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First Impressions

William Caxton c.1421 - 1492

"Therfore I haue practysed & lerned at my grete charge and dispense to ordeyne this said book in prynte after the maner & forme as ye may here see / and is not wreton with penne and ynke as other bokes ben / to thende that euery man may haue them attones / ffor all the bookes of this storye named the recule of the historyes of troyes thus enpryntid as ye here see were begonne in oon day / and also fynysshid in oon day / whiche book I haue presented to my sayd redoubtid lady as a fore is sayd"

Caxton was a very successful English cloth merchant and diplomat who worked on the continent for about thirty years. From 1467, the year of her marriage to Charles, Duke of Burgundy, he was associated with the household of Margaret of York, sister of the English king Edward IV. She became one of his most important patrons and encouraged him with his translation from French to English of The Recuyell of the Histories of Troye. He built up a wide circle of contacts and whilst in Cologne in 1471 learnt the art of printing, which he clearly recognised for its commercial possibilities. Between 1473 and 1475 he produced a few books from his printing presses in Ghent and Bruges, probably with the assistance of other type founders and printers. They sought out the equipment on Caxton's behalf, purchasing the presses and two different typefaces, which were French-style variants of the Gothic script popular in England and known as bâtarde. Throughout his career Caxton employed compositors, pressmen and other skilled craftsmen to produce books for him: he was a businessman, and we should not imagine him working the presses himself.

Caxton came to recognise that the full potential for books printed in English could only be exploited by moving his enterprise to England, and by 1476 he was back here and had established a printing press near Westminster Abbey.

Around eighty percent of the books that he printed were in English, and he translated and edited a large number of works himself. However, this was not without its complications as the English language was changing rapidly and many of the texts he was given to print were in a variety of styles and dialects.

In 1490 he wrote about this dilemma in his printer's preface to Eneydos, a romance based on Vergil's epic poem the Aeneid.

"And certaynly our langage now used varyeth ferre [varies far] from that whiche was used and spoken whan I was borne ... And thus bytwene playn, rude, and curyous I stande abasshed, but in my judgemente the comyn termes that be dayli used ben lyghter to be understonde than the olde and auncyent englysshe."

Caxton began the process of standardising the English language through printing and he became known as the father of English printing. He refined the art of printing in England and even commissioned other printers to carry out for him work that was beyond the technical capabilities of his own presses. In 1487 the French printer Guillaume Maynyal printed a missal (mass book) in red and black, which required great accuracy and skill to produce. It was also the first book to bear Caxton's famous 'W.C.' printer's device. Only one copy of this book survives, at Lyme Park in Cheshire.

William Caxton was about fifty when he printed his first work, but in the twenty years between embarking on his printing enterprise and his death in 1492 he produced over one hundred books. The titles he produced such as Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (1476), Dictes or Sayengis of the Philosophres (1477), The Golden Legend (1483) and The Book of the Knight in the Tower (1484) had a wide appeal particularly amongst the nobility and gentry, but also 'emonge marchantes and other commone people'.

Discover more about William Caxton.