William Caxton – printer pioneer

William_Caxton_-_The_first_printer_at_WestminsterWhat did Margaret Beaufort and Anthony Woodville have in common, other than starting out as Lancastrians and for different reasons and with different amount of heart in it was forced to accept Yorkist rule?

The answer to that question is their patronage of William Caxton, the man who brought the art of book printing to England and made education and reading accessible to a larger percent of the population.

The date, or even year, of his birth are not quite known, nor is his parentage, but he is believed to have been born sometime around between 1415 and 1426. There are also uncertainties around where he was born, in the book “Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye”- a French novel about courtly romance by Raoul Lefevre who was the chaplain of Philippe III of Burgundy – which Caxton translated and printed, he states that he was born and educated in the Weald of Kent. Oral tradition has him to be both from Hadlow and Tenterden.

The estimation of when he was born is based on an apprenticeship fee being paid in 1438 when the Mercer´s Company recorded his apprenticeship with Robert Large, a wealthy London dealer in luxury goods at the Mercer´s Company and in 1439 Lord Mayor in London.

In the late 1440´s or early 1450´s he was making trips to Bruges and settled there in 1453, where he over the years became prosperous enough to become Governor of English Nation of Merchant Adventurers, for four of the actually 30

years he spent in Bruges. During the period he also entered the household of Margaret of Burgundy, sister of Edward IV and Richard III, something that let him travel and it was on one of these journeys he came into contact with the printers in Cologne, which in their turn was inspired with the German printing that had been invented but Johannes Gutenberg at the turn of the 1430´s and 1440´s.

Apparently this appealed immensely to William Caxton, and it doesn´t seem that he wasted much time to put up a press at Bruges, where he printed the earlier mentioned “Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye” which he himself translated. It turned out that this was one may call a success, and in 1476 he was on his way back to England, not only with a printing press in his “back pocket”, but also, most likely, in the company of the Dutchman Wynkyn de Worde (some claim that Caxton didn´t bring de Worde to England until 1481 to be able to counter the growing completion).

Canterbury Tales - Caxton First EditionWilliam Caxton set up his printing press in Westminster Abbey, and the first book to be printed on it was Geoffrey Chaucer´s “Canterbury Tales”, and somehow it´s interesting that in a time when religious books were important, Caxton still chose a secular book to print. Maybe one can assume that that says something about the nature of Caxton himself.

It was also during this time that William Caxton came into contact with Anthony Woodville, Lord Rivers, as he himself Caxton_Showing_the_First_Specimen_of_His_Printing_to_King_Edward_IV_at_the_Almonry,_Westminsterhad translated a book, “Dictes or Sayengings of the Philosophres” – a (before Woodville´s translation) French text translated from Latin and originally in Arabic, written in the 11th century by an Egyptian emir – during a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella in Spain, and he wanted Caxton to proofread the text. He did and also added an epilogue to the story. This would be the first book printed in England that has both a date and the printer´s colophon which showed the name of the printer and the place it was printed.

It is also likely that Anthony Woodville commissioned William Caxton to print another two books, also based on his own translations; “The Morale Proverbes of Cristyne” in 1478 and “The book named Cordyal” in 1479. As Anthony Woodville was very close to his nephew Edward, it is also likely that it was he who prompted Caxton´s dedication to the prince of “A Boke of the Hoole Lyf of Jason”, 1477. It has also seems that it was actually Anthony Woodville that carried the cost of printing Canterbury Tales.

Caxton_deviceAnthony Woodville became a most likely important and steadfast patron of Caxton´s, and he didn’t take he didn´t take kindly to the fact that this man, who may even have been a friend, was the first victim of Richard´s usurpation of the throne. Less than a month before the Battle of Bosworth he published a part of the so called Winchester manuscript – the oldest surviving version of Thomas Mallory´s Le Morte d´Arthur and the kind of arturian romance appreciated at the time – with his own little twist. In the scribed original there is a section where Arthur has a prophetic dream of a horrendous struggle between a dragon and a bear during his campaign against the Roman emperor. The bear is killed and a ‘phylozopher’* tells Arthur that the dragon represents himself, while the bear ‘betokyns som tyraunte that turmentis thy peple’.

It is here the indignant, maybe grieving and quite possible horrified Caxton sees his chance. In his own printed version of the segment, the bear is replaced by a white boar, a symbolism which can hardly be mistaken. And only weeks later the white boar was indeed killed by the welsh dragon.

With that victory, Caxton also received a new patron. Margaret Beaufort was genuinely interested in learning and Plack, William Caxtoneducation, and both translated books from French to English as well as, in time, founded colleges. When her son had ascended the throne after the battle of Bosworth she started turning her attention to William Caxton and his printing press in the almonery of Westminster Abbey. It was the possibility to bring reading to a wider number of people that awoke her interest, and she was to become one of his leading patrons.

Her support helped him to once again getting the attention in court circles he most likely had enjoyed during the patronage of Anthony Woodville, and the appreciation shows in a dedication from Caxton to Margaret Beaufort in the book “The Hystorye of Kinge Blanchardyne and Queen Englantyne his Wyfe” where he flatter her by calling her the Duchess of Somerset.

William Caxton died in 1491, but Margaret Beaufort continued to hire the services of his worker and successor Wynkyn de Worde who kept the business running for another 40 years.

He is buried in St Margaret´s Chapel and in Poet´s Corner a white stone plaque can be seen with the text “”Near this place William Caxton set up the first printing press in England.”

 

Sources:

Caxton, William – Dictionary of National Biography

Caxton and the first English printed books – Dr Anne Marie D´Arcy, University of Leicester (course material)

Caxton, Woodville and revenge – Dr Anne Marie D´Arcy, University of Leicester (course material)

Chaucer´s Caxton – The British Library

Margaret Beaufort-Mother of the Tudor Dynasty – Elizabeth Norton

William Caxton-a biography – George D. Painter

 

 

*philosopher

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