William Caxton

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William Caxton (ca. 1415~1422 – ca. 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 in the same trade were all Dutch, German or French).

Contents

Biography

Early life

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 in 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 record 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 larger sums, it would seem he was not a senior apprentice at this time.

Later life

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 1473: 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, 2004–07). 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 in 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 fifties, so he was only able to print for approximately 20 years before his death.

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