British LibraryTreasures in full: Caxton's Chaucer
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Caxton's life

William Caxton, the first English printer, was born in Kent, probably in the early 1420s. As a boy he was apprenticed to a prominent London businessman. This was the beginning of a long career as a successful merchant.

For a significant part of his active life he was based in Bruges, in Flanders (present-day Belgium). Bruges was an immensely prosperous trading centre where merchants met from all over Europe, and even from the Middle East. It was one of the main cities of Flanders, ruled by the Dukes of Burgundy. In the early 1470s Caxton also spent some time in Cologne. That is where he first engaged with the newly invented process of printing books.

Around 1473, probably in Bruges, Caxton was responsible for the first book to be printed in English. Late in 1475 or early in 1476 he returned to England and settled in Westminster. There he set up the first English press, and the first substantial book produced by him in England was, in all probability, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Many early printers can only be documented to have been active for a short period, but Caxton was evidently successful, continuing to produce books for the English market until his death in 1492.

The squire, 2nd edition
The squire from Caxton's second edition of The Canterbury Tales. The British Library G. 11586, f.n8 v.

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