printed by Caxton, including fragments.
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.
- 30,000+ book summaries
- 20% study tools discount
- Ad-free content
- PDF downloads
- 300,000+ answers
- 5-star customer support