Britains first Printing Press
Caxton, born in Kent but apprenticed to a great London cloth merchant in his teens, spent much of his working life in Bruges, firstly representing his merchant master Robert Large, then as a merchant in his own right. Eventually he was Governor of the Merchant Adventurers of London there, a partly diplomatic position entailing contact with Edward IV and Margaret of Burgundy.
Political and economic turbulence saw Caxton for a time living in Cologne in the early 1470s. Cologne had overtaken Mainz and Strasbourg as the centre of printing trade and technology, and entrepreneurial Caxton evidently recognized an opportunity, printing De proprietatibus rerum, an Encyclopaedia there. Back in Bruges he produced the first printed book in English, from a translation he did while in Cologne, The Recuyell of the Histories of Troye.
In the 1470s Caxton – no longer merchant Governor - had fewer ties to Bruges, and returned to England. It is known from a rental agreement he was in Westminster in September 1476.
Caxton was based in the precincts of Westminster Abbey , his office in the Almonry known as The Red Pale. His actual press may even have been in the Abbey itself. Some sources cite modern Tothill Street as the spot chosen for it. Much of his early output was of a religious nature: service books; the lives of saints destined to inform sermons; indulgences printed for the church even.
A manager, an entrepreneur and a translator; Caxton though he understood the techniques probably left printing to skilled immigrants he brought over with his press, with the Dutch Wynkyn de Worde who succeeded to Caxton’s business thought to have been among them.
Caxton brought back from his ventures in Cologne and Bruges two sets of type, probably the work of Johann Veldener. The Troy book had used a font based on Burgundian court script, and Caxton stuck with this for his early work in England. There is debate about which book was the first printed in England: Chaucer ’s Canterbury Tales is the likeliest – there was a good market with the nobility for such diversions; the other candidate is The Dictes or Sayingis of the Philosophres, translated by the king’s brother-in-law Earl Rivers, the first dated book– November 18 1477 – printed in English.
The output of his press before his death in 1492 was roughly 100 books; this included the first medical book in English; the first service book; and the first printed laws. Unlike many pioneers following him Caxton the canny merchant was commercially successful, exploiting a variety of markets – the nobility, clergy, scholars and schools among them – and enjoying noble and royal patronage.
More British History here
On this day: