British Library Treasures in full: Caxton's Chaucer
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Caxton's life  1  2  3  4  5

3. From Flanders to Cologne

Caxton ceased to be Governor of the English Nation in Bruges in, or just after, 1470. Certainly by 1472 John Pickering is mentioned as Governor. Perhaps it was because of the changing political situation back in England. In 1469 Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, ‘the king-maker’, staged a Lancastrian coup and made a show of restoring Henry VI to power. Edward IV fled England and landed in the Low Countries on 9 October 1470. He was protected by Louis de Gruuthuse, first in the Hague and later in Bruges in his magnificent town house, which still stands.

The Gruuthuse in Bruges
The Gruuthuse town house in the 1640s; the wing at the back and at the left much as they were in the 1470s. Antonius Sanderus, Flandria illustrata (Cologne, 1641-44), p.270.

Caxton had strong Yorkist connections so he was well placed to improve his contacts with Edward’s court during the exile, but with a Lancastrian king in power back in England, his position as representative of the English Nation was perhaps becoming difficult. By 17 July 1471 he was in Cologne. At that date he obtained a Geleit from the city, which granted him a specific legal status. Twice he ensured that his Geleit was renewed, the last extension expiring on 19 December 1472.

Cologne in 1493
Cologne from Hartmann Schedel, Liber chronicarum. Nuremberg: Anton Koberger, 12 July 1493. Larger image

Printing was introduced to Cologne in the mid 1460s, the first printer being Ulrich Zell who had worked in Mainz in the workshop of Gutenberg’s successors. Unusually among early printing towns, Cologne also had an important university. Combining a good local market for books with the advantages of being a major trading centre, Cologne soon overtook Mainz and Strasbourg to become the dominant printing city of the western and northern parts of Germany.

Cologne was one of the towns that constituted the Hanseatic League and, situated on the Rhine, it was of particular importance for trade with England. Although the rivers of Europe were not the well-regulated waterways that we know today, shipping was more reliable and far easier than land-based transport. The export of books followed established trade routes from Cologne to the Low Countries and England, towards the German and Scandinavian cities on the Baltic Sea, and to central Germany and further east into present-day Poland.

We do not know why Caxton went to Cologne. He had previously been there as ambassador for Edward IV, and there were outstanding matters between Cologne and Edward, especially after he regained power later in 1471. However the Cologne records do not suggest that Caxton was in the city in an official capacity. Nor would it seem that he was in Cologne on his normal business for, in the preface to the Recuyell of the Histories of Troy, he wrote that he managed to finish his translation of the Histories in Cologne ‘because that I have now good leisure, being in Cologne and have none other thing to do at this time’. He finished his translation on 9 September 1471.

But he did more than this. This was where he first published a printed book, De proprietatibus rerum, then a well-known encyclopedia of the world written in Latin by Bartholmaeus Anglicus, that is ‘Bartholomew the Englishman’. Much later, about 1495, Wynkyn de Worde, Caxton’s successor, mentioned that Caxton had been the first ever to print this work, while in Cologne. Although his name does not appear, only one Cologne edition can be the one which he produced. Caxton would not have been involved in the practical work. His role was that of an entrepreneur, the publisher rather than the printer. Scholars have long agreed that the typeface was designed by Johann Veldener, and it has been argued, convincingly, that the actual printer was Johann Schilling.

Tell me more:


J. G. Birch, 'William Caxton's Stay at Cologne'
Paul Needham, 'William Caxton and his Cologne Partners'
Scott McKendrick, 'Lodewijk van Gruuthuse en de librije van Edward IV'
Horst Buzellos, 'Köln und England 1468-1509'
Raoul Lefèvre, Le Recueil des histoires de Troyes [English] Recuyell of the historyes of Troye (Translated by William Caxton)
Bartholomaeus Anglicus, De proprietatibus rerum
1. The merchant
2. Trade and politics
3. From Flanders to Cologne
4. Printer in the Low Countries
5. From Flanders to Westminster

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