William Caxton (b. 1415–24–1492) was the person who brought the technology of printing to England. Before Caxton set up his printing press in Westminster, London, in 1475 or 1476, books in England were copied out by hand, by scribes. These hand-written books are called manuscripts (the word ‘manuscript’ means ‘written by hand’ in Latin).
Printing had a huge impact when it arrived – changing the way that information was produced and circulated in much the same way that the arrival of the Internet has changed our world in more recent times.
Caxton’s birth, education and apprenticeship
Caxton was born in Kent. He seems to have had some basic schooling, but he wasn’t especially well educated. He became an apprentice to a mercer (a textile merchant) called Robert Large. We don’t know precisely when he was born, but apprentices usually began their apprenticeships at 14 and this is how we calculate the approximate year of his birth.
Training as a mercer was to give Caxton skills that would be useful in later life. Mercers dealt in haberdashery, cloth and silks, but the mercer's guild (a kind of club of tradespeople) was a powerful one. They were involved in politics and provided finance for the government. As a mercer, Caxton also had to spend time overseas doing business.
Caxton’s life in Europe and growing involvement in print culture
In the 1450s, Caxton seems to have been spending most of his time in the Low Countries. At the start of this decade Johannes Gutenberg had set up Europe’s first printing press in Mainz, in Germany – an event that would change the culture of Europe for ever.
In the 1460s, Caxton settled in Bruges, in modern-day Belgium. He was a respected pillar of the community and was elected the ‘governor of the English nation’ in Bruges, meaning that he was the leader of all the English people living in the city. In 1471, he moved to Cologne and began to trade in textiles and books. In this period, he acquired first-hand knowledge of how printed books were produced. It was around this time that he seems to have had the idea of setting up a printing business of his own.
Caxton’s first printing press and his arrival in England
Caxton moved back to Bruges in 1472 and set up a printing press which he used to print the Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye (History of Troy). Translated from the French by Caxton himself, this work was the first book printed in the English language.
Three or four years later, Caxton brought his printing press to England. The earliest book he printed in England was the first ever print edition (known as an editio princeps) of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Over the next two decades, Caxton built a successful business printing and selling books. Of the more than 100 editions attributed to him, the majority are in English and many are his own translations.
Although these printed books were a luxury aimed at wealthy people, Caxton’s innovations in printing soon led to books becoming available at a cheaper price, kick-starting the beginning of major technological, cultural and social changes. Without Caxton, the history of English literature – as well as our own lives – would look very different.
Further information about the life of William Caxton can be found via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.