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William Caxton

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Born in the Weald of Kent, c. 1422; died at Westminster, 1491; the first English printer and the introducer of the art of printing into England. Of his life we have little definite information beyond that given us by himself in the prefaces and epilogues to his printed books. He thanks his parents for having given him an education that fitted him to earn a living, though he says nothing as to the place where he had been educated. From the records of the Mercers' Company we learn that in 1438 (the first definite date of his life that is known) he was apprenticed to Robert Large, a well-known and wealthy London mercer. About 1446 he became a merchant on his own account and settled at Bruges, and, being a good man of business, soon became prosperous. In 1453 he went to England for his formal admittance to the Mercers' Company, and in 1465 he was appointed governor for Bruges of the Merchant Adventurers, an association of English merchants. This important position involved delicate and responsible commercial negotiations, and Caxton seems to have fulfilled his duties honourably and with success. About 1470 a change took place in his life. He gave up his connexion with commerce, and entered the service of Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy, sister of Edward IV. It is not known why he did this, but it may well be that he wished for greater freedom for literary work. He had already begun his first translation from the French, the "Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye", and this he finished in 1471, dedicating it to his patroness, the Duchess of Burgundy. It was this piece of work which led him to turn his attention to the art of printing. The book in manuscript was much sought after, and the labour of copying was too heavy and too slow to meet the demand. Therefore, he says, "I have practysed & lerned at my grete charge & dispense to ordeyne this said book in prynte…that every man may have them attones."

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There is some evidence to show that Caxton first learned printing at Cologne, where other famous printers had learned it, but the question is still under debate. His first book, the "Recuyell", was undoubtedly printed at Bruges in 1474, at the press of Colard Mansion, an illuminator of manuscripts, who had set up a press in that city in 1473. Caxton's second book, the "Game & Pleye of Chess", another translation from the French, came, it is almost certain, from the same press in 1475.

The highest point of interest in Caxton's life is reached when in 1476, returning to England, he set up a printing press of his own at Westminster. The first dated book issued from this press was the "Dictes and sayings of the Philosophers " and bears the imprint 1477. From this date to the end of his life he issued ninety-six books from the Westminster press, including, amongst others, the works of Chaucer and Gower, Sir Thomas Malory's "Morte d'Arthur", and various translations of more or less classical works from French, Latin, and Dutch, together with a number of smaller books, a good many of which are religious. His industry was very great, and he died in the midst of his work. He was not only a skilful master printer and publisher of books, but to some extent a man of letters–editor, author, translator–with a certain style of his own and a true enthusiasm for literature. His work as writer and translator helped to fix the literary language of England in the sixteenth century. Specimens of his printed books exist in various public and private libraries. The British Museum possesses eighty-three Caxton volumes, twenty-five of which are duplicates.


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