British Library Treasures in full: Caxton's Chaucer
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1. The merchant

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

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 much earlier.

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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Related links

The Mercers' Company

References

A. Sutton, 'Caxton was a Mercer: His Social Milieu and Friends'
Raoul Lefèvre, Le Recueil des histoires de Troyes [English] Recuyell of the historyes of Troye (Translated by William Caxton)

Maps

Burgundian Lands in 1477
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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