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Caxton showing the first specimen of his printing to king Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville (a very fanciful composition).

William Caxton (c. 1415~1422–c. March 1492) was an English merchant, diplomat, writer and printer. As far as is known, he was the first English person to work as a printer and the first to introduce a printing press into England. He was also the first English retailer of printed books (his London contemporaries were all Dutch, German or French).



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 date 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 the Weald of Kent. Oral tradition in Hadlow claims that Caxton was born there; as does Tenterden. One of the manors of Hadlow was Caustons, owned by the Caxton family. 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, Sussex.[1]

Caxton was in London by 1438, when the registers of the Mercers' Company records 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 more, it would seem he was not a senior apprentice at this time.

The printer's device of William Caxton, 1478
Facsimile of page 1 of Godefrey of Boloyne, printed by Caxton, London, 1481. ---- The Prologue, at the top of page, begins: Here begynneth the boke Intituled Eracles, and also Godefrey of Boloyne, the whiche speketh of the Conquest of the holy lande of Jherusalem. The blank space on this page was for the insertion by hand of an illuminated initial T.

He 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 sister of the English King. 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, Colard Mansion, on which the first book to be printed in English was produced in 1475: Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye,[2] a translation by Caxton himself. Bringing the knowledge back to his native land, he set up a press at Westminster in 1476 and the first book known to have been issued there was an edition of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (Blake, 2004–7). Another early title was Dictes or Sayengis of the Philosophres (Sayings of the Philosophers), first printed on 18 November 1477, written by Earl Rivers, the king's brother-in-law. Caxton's translation of the Golden Legend, published in 1483, and The Book of the Knight in the Tower, published 1484, contain perhaps the earliest verses of the Bible to be printed in English. It is important to note that Caxton did not begin printing until he was in his middle 50s, so he was only able to print for approximately 20 years before his death.

Caxton produced chivalric romances, classical-authored works and English and Roman histories. These books strongly appealed to English upper classes around the end of the fifteenth century. Caxton was supported by, but not dependent on, nobility and gentry.

Some works printed by Caxton were Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers, Le Morte d'Arthur and works of Christine de Pizan all translated from French, and Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales which was the first work published in England.

Caxton's precise date of death is uncertain, but estimates from the records of his burial in St. Margaret's, Westminster, show that he died near March of the calendar year 1492. However, George D. Painter makes numerous references to the year 1491 in his book William Caxton: a biography as the year of Caxton's death, since according to the calendar used at the time, the year-change hadn't happened yet. Painter writes, "However, Caxton's own output reveals the approximate time of his death, for none of his books can be later than 1491, and even those which are assignable to that year are hardly enough for a full twelve months' production; so a date of death towards autumn of 1491 could be deduced even without confirmation of documentary evidence." (p. 188)

Caxton and the English language

Caxton printed four-fifths of his works in English. He translated a large number of works into English. He translated and edited a large amount of the work himself. Caxton is credited with printing as many as 108 books, 87 of which were different titles. Caxton also translated 26 of the titles himself.

However, the English language was changing rapidly in Caxton's time and the works 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 he printed. (He wrote about this subject in the preface to his Eneydos.[3]) His successor Wynkyn de Worde faced similar problems.

Caxton is credited with standardising the English language (that is, homogenising regional dialects) through printing. This facilitated the expansion of English vocabulary, the development of inflection and syntax and the ever-widening gap between the spoken and the written word.

However, Richard Pynson, who started printing in London in 1491 or 1492 and who favoured Chancery Standard, was a more accomplished stylist and consequently pushed the English language further toward standardisation.

It is asserted that the spelling ghost with the silent letter h was adopted by Caxton due to the influence of Dutch spelling habits.[citation needed]


Billionaire Bruce Kovner named his firm Caxton Associates in honour of the printer.


  1. ^ Thirsk, Joan (editor) (2007). Hadlow, Life, Land & People in a Wealden Parish 1460 ~ 1600. Kent Archaeological Society. pp. 107–109. ISBN 978 0 906746 70 7. 
  2. ^ STC 2nd ed item 4920
  3. ^ Caxton's Chaucer - Caxton's English


Further reading

  • 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.

External links



Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

William Caxton (c. 14201492) was the first English printer and publisher. He was also a prolific translator of French romances, and an author in his own right.


  • And thus love is founded otherwhile upon good prouffitable and this love endureth as longe as he seeth his prouffit. And herof men saye a comyn proverbe in England that love lasteth as longe as the money endureth and whan the money faylleth than there is no love.
    • The Game and Playe of the Chesse, Bk. III (1474) [1]
  • The worshipful fader and first foundeur and enbelissher of ornate eloquence in our Englissh. I mene Maister Geffrey Chaucer.
    • Epilogue to Boethius De Consolacione Philosophie (1478); cited from Daniel Wakelin Humanism, Reading, and English Literature, 1430-1530 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007) p. 15
  • He that wil wynne he muste laboure and aventure.
    • The History of Reynard the Foxe (1481); cited from Edward Arber An Introductory Sketch to the Martin Marprelate Controversy, 1588-1590 (New York: AMS Press, 1967) p. 27.
  • Al these thynges consydered, there can no man resonably gaynsaye but there was a kyng of thys lande named Arthur. For in al places, Crysten and hethen, he is reputed and taken for one of the nine worthy, and the fyrst of the thre Crysten men.
    • Preface to Sir Thomas Malory Le Morte Darthur (1485); cited from Sir Thomas Malory (ed. Eugène Vinaver) Works (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978) p. xiv.
  • For we Englysshe men ben borne under the domynacyon of the mone, whiche is never stedfaste but ever waverynge, wexynge one season and waneth and dyscreaseth another season. And that comyn Englysshe that is spoken in one shyre varyeth from a-nother, in so moche that in my dayes happened that certayn marchauntes were in a ship in Tamyse for to have sayled over the see into Zelande, and, for lacke of wynde, thei taryed atte Forlond, and wente to lande for to refreshe them. And one of theym named Sheffelde, a mercer, cam in to an hows and axed for mete and specyally he axyd after eggys, and the goode wyf answerde that she could speke no Frenshe. And the marchaunt was angry, for he also coude speke no Frenshe, but wolde have hadde egges; and she understode hym not. And thenne at laste a-nother sayd that he wolde have eyren. Then the good wyf sayd that she understod hym wel. Loo, what sholde a man in thyse dayes now wryte, egges, or eyren? Certaynly it is hard to playse every man, by-cause of dyversite and chaunge of langage.
    • For we Englishmen are born under the domination of the moon, which is never steadfast but ever wavering, waxing one season and waning and decreasing another season. And that common English that is spoken in one shire varies from another, so that in my days it happened that certain merchants were in a ship on the Thames to sail over the sea to Zealand, and for lack of wind, they tarried at Foreland, and went to land to refresh themselves. And one of them named Sheffelde, a mercer, came to a house and asked for food, and especially he asked for egges, and the good woman answered that she could speak no French. And the merchant was angry, for he also could speak no French, but wanted to have egges, and she did not understand him. And then at last another said that he wanted eyren. Then the good woman said that she understood him well. Lo, what should a man in these days now write, egges or eyren? Certainly it is heard to please every man, because of diversity and change of language.
    • Preface to the Eneydos, 1490

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