William 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. Late in 1475 or early in 1476 Caxton set up his own printing press in London. Among his earliest books are two magnificent editions of the 14th-century classic, Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales: the first published in 1476 and the second, illustrated with woodblock prints, in 1483.
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.
Although printing with movable 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 produced with moveable type was printed in the 1450s by Johann Gutenberg in 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.
Late in 1475 or early 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 late 1491 or early 1492, the press continued to thrive for another 40 years under Wynkyn de Worde, one of Caxton’s immigrant workers.
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.
Most continental printers produced books in Latin, the international language of the day, in order to be able to sell them in a number of countries. Caxton, on the other hand, mainly produced books in English for a local market.
Although printed books could reach a much wider audience than manuscripts, they were still a luxury in Caxton’s day and were thus aimed at fairly wealthy people. However, printing soon led to books becoming available at a cheaper price, and Caxton was part of the beginning of a major change in the way in which people acquired books for information and for entertainment.
At the end of his Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, the first book printed in English in about 1473 or 1474, 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.'
Caxton used a 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, published in 1483, 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.
Explore more about William Caxton's two editions of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales and view fully digitised versions of both texts.