Between 25 June 1437 and 24 June 1438 Robert
Large, a London merchant, paid two shillings to the Mercers’ Company.
This was a fee for taking on William Caxton as apprentice.
This is our earliest
record of Caxton. Robert Large need not have paid
the fee immediately after taking Caxton on, but it
is reasonable to assume that the payment
was fairly close in time. As an apprentice Caxton
cannot have been younger than 14 and it is unlikely
that he was older than 17, so he was probably
born between 1420 and 1424.
The merchant from Caxton's second edition of The
Canterbury Tales. The British Library G. 11586, f.i7 v.
The Mercers’ Company was a London
guild of wholesale merchants. Although it is no longer a guild of
merchants, the Mercers’ Company is still in existence, and several
of the documents relating to Caxton are still in its archives.
Being apprenticed to Robert Large must have been a
good start. He was one of the four annual Wardens of the Mercers’ Company
in 1427, Sheriff of London in 1430 and, in 1439, he was Lord Mayor. When
he died in 1441, he left a sum of money to each of his apprentices, including
Caxton. In 1452 Caxton became a full member of the Mercers’ Company.
Caxton may still have been an apprentice when he moved to Bruges.
In the preface to The Recuyell of the Histories of Troy
(printed c. 1473) he said that he had spent 30 years living in various
places in the Low Countries. This is perhaps a conveniently round
figure, but it seems probable that he went there in about 1443.
His presence in Bruges is not documented until 2 January 1450, however.
This was in connection with a lawsuit which must have been begun
In the 1460s Caxton assumed a leading role among the English merchants
in Bruges, as Governor of the English Nation. This involved him in
mediation between members of the Nation, and he also acted as their
representative in lawsuits and other dealings with the authorities
in the Low Countries.
Bruges was the most important and prosperous commercial centre
of Northern Europe, where northerners traded with merchants from
Venice and Florence and further afield. From an English perspective,
it was the main continental outlet for English woollen cloth, which
Caxton sold while he bought a variety of manufactured luxury goods
for importation into England. A document from 1453 gives us an insight
into the sort of things Caxton imported: a cargo of which he was
part owner was seized by the customs officers at Nieuwpoort near
Ostend, and they listed what was on board, including furs, silk,
ermine and saffron. The fur hat worn by the merchant in the Canterbury
Tales was imported from Flanders. Chaucer mentioned the merchant’s
Flemish hat to emphasise the luxury of his attire.
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