British Library Treasures in full: Caxton's Chaucer
Main The Basics Background The Texts References Links Glossary
Caxton's life  1  2  3  4  5

2. Trade and politics

Caxton prospered in Flanders. By 12 August 1462 he had been appointed Governor of the English Nation at Bruges, the organisation of English merchants in Flanders which protected the joint interest of the merchants abroad and which adjudicated disputes between members. He remained Governor until some time between autumn 1470 and March 1471. The Governor also had a significant political role and often acted as ambassador on behalf of the English king. That function may partly explain both why Caxton was appointed and also why he ceased to occupy the position.

The English House in Bruges
The English Merchants’ House in Bruges, as it was in the 1640s. Antonius Sanderus, Flandria illustrata (Cologne, 1641-44), p.275.

The English Nation in Flanders was dominated by the Mercers’ Company. In the extended conflict between Yorkists and Lancastrians, called the Wars of the Roses, the mercers tended to support the Yorkist side. Caxton’s predecessor as Governor was a Lancastrian, and he was not a mercer. It is highly likely that Caxton, a Yorkist, replaced him shortly after Edward IV became king in 1461 having ousted the Lancastrian Henry VI. But even with a Yorkist king the situation was complex.

The mercers based in Flanders depended on bilateral trade between Flanders and England, but it was in the interest of the London-based mercers to put restrictions on the importation of goods. In 1463 Parliament imposed an embargo on the importation of luxury items from Flanders. It was Caxton’s duty as Governor of the English Nation to ensure that these rules were obeyed.

Sheep being shorn
Sheep being shorn near a canal. A calendar page for June from a manuscript Book of Hours written in Bruges between 1500 and 1515. The British Library MS Eg 1147 f.11v. Larger image

The Duchy of Burgundy shared with England a political interest in resisting the power of the kingdom of France, but Burgundy also had trade concerns of its own. English woollen cloth was perceived as being sold too cheaply in Bruges, undercutting locally woven cloth. Wool as raw material was imported from England via Calais, which was then an English enclave surrounded by land controlled by the Duke of Burgundy. This wool was felt to be sold at excessively high prices, also damaging Flemish weavers. As a result, the Duke imposed trade restrictions on English cloth.

On 20 October 1464 Edward IV appointed Caxton as one of his envoys to negotiate a new trade agreement with Philip, Duke of Burgundy. The apparently positive outcome was made meaningless by the Duke’s immediate ban on the importation of English cloth into Burgundy. In retaliation, Caxton instructed the Bruges-based English merchants to move to Utrecht, beyond the reach of the Duke.

Ordinance of Charles the Bold
Ordinance of Charles the Bold, for the discipline and equipment of his military levies. The British Library MS Add. 36619, f.5

Fortunately for the English merchants, French territorial ambitions pushed Burgundy further towards English and Yorkist interests. Philip died on 15 June 1467, but in April Charles the Bold, his son and successor, was already in Bruges negotiating with the English. Charles only suspended the ban on the importation of English cloth, but Edward IV formally rescinded the ban on imports from Flanders in September 1467.

Part of the deal was a marriage between Charles and Margaret of York, the sister of Edward IV. The wedding took place in the small town of Damme, near Bruges, in July 1468 and was famously sumptuous – a demonstration of Burgundian wealth and power. Margaret of York was to become one of Caxton’s most important patrons.

Tell me more:

1. The merchant
2. Trade and politics
3. From Flanders to Cologne
4. Printer in the Low Countries
5. From Flanders to Westminster

Contact us   Disclaimer   Copyright   Privacy

Main   The basics   Background   The texts   References   Links   Glossary