Caxton prospered in Flanders. By 12 August 1462
he had been appointed Governor of the English Nation at Bruges,
the organisation of English merchants in Flanders which protected
the joint interest of the merchants abroad and which adjudicated
disputes between members. He remained Governor until some time between
autumn 1470 and March 1471. The Governor also had a significant
political role and often acted as ambassador on behalf of the English
king. That function may partly explain both why Caxton was appointed
and also why he ceased to occupy the position.
The English Merchants’ House in Bruges, as
it was in the 1640s. Antonius Sanderus, Flandria illustrata
(Cologne, 1641-44), p.275.
The English Nation in Flanders was dominated
by the Mercers’ Company. In the extended conflict between
Yorkists and Lancastrians, called the Wars of the Roses, the mercers
tended to support the Yorkist side. Caxton’s predecessor as
Governor was a Lancastrian, and he was not a mercer. It is highly
likely that Caxton, a Yorkist, replaced him shortly after Edward
IV became king in 1461 having ousted the Lancastrian Henry VI. But
even with a Yorkist king the situation was complex.
The mercers based in Flanders depended on bilateral trade between
Flanders and England, but it was in the interest of the London-based
mercers to put restrictions on the importation of goods. In 1463
Parliament imposed an embargo on the importation of luxury items
from Flanders. It was Caxton’s duty as Governor of the English
Nation to ensure that these rules were obeyed.
Sheep being shorn near a canal. A calendar page
for June from a manuscript Book of Hours written in Bruges between
1500 and 1515. The British Library MS Eg 1147 f.11v. Larger
The Duchy of Burgundy shared with England a political
interest in resisting the power of the kingdom of
France, but Burgundy also had trade concerns of
its own. English woollen cloth was perceived
as being sold too cheaply in Bruges, undercutting
locally woven cloth. Wool as raw material was imported
from England via Calais, which was
then an English enclave surrounded by land controlled
by the Duke of Burgundy. This wool was felt to be
sold at excessively high prices, also
damaging Flemish weavers. As a result, the Duke imposed
trade restrictions on English cloth.
On 20 October 1464 Edward IV appointed Caxton as
one of his envoys to negotiate a new trade agreement with
Philip, Duke of Burgundy. The apparently positive
outcome was made meaningless by the
Duke’s immediate ban on the importation of English cloth into
Burgundy. In retaliation, Caxton instructed the Bruges-based
English merchants to move to Utrecht, beyond the
reach of the Duke.
Ordinance of Charles the Bold, for the discipline
and equipment of his military levies. The British Library MS Add.
Fortunately for the English merchants,
French territorial ambitions pushed Burgundy further towards English
and Yorkist interests. Philip died on 15 June 1467, but in April
Charles the Bold, his son and successor, was already in Bruges negotiating
with the English. Charles only suspended the ban on the importation
of English cloth, but Edward IV formally rescinded the ban on imports
from Flanders in September 1467.
Part of the deal was a marriage between
Charles and Margaret of York, the sister of Edward IV. The wedding
took place in the small town of Damme, near Bruges, in July 1468
and was famously sumptuous – a demonstration of Burgundian
wealth and power. Margaret of York was to become one of Caxton’s
most important patrons.
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