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3. Caxton's patrons

Unusually for early printers, Caxton wrote extensive prefaces to many of his books. They help us understand some of the background. In them he mentioned a number of persons who were associated with each book. Some are dedicatees and come from the highest levels of society.

Elizabeth Woodville
Elizabeth Woodville (1437-1492). Copyright: The President and Fellows of Queens' College, Cambridge.

Probably not all of these were patrons in the sense that they supported the publication economically. Caxton may have used his prefaces to gain and maintain political connections in the rapidly shifting situation during the reigns of Edward IV, Richard III, and Henry VII. George Painter has made a detailed study of the political implications of Caxton’s dedications in William Caxton: A Quincentenary Biography of England’s First Printer (London, 1976).

Like most mercers, Caxton was a supporter of the Yorkist side of the Wars of the Roses. He was particularly close to Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy, the sister of Edward IV, and later to the family of Elizabeth Woodville, Edward IV’s wife. One surviving copy of The Recuyell of the Histories of Troy, his first English book, has a specially made engraving showing Caxton presenting the book to Margaret (now in the Huntington Library, California).

Caxton dedicated his English edition of the History of Jason to Elizabeth’s eldest son, the ill-fated Edward, Prince of Wales, briefly Edward V, who was to be murdered in the Tower of London with Richard, his younger brother. Until his execution in 1483 Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers, Elizabeth’s brother, was an important patron of Caxton. Three French works translated by Anthony Woodville were published by Caxton, one of them appearing in three editions.

Some of the persons mentioned in his dedications evidently supported Caxton in a practical way. His first dedicatee was Margaret of York who gave him, he says, an annual fee. We should not suppose that he necessarily received any money. William FitzAlan, Earl of Arundel, promised to buy part of the edition of the Legenda aurea of 1483 and also to give Caxton ‘a yearly fee, that is to wit a buck in summer and a doe in winter with which fee I hold me well content ’.

Tower of London
The Tower of London. The British Library MS Royal 16 F ii, f.13. Larger image

With the death of Edward IV in April 1483, the murder of Edward’s two sons in the Tower of London and the fall of the Woodville family, Caxton had lost his powerful friends at court. He appears to have remained loyal to Elizabeth Woodville after Edward’s death while she lived in refuge in Westminster Abbey. About April 1484 he dedicated to Richard III his translation of the Ordre of Chyvalry or Knyghthode. After Richard III’s defeat in August 1485 Henry VII succeeded to the throne, as the first Tudor king. In 1486 he married Elizabeth of York, the daughter of Elizabeth Woodville and Edward IV.

Only some three years later did Caxton manage to get closer to the court again. He was commissioned by Margaret Beaufort, Henry VII’s mother, to translate and print the romance Blanchardyn and Eglantine, a work of which he had previously sold her a manuscript. Through John de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, he obtained a commission from Henry VII for an English translation of Christine de Pisan’s Faits d’armes et de chevalerie completed on 14 July 1489. The Earl of Oxford also commissioned the translation and printing of the Four Sons of Aymon, although it would appear that Caxton did not get payment in advance for this, as he said that he was ‘hopyng and not dobtyng but that hys good grace shall rewarde me in suche wise that I shal haue cause to pray for his good and prosperus welfare’ [hoping and not doubting but that his good grace shall reward me in such a way that I shall have cause to pray for his good and prosperous welfare].

Crucifixion scene
French woodcut crucifixion scene from the Fifteen Oes. The British Library, IA.55144, f.a1 v.
Larger image

Some time in 1490 he dedicated to Arthur, Prince of Wales, his English translation of a French courtly romance, Eneydos freely based on Virgil’s Aeneid and on the Italian poet Boccaccio. In 1491, towards the end of his life, he printed the Fifteen Oes, a collection of prayers, ‘bi the commaundementes of’ Margaret Beaufort and Elizabeth of York, Henry VII’s wife. In 1490 his new connections with the court also gave him the job of printing the statutes enacted by the first three Parliaments of Henry VII, the first time statutes of England were printed in English rather than legal French.

It is also interesting that a number of Caxton’s editions were supported by anonymous gentlemen or by named men from the City of London. The second edition, from 1483, of the Canterbury Tales may belong to this category, as a gentleman and his son feature prominently in the preface. Caxton’s translation of Boethius, printed about 1478, was done at the ‘requeste of a singuler frende and gossib of myne’. The translation of the Sum of Vices and Virtues, known as the Royal Book was done at the ‘requeste of a worshipful marchaunt and mercer of London’ who is also described as a special friend. This may be William Pratt, who became a member of the Mercers’ Company in 1452, at the same time as Caxton, and who was certainly associated with the translation and publication of the Book of Good Manners in 1487. It is impossible to know the exact nature of their financial relationship. We may not be confronted by instances of patronage but by examples of joint ventures between Caxton and others.

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W. J. B. Crotch, The Prologues and Epilogues of William Caxton, (London, 1928)
Caxton's own prose, edited, with an introduction, by N. F. Blake (London, 1973)
George Painter, William Caxton: A Quincentenary Biography of England's First Printer (London, 1976)
C. Meale, 'Patrons, Buyers and Owners: Book Production and Social Status'
Lotte Hellinga. 'Reading an Engraving: William Caxton's Dedication to Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy'
Lotte Hellinga, 'Caxton and the bibliophiles'
Raoul Lefèvre, Le Recueil des histoires de Troyes [English] Recuyell of the historyes of Troye (Translated by William Caxton)
Raoul Lefèvre, L'histoire de Jason [English] History of Jason (Translated by William Caxton)
Christine de Pisan, Proverbes moraux [English] Moral proverbs
Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda aurea sanctorum, sive Lombardica historia [English] The Golden Legend
Ordre of Chyvalry or Knyghthode (Translated by William Caxton)
Blanchardyn and Eglantine. Westminster:William Caxton
Christine de Pisan, Faits d'armes et de chevalerie [English]. Translated from the French by William Caxton
Four sons of Aymon [English] (Translated by William Caxton)
Eneydos (Translated by William Caxton from the French, based on Vergil's Aeneid and on Boccaccio)
Orationes [English] The fifteen Oes
Statuta Angliae.The statutes of 1, 3, 4 Henry VII
Boethius, De consolatione philosophiae [English & Latin]. Translated by Geoffrey Chaucer
Frater Laurentius, Somme des vices et vertus [English] The Royal Book
Jacobus Magni, Le livre de bonnes moeurs [English] The book of good manners
1. Caxton’s readers
2. Pardoners and indulgences
3. Caxton’s patrons

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