William Caxton Father of English Printing

It is a curious fact that the first English – language book was produced not in England, but on the continent. William Caxton learned about the mystery of printing in the Low Countries, and it was in Bruges that he translated a French work, ” The Tales of Troy, ” through his printing press.

An engraved vintage illustration image of  William Caxton reading the first proof sheet from his printing press, from a Victorian book dated 1886
An engraved vintage illustration image of William Caxton reading the first proof sheet from his printing press, from a Victorian book dated 1886

Some histories of printing say that this was because printing was regarded in England as the work of the Devil. It is true that the new craft was bitterly opposed by the artists and calligraphers who transcribed and decorated the handwritten books. But the general public never regarded printing as the contrivance of the devil. After all, some of the earliest printed works were commisioned by the Pope.

Apprentice

In Bruges, Caxton did his first printing because he found a master printer who would oversee his work there. That was Colard Mansion, a renowned artisan of his time. As soon as Caxton was sure of his technique, he bought a press and some type, returned to England and set up his printery in a Westminster Abbey outbuilding.

woodcut by William Caxton showing print
woodcut by William Caxton showing print

William Caxton was born about 1422 in Kent. At 14, he was apprenticed to Robert Lange, a wealthy cloth merchant from the City of London who a few years later became a Lord Mayor. Historians speculate that when Large died in 1441, he left some of the money to young Caxton.

Some years later, Caxton travelled to Burgundy with the reputation of a talented but well-educated businessman and then later moving to the Netherlands. The fact that he held various offices equivalent to that of a modern consul in Burgundy and Antwerp proves that he was highly respected.

He was a man of high energy and initiative, and he found his official duties too light to challenge him. To occupy his time he began to translate a famous French work on the Trojan Wars into English.

Early Years of Printing

Caxton’s friends enjoyed his translation, and he wanted as many as possible to have copies. However, manuscript versions, though done with quickness and neatness that would astound us today, were still too expensive for Caxton. So he turned to the burgeoning art of printing realising if he could operate a press himself then he would be able to make a tidy profit.

He appears to have gone to Cologne to learn the new techniques. It was not an easy endeavour, for the dozen or so printers that were working jealously guarded their secrets. They worked behind locked doors, and for a long time, few were willing to impart their knowledge. Caxton wrote: “I have practised and learned my at my great charge and dispense to ordain this said book in print after the manner and form as you may see here.”

Caxton went from Cologne to Bruges where he was able to finance a new press with Collard Mansion. The first book that he produced was Caxton’s own “Tales of Troy,” with 351 leaves, printed on one side only. It was well received in England, and Caxton felt confident enough to set up a printing shop in London.

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Edward IV had married Elizabeth of Burgundy, whose sister, the Duchess Margaret of Burgundy, had been a friend and patron of Caxton on the Continent. Probably from family influence, Caxton received the immediate support of King Edward in the setup of his new venture. After a few trial efforts in the way of tracts and pamphlets, he printed “The sayings of the Philosophers translated from French by Earl Rivers, the Queen’s brother. This was in 1477.

Fine Record

The next year Caxton published an edition of Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” an event of great significance in English Literary history. He died in 1491 but not before he had printed 99 books in 14 years.

Although Caxton’s books have no claim to beauty, he was much interested in all he printed. He was not a mere mechanical producer, but he laboured as an author, translator, and editor as well. He published for the English market, undoubtedly with the view to seeking sales, and his works were so well read that very few survived.

He printed entirely in Black Letter type, which was based upon the old script. His books have no title pages, though some have prologues and colophons. (end pieces giving information about composition and date of printing).

At first, he had initial letters of his chapters and other decorative work done by hand, but later he followed the continental practice of printing these sometimes in red.

Poetry and Romance

While the printers in the Lowlands, Germany, and Italy were busy printing Latin texts, Caxton preferred to produce volumes of English poetry and romance. Caxton was a crucial figure in the history of the western world as he helped to create a demand for literature and good translations. His marvellous business acumen joined with his love of reading made him a considerable figure in the history of English Literature.

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