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Caxton, William (1415x24–1492), printer, merchant, and diplomat, was the first Englishman to print books, bringing the printing press to England in 1475 or 1476.

Early years

Nothing is known of Caxton's family or his place of birth. He was born in the weald of Kent; all suggestions identifying the actual place lack conviction. His parents sent him to school, where he may have learned Latin and rhetoric. He cannot have been highly educated, for he was apprenticed to Robert Large in London and his apprenticeship should have commenced when he was fourteen. The payment for his entry as an apprentice in the Mercers' Company is entered in their wardens' account book in 1438. This merely records when the payment was made, but many masters paid the fee late. This payment provides the sole basis for calculating his date of birth, which was between 1415 and 1424, possibly in the latter half of that period.

The mercers dealt in haberdashery, cloth, and luxury wares like silks. As the principal guild involved in trade with the Low Countries, the mercers formed the backbone of the Merchant Adventurers' Company, that loose association of merchants involved in the import–export trade. Mercers' Hall acted as its headquarters. Large, a prominent mercer, became successively a warden of the company in 1427, a sheriff of the City of London in 1430, and lord mayor in 1439. Caxton's father may have been a prosperous merchant, since it cannot have been easy to apprentice a son to an important man like Large. As an apprentice mercer he would learn how to handle money, conduct negotiations, and mix with different people, including some from overseas.

By becoming a mercer Caxton was drawn into the overseas trade; and by being apprenticed to Large he became informed about and possibly involved in contemporary politics. The mercers provided finance for the government and the merchant adventurers were involved in politics concerning England, France, and Flanders (then part of the duchy of Burgundy). The dukes of Burgundy were among the richest and most fashionable aristocrats of the time; the source of their wealth and the centre of their operations lay increasingly in the Low Countries, where the cloth trade was fundamental to their financial well-being.

Caxton was still an apprentice in 1441 when Large died. Large's will, dated 11 April 1441, bequeathed Caxton 20 marks; as some apprentices received larger sums, Caxton may not have been a senior apprentice. The date of his issue from apprenticeship is uncertain, but was probably in the mid-1440s. He was involved in the overseas trade not long afterwards, for a document in Bruges from January 1450 records him acting as surety to a merchant of the staple. He was by this time of sufficient standing to act as surety to another merchant, and he was either living in Bruges or a regular visitor there. During the 1450s he took the livery of the Mercers' Company, though the records do not detail this process clearly. In 1453 a quitclaim in the close rolls records that he put all his goods in the hands of two merchants, and this may indicate that from then onwards his main home was in Bruges. At this period he would have learned to speak French and Dutch.

Established merchant and politician

This quitclaim gave rise to lawsuits in 1454 and 1455, which involved dealings in pewter, wool, and cloth organized by Caxton in Ghent. By now he spent most of his time in the Low Countries and his business had expanded to embrace a variety of goods. Two documents in the 1450s record that a William Caxton was given a safe conduct to participate in Anglo-Burgundian negotiations in Bruges; if not our Caxton, they refer to the type of negotiations he was later to be involved in.

In the 1460s Caxton was permanently settled in Bruges and had become a respected and influential merchant. By April 1465 he was governor of the English nation in Bruges. All merchants in the Low Countries were organized into national fraternities under a governor who disciplined the members, negotiated with the local authorities on their behalf, and acted as the agent for their own government when required. That Caxton became governor in the 1460s reveals not only his wealth, skill as negotiator, and familiarity with affairs in the Low Countries, but also the confidence his fellow merchants had in him. Caxton was in regular communication with the merchant adventurers in London, and the period of his governorship was marked by delicate relations between England and Burgundy.

In 1463 trade relations between England and Burgundy deteriorated and a restriction on the sale of English cloth in the lands of the duke of Burgundy was imposed. So in 1464 the English merchants left Flanders and settled in Utrecht. Caxton may already have been governor at this time since he is referred to by name in the Dutch documents which gave the English merchants permission to trade there. While the English merchants traded from Utrecht, Caxton returned to Bruges to negotiate the end of the ban. A new treaty with Burgundy was finally agreed in 1467 and this was strengthened by the marriage of Charles, duke of Burgundy, to Margaret, the sister of Edward IV of England, in 1468.

Meanwhile, in England, partly to please the English merchants in London, Edward IV had taken discriminatory action against the Hanseatic merchants and this led to a breakdown in relations between England and the Hanse. Caxton was involved in the negotiations to restore commercial relations between them. The political situation became complicated when the earl of Warwick's rebellion led to the deposition of Edward IV and the reinstatement of Henry VI. In due course Edward IV fled to the Low Countries where he received support from Charles of Burgundy. By patching up his dispute with the Hanse, Edward was able in 1471 to return to England in Hanse ships and to regain his throne.

The last reference to Caxton as governor is from 1470. Presumably he gave up the governorship in that year, for in 1471 he went to Cologne. He remained a mercer and merchant adventurer, but he had decided to extend his business by dealing in printed books. He may already have traded in manuscripts, for English merchants shipped many manuscripts to London from Flanders, an important centre for the production of luxury manuscripts. It was this business which might have encouraged him to go into printed books.

Acquiring the printing press

The register of aliens at Cologne records that William Caxton from England was given permission to reside there from 17 July 1471 until December 1472. Caxton himself, in his History of Troy, says that he had translated this book from French in Bruges, Ghent, and Cologne, where the translation was finished. Two conclusions arise from these facts: first, Caxton went to Cologne to acquire a printing press and the expertise to run a publishing business, and second, he embarked on the translation to provide material to be printed. The History of Troy was to become the first book printed in English. Caxton had decided on a publishing policy before he acquired a printing press, and set about the provision of appropriate material to achieve this policy. Everything that is known suggests that Caxton had done no translation before this one.

Some matters of dispute remain. In his prologue to the History of Troy Caxton dedicates the book to Margaret of Burgundy and refers to himself as ‘her servant’. Some have taken this to mean that he left the governorship of the English nation to enter Margaret's employment as secretary or librarian. This is improbable since merchants did not act in such a capacity, and ‘servant’ here implies no more than general deference. He also notes that he had started the translation but, after completing a few quires, had put the work aside in despair. Two years later he had shown this work to Margaret, who both approved the quality of the translation and commanded him to finish it. To some this has suggested that Margaret was the originator and patron of the project. But the acquisition of the printing press and the provision of translations show that Caxton had devised a strategy for the new venture. What may have interrupted the translation was the deposition of Edward IV and the resulting political uncertainty which this created in England. If the new venture was to succeed, books would have to be sold in England, for few on the continent were interested in buying books in English. Caxton's strategy involved selling printed books in English to people in England. In order to make these books attractive he would make translations of French texts which were fashionable in Flanders, and copies of many of the books he translated were found in the library of the duke of Burgundy. By issuing books in English he could achieve a monopoly of what was sold, for no one else provided this material; and by translating books popular in Flanders, he could appeal to the snobbery of English buyers who wanted to keep up with Burgundian fashion.

The acquisition of material would be no problem, since manuscripts of French texts were produced in abundance in Flanders, and Caxton knew scribes and booksellers there who supplied the ducal court and others with this kind of reading matter. What he needed were stable political conditions in England (which were re-established with the return of Edward IV) and a supply of English translations made by someone whose work was approved by the fashionable. Caxton could not get anyone to make the translations because the translator had to have recognized status. He decided to make the translations himself and to seek the support of someone influential. By writing that Margaret had approved the translation and commanded him to finish it, he was able to claim that his work carried the approval of the most fashionable Englishwoman of the time. No one would be able to call his style into question with that support. This story underlines Caxton's competence at marketing, for it is designed as an advertisement for his edition.

Printing had reached Cologne in 1464 and printed books from that city soon travelled down the Rhine to Flanders. Cologne was the Hanseatic town with the closest links to England and it had helped to settle the Hanse's dispute with Edward IV. Caxton may have had dealings with Cologne in his role as governor. It may be assumed that he had made arrangements with printers in Cologne to acquire a press before he went there, for when he arrived he entered into a partnership with Johannes Veldener, a printer and typecutter. Veldener was able to use the new capital that Caxton brought with him to print much larger volumes than before. Possibly the first book with which Caxton was associated as a co-publisher was Veldener's edition of Bartholomaeus Anglicus's De proprietatibus rerum (c.1472), for Wynkyn de Worde (d. 1535) mentions later that Caxton had learned printing in Cologne on this book. Caxton would have learned the art of printing and acquired a press, type, and men to run a workshop. But he should not be thought of as merely a printer; rather, he was a publisher who controlled the presses which produced his books. Wynkyn de Worde, Caxton's foreman in England, may have entered Caxton's employ in Cologne, for he was a German and knew about Caxton's work there.

At the end of 1472 Caxton returned to Bruges and was accompanied by Veldener and probably by de Worde. He set up his press and started to print the History of Troy. Veldener's hand has been detected in the initial compositorial work, but he left during the printing to move to Louvain. He did, however, continue to provide Caxton with new type. The History of Troy was finished in late 1473 or early 1474. It is a large work and would have taken time to complete. The finished books would be sent to England for sale. Caxton continued immediately with the printing of another of his translations, the Game of Chess, and that edition was completed on 31 March 1474.

When that was finished, there was a change in the material issuing from Caxton's press. The next four editions were all of French texts. This change may be explained by the difficulty Caxton found selling his books in England. To send a de luxe manuscript in French to be sold in London was one thing, but to dispose of two or three hundred copies of a printed edition in English was quite another. He may also have found it difficult to keep the press busy with translations in English, since he was himself the translator. He did not have sufficient time to make enough translations and yet he could not allow his men and presses to remain idle, because that would be expensive. He knew Flemish booksellers and scribes like Colard Mansion and he helped Mansion set up as a printer. He may have decided that as a temporary measure he would print and sell books in French, and this may have been done in partnership with Mansion. As a more permanent solution, he decided to return to England and set up his press there. In that way he could acquire material in English if he could not provide sufficient translated work and he could also oversee the sale of the books himself.

When Caxton returned to Bruges from Cologne, he did not cease to be a mercer or merchant adventurer. He was still engaged in diplomatic missions. In 1472 he received a full pardon from the king for any crimes committed until then. This may be merely a type of insurance to cover the period of political instability between 1470 and 1471 when Edward IV was deposed, but the implications of this pardon are not clear. After he had returned from Cologne, Caxton was employed by Edward in 1474 to negotiate with the Hanse, and in 1475 to provide the necessary shipping to transport the English army to the Low Countries. He also had some involvement in the provisioning of Calais at this time. He remained a trusted agent of the crown and a respected and influential person. He did not cease to enjoy the favour of those in power and he did not give up his merchant life to devote himself to books. Printing and publishing were an extension of his mercantile business; he was not a gentleman scholar–printer as some have portrayed him. Although an active and busy man, who would find it difficult to find time to make many translations, he did not give up the printing and publishing venture. Unlike most printers of this time, he did not go bankrupt; he remained in business until he died. What he did do was adjust his strategy to conditions he encountered; and one of these adjustments involved a return to England.

Return to England and final years

Probably in 1476, but possibly as early as 1475, Caxton brought his printing press to England. While an undated document, perhaps from early 1475, shows he was still abroad, the evidence of his printed output reveals he was established in England by the second half of 1476. He settled at Westminster rather than in London; he rented premises in Westminster Abbey at the sign of the Red Pale. Presumably he believed he could dispose of his books more easily from Westminster than from London; it was the home of the court and the administration. Many affluent and fashionable people came to Westminster and other tradesmen found them good customers for their wares.

The first book Caxton issued in England was the editio princeps of The Canterbury Tales. This was followed by a stream of printed material consisting of Caxton's own translations, works of English poets, English historical and chivalric prose, religious and didactic works, and a certain amount of jobbing printing which included material like indulgences. The bulk of this material was in English; work which was done to order might be in Latin. In England he published nothing in French. Over a hundred editions are attributed to Caxton, and some works were probably printed which have not survived. Lists of his editions are available in many sources. The various works he issued can be divided approximately as follows: eighteen he translated, printed, and published, though three works he translated he did not print; sixty-eight he printed and published, though these often included his own prologues and epilogues, and some were edited by Caxton; ten he printed; and a few texts printed abroad were published by him. The material he translated consists almost entirely of French works which had been written or printed recently in France or Flanders, for these could be presented as new and fashionable to his English buyers. The material he printed and published consisted of poetry in the Chaucerian style (rather than that in the alliterative style) and prose which was historical, religious, or chivalric, as well as works that had been translated by noblemen such as Anthony, Earl Rivers (d. 1483), the brother-in-law of Edward IV, or by clerics like John Trevisa (d. 1402).

Caxton continued to act as a merchant. He imported printed books from France and Flanders in bulk. He must have either sold these directly or passed them on to other booksellers. He had access to new foreign material from this extensive import business. As a bookseller many books and manuscripts passed through his shop. He sometimes experienced difficulty in acquiring a particular work, but probably much of what he printed came fortuitously to hand. If it was in his shop he might have chosen it to translate or print: what was important was that the text belonged to a certain type; it did not need to be a specific title. One ephemeral book could sell as well as another, provided it was new and fashionable. As a printer he accepted commissions to print documents and texts. Mostly these were small items like indulgences, though he did print works in Latin for authors like Guglielmo Traversagni or for those who wanted to use similar texts for pedagogical purposes. One or two books printed abroad were sold in England with his mark added to them, as though he had commissioned their printing.

Caxton continued to undertake commissions for the king, but these became less frequent as he got older. He was married and had at least one daughter, Elizabeth; but who his wife was and when his daughter was born are unknown. He participated in the life of the community and was a member of a fraternity in his local church, St Margaret's, Westminster. It is the churchwardens' accounts from St Margaret's which record his death, at Westminster Abbey. His burial is listed in the accounts for May 1491 to June 1492. From the position of the entry it is calculated that he died about March 1492. He left a will, but it is not extant. However, litigation arising from the will concerning his daughter Elizabeth and her husband, Gerard Crop, continued for several years after his death. Books bequeathed under his will to St Margaret's were still being disposed of in 1502.

The man and his work

No authentic portrait of Caxton exists. What is known about the man and his character comes from his printed books. The documentary sources, which refer mainly to his early life, are formal and tell us nothing about him as an individual. They show him behaving as most merchants of his time did, for there is nothing in them to suggest that Caxton was any different from any other merchant. He was hard-working and ambitious. Few merchants of his time achieved as much as he did. He must have had stores of energy to accomplish what he did: he was sufficiently far-sighted to see the opportunities opened up by the printing press and sufficiently well-organized to plan and carry out the plans he devised. He was not put off by temporary set-backs, as when Edward IV lost his throne in 1470. It is important to see a continuity in his career. He may have been a part-time diplomat all his life, an accomplishment which was very important in cultivating the great and the good who might buy or commission his publications, but he was essentially a man who bought and sold goods for his livelihood. Printed books were simply a different type of merchandise from that which he had sold in his earlier career.

It is possible that Caxton suffered from a feeling of inferiority in his career. He was born in the weald in Kent, where people spoke an English which was not fashionable in contemporary London. He went to school locally and did not reach London until he was probably about fourteen. He may have felt like a country boy in comparison with those of metropolitan origins. He became a successful businessman, but started to meet members of the aristocracy only after his elevation to the governorship in Bruges. When he returned to Westminster he was on the fringes of court life. He was not a learned man, but he published the writings of those he regarded as great authors. Throughout his work there is an element of fawning, both to the patrons whose names he used to sell his books and to authors he regarded as great creative artists. Some of this was required for his advertising; but it remains possible that though a successful entrepreneur he felt under the shadow of the nobility and recognized authors all his life.

Caxton certainly appreciated the importance of marketing. His prologues and epilogues are ‘blurbs’ intended to make his books attractive to potential customers. He cultivated the important people of his period, for they were able to influence the taste of others. Since much of the material he printed was ephemeral and fashionable, it was important that people should be encouraged to buy it in order to be seen to be in fashion. Patrons and patronage were essential for marketing purposes. His books had to be in a style which was acceptable to his buyers. The fifteenth century saw the acceptance of English as the major language in England, but its assumed poverty was such that it needed to be enriched in vocabulary and syntax from French and Latin. Hence Caxton imitated other translators of his time in keeping as close as possible to the original. He translated word for word rather than by sense, for in this way he could transfer the language of his source into his translation. He embellished his sources by creating doublets, consisting usually of the French word and an English word of similar meaning.

The question whether Caxton led or followed the taste of his time is irrelevant, because he was of his time and was influenced by prevailing attitudes. He introduced new material, but that material hardly deviated from what was typically being produced then. He was not a learned man, in that he may have learned some Latin at school and picked up French and Dutch. He was no scholar and his interest in literature was probably superficial and influenced by the prevailing taste. He did not seek learned works in Latin or English; he did not publish the writings of the English mystics or more technical works. He was not affected by the new humanism which was then sweeping through Europe. He was, however, a religious man of a traditional faith and there is no intimation that he was affected either by anti-clerical feeling or by Lollardy. In his translations he included stories of his visits to shrines and details of his religious reading. He was a man of the late medieval period, not of the Renaissance. His introduction of the printing press to England kept the old culture alive; it was not used in the service of the new learning.

N. F. Blake

Sources  

N. F. Blake, Caxton and his world (1969) · G. D. Painter, William Caxton: a quincentenary biography of England's first printer (1976) · L. Hellinga, Caxton in focus (1982) · W. J. B. Crotch, The prologues and epilogues of William Caxton, EETS, original ser., 176 (1928) · H. M. Nixon, ‘Caxton, his contemporaries and successors in the book trade from Westminster documents’, The Library, 5th ser., 31 (1976), 305–26 · L. Hellinga and W. Hellinga, ‘Caxton in the Low Countries’, Journal of the Printing Historical Society, 11 (1976–7), 19–32 · S. Corsten, ‘Caxton in Cologne’, Journal of the Printing Historical Society, 11 (1976–7), 1–18 · A. F. Sutton, ‘Caxton was a mercer: his social milieu and friends’, England in the fifteenth century [Harlaxton 1992], ed. N. Rogers (1994), 118–48 · N. F. Blake, William Caxton (1996), vol. 7 of English writers of the late middle ages, ed. M. C. Seymour (c.1996) · S. de Ricci, A census of Caxtons (1909) · N. F. Blake, Caxton's own prose (1973) · N. F. Blake, Caxton: England's first publisher (1976) · N. J. M. Kerling, ‘Caxton and the trade in printed books’, Book Collector, 4 (1955), 190–99 · P. Needham, The printer and the pardoner (1986) · L. Hellinga and H. Kelliher, ‘The Malory manuscript and Caxton’, Aspects of Malory, ed. D. S. Brewer and T. Takamiya (1981), 127–42 · L. A. Sheppard, ‘A new light on Colard Mansion’, Signature, 15, new ser. (1952), 28–39 · F. E. Penninger, William Caxton (1979) · E. G. Duff, William Caxton (1905) · W. Blades, The life and typography of William Caxton, England's first printer, with evidence of his typographical connection with Colard Mansion, the printer at Bruges, 2 vols. (1861–3) · N. Blake, William Caxton and English literary culture (1991) · C. E. Bühler, William Caxton and his critics (1960) · M. Kekewich, ‘Edward IV, William Caxton and literary patronage in Yorkist England’, Modern Language Review, 66 (1971), 481–7 · L. M. Matheson, ‘Printer and scribe: Caxton, the Polychronicon, and the Brut’, Speculum, 60 (1985), 593–614 · L. Lyell and F. D. Watney, eds., Acts of court of the Mercers' Company, 1453–1527 (1936) · W. W. Stein, ‘Die Merchant Adventurers in Utrecht’, Hansische Geschichtsblätter, 9 (1899), 179–89 · M. R. Thielemans, Bourgogne et Angleterre: relations politiques et économiques entre les Pays-Bas bourguignons et l’Angleterre, 1435–1467 (Brussels, 1966) · C. Ross, Edward IV (1974) · D. MacGibbon, Elizabeth Woodville (1437–1492): her life and times (1938) · M. J. Hughes, ‘Margaret of York, duchess of Burgundy: diplomat, patroness, bibliophile and benefactress’, Private Library, 3rd ser., 7 (1984), 3–17 · W. G. Hellinga and L. Hellinga, The fifteenth-century printing types of the Low Countries, 2 vols. (1966) · E. L. Eisenstein, The printing press as an agent of change, 2 vols. (1979) · E. G. Duff, The printers, stationers, and bookbinders of London and Westminster in the fifteenth century (1899) · J. Griffiths and D. A. Pearsall, Book production and publishing in Britain, 1385–1475 (1989) · C. A. J. Armstrong, England, France and Burgundy in the fifteenth century (1983) · churchwardens' accounts, St Margaret's, Westminster

Archives  

city archives, Bruges · Historisches Archiv der Stadt Köln, Cologne · Mercers' Hall, London, acts of court of Mercers' Company and wardens' account book · Westminster Abbey Archives, London |  GL, journal books of common council of city of London · TNA: PRO, close rolls, treaty rolls, patent rolls, warrants under the signet, early chancery proceedings, issue rolls of exchequer, treasury receipts, controlment rolls


Likenesses  

manuscript illumination, c.1475, Hunt. L.