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William Caxton’s Chaucer

Image from William Caxton’s Chaucer

The Canterbury Tales
British Library G.11586
Copyright © The British Library Board
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Caxton was both the first to print a book in English, and the first English printer. He realised the commercial potential of the new technology while working as a merchant in the Low Countries and Germany, birthplace of printing in Europe. Around 1475, Caxton set up his own printing press in London. Among his earliest books are two magnificent editions of the 14th-century classic, Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’: the first published in 1476 and the second, illustrated with woodblock prints, in 1483.

Who was William Caxton?

He was born in Kent in the early 1420s. As a teenager he was sent to London and apprenticed to Robert Large, a successful merchant. William took to the mercantile life with enthusiasm and was soon trading in the Low Countries, where he lived for 30 years.

For four of those years he acted as Governor of the English Nation of Merchant Adventurers at Bruges, protecting economic interests of the English government and his fellow merchants. Bruges was the major commercial centre of Northern Europe, with traders coming from as far as the Middle East. Caxton sold English woollen cloth and bought foreign luxury goods for import to England.

Caxton lived through the Wars of the Roses, a long and turbulent power struggle between the Houses of Lancaster and York for the English throne. Like most merchants, he was a supporter of the York faction. It was under the patronage of a Yorkist king, Edward IV that he became Governor of the English merchants at Bruges.

In this official capacity he negotiated trade agreement with the city’s rulers, the Dukes of Burgundy. This connection with the Burgundian court led to Caxton’s appointment as secretary to the Duchess of Burgundy, who was Margaret of York, sister to Edward IV. She had been married to the duke, Charles the Bold, to cement the alliance of England and Burgundy against the French.

How did he come to be a printer?

Although printing with moveable type had been invented in 11th-century China, in Europe the technology was not developed until the mid-15th century. The first full-scale book was printed in 1455 by Johann Gutenberg of Mainz.

In 1471, Caxton was in Cologne, having left the household of the Duchess of Burgundy and lost his post as Governor of the English merchants, perhaps as a result of a Lancastrian coup of 1470 that temporarily forced Edward IV from the throne. As a university city as well as an important commercial centre, Cologne was an ideal location for the fledgling book trade. By the 1470s it had become the most important centre of printing in north-west Germany.

Caxton may have already traded in books while he was in Bruges, but in Cologne he acquired first-hand knowledge of how they were produced. He worked with Johann Schilling to publish an edition of a 13th-century encyclopaedia, ‘De proprietatibus rerum’ – ‘On the Nature of Things’ - written by Bartholomeus Anglicus.

Caxton was not a printer in the sense of being an inky-handed craftsman. Rather, he was a translator and publisher. While still in Bruges he had made a start on an English translation of Raoul Le Fèvre's stories of the Trojan Wars, the ‘Recueil des Histoires de Troye’. In Cologne he had free time enough to finish the work, and in 1472 he returned to Bruges with the finished manuscript, which he presented to the Duchess of Burgundy.

But he had bigger plans for the translation. With the help of his new-found expertise and a calligrapher called Colard Mansion, he set up his own press and, around 1475, published the first printed book in English: his ‘Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye’.

In 1476 Caxton returned to London, bringing with him the type and craftsmen needed to set up a printing press at Westminster, the first in England. The venture proved an instant success. Caxton published around 100 books, several of them his own translations of French originals. When he died in 1492, the press continued to thrive for another 40 years under Wynkyn de Worde, one Caxton’s immigrant workers.

What is the ‘Canterbury Tales’?

The ‘Canterbury Tales’ is a long poem, written at the end of the 14th century, by Geoffrey Chaucer, who is credited as having set the style for Middle English literature. His poem follows the journey of a group of pilgrims from London to Canterbury Cathedral. Each pilgrim resolves to tell two tales on the way out and two on the way home to help while away their time on the road.

This literary device gives Chaucer the opportunity to paint a series of vivid word portraits of a cross-section of his society. Chaucer’s strong characterisation mixes satire with realism. The tone of the tales ranges from pious to comic, with humour veering from the erudite to the downright vulgar.

When was Caxton’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ printed?

The first edition was not dated, but analysis of its type and paper suggests it was printed in 1476. There is no date on the second edition either, though most scholars agree that it was probably produced in 1483.

According to its preface, the second edition was prompted by a young gentleman’s complaint that the first edition did not entirely match the manuscript in his father’s library. In fact, there is much variation between all surviving manuscripts of the ‘Canterbury Tales’. Caxton’s preface expresses his desire to make amends – but, no doubt, the prospect of further profits following the success of the first edition was the major consideration.

Who were Caxton’s readers?

The invention of printing from movable type radically changed the readership of books. Until then, all books were written by hand. They are known as manuscripts from the Latin for hand, ’manus’, and writing, ’scriptum’.

Because manuscript making was slow and laborious, books were expensive luxury items. They were individually commissioned by well-to-do patrons, the only people who could afford them. Printing changed all that. Comparatively rapid production of nearly identical copies meant books were much cheaper and the market for them correspondingly wider. Merchants such as Caxton smelled a profit.

At the end of his ‘Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye’ Caxton wrote, “I have practised and earned at my great charge and dispense to ordain this said book in print after the manner and form as you may here see, and is not written with pen and ink as other books been, to the end that every man may have them at once.”

The increased availability of books was to have profound social and political effects. How much this concerned Caxton is not known. As a businessman he certainly had a shrewd eye for the market, both in his choice of books to print and in the design of their type.

For his first books in Cologne, Caxton used type created by Johan Veldener in the gothic-style handwriting used in Universities – an ‘educated’ hand that would appeal to his target audience. Back in Bruges, he had a new type designed to match the handwriting in the luxury manuscripts made for the Burgundian court.

Caxton used another Burgundian-style type for the 1476 edition of the ‘Canterbury Tales’. Chaucer’s popular classic was itself a canny choice for his first major project in England. The second edition was printed in a smaller size of the same type design. Smaller type meant more words on each page. Fewer pages meant cheaper production costs - and more profit. The second edition was also made more commercially appealing by the addition of 26 woodcut illustrations, one at the beginning of each tale, usually showing a pilgrim on horseback.

Despite the wider readership of the printed book, printers still had to keep in favour with the aristocracy. 1483, the year that saw the second edition of the 'Canterbury Tales', also saw the death of Edward IV, a supporter of Caxton's work. When the throne was seized by his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, Caxton lost little time in acknowledging the new regime. The next year his 'Ordre of Chyvalry or Knyghthode' was wisely dedicated to Richard III.

The defeat of Richard by Henry VII in 1485 established the Tudor dynasty and restored Caxton’s connections at court. A few years later he was commissioned to print the parliamentary statutes passed under Henry VII. For the first time, they were printed in English rather than French – a measure of technological and social change in the age of Caxton.

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