British Library Treasures in full: Caxton's Chaucer
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Caxton's life  1  2  3  4  5
print Printers in the Low Countries

Caxton had been engaged in organising the Burgundian contribution to a joint Anglo-Burgundian war against France. When Edward IV concluded a peace treaty with France in August 1475, Caxton’s diplomatic career apparently came to an end. Edward’s change of allies may have made Caxton’s position untenable in the lands controlled by the Duke of Burgundy, and Caxton may have returned to England soon after. The first documentation which we have of his presence back in England is a record of his paying an annual rent for a shop in Westminster on 30 September 1476, although we cannot assume that this is when he first settled in Westminster.

Caxton retained his base in Westminster for the rest of his life. He had been successful as a mercer in the Low Countries and he was also successful as a printer/publisher. He stayed in business until the end of his life and his business was so viable that it was continued after his death by Wynkyn de Worde, one of his employees. This is in contrast to many early printers who survived in business only for short periods.

To understand his work as a printer/publisher we should see it as a continuation of his activity as a merchant, not as a completely separate and new phase of his life; for Caxton, producing books was a way of making money. While based at Westminster he may well have gone to the Low Countries from time to time, and he may also have continued trading in other goods apart from books.

During his Westminster years Caxton also imported books printed abroad. In 1487 and 1488 he commissioned two liturgical books to be printed for him in Paris, and in all probability he also imported other books produced with or without his own involvement. On one occasion, in 1487, we even know that he exported a number of books in French, perhaps the remainder of one of the editions which he had produced in Bruges, or perhaps an edition of his French-English vocabulary.

Caxton was apparently married, but we do not know the name of his wife – she may have been called Maude. There is a record of a Maude Caxton being buried in St Margaret’s Church in Westminster, the church where William Caxton himself was also buried. We do know that he had a daughter, Elizabeth, for there is a documented legal dispute between her and her husband in part relating to the inheritance from Caxton. Judging from the accounts of Westminster’s rental income from its property and from the accounts of the Churchwardens of St Margaret’s it seems likely that he died in late 1491 or early 1492.

Tell Me More

Lotte Hellinga, Caxton in Focus (London, 1982)
Lotte Hellinga, 'Printing'
Howard Nixon, 'Caxton, his Contemporaries and Successors in the Book Trade from Westminster Documents'
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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