William Caxton & England’s Very First Printed Book

William Caxton was a successful merchant, writer and printer, who was born in or around 1422 in the Weald of Kent.  Little is known about his early life or the history of his parentage but his major role in history was in bringing the printing press to England.

In his early career he became an important member of the ‘English Nation of Merchant Adventurers’ and was Governor for around eight years in the mid-1460s.  His work travels had him visit places such as France and Bruges, the centre of the world’s wool trade, where he resided for a few years.  He became acquainted with the House of Burgundy, (a noble French family), developing a strong friendship with Margaret, the Duchess of Burgundy and sister to Edward IV and Richard III.

Caxton had a passion for literature and with the support and encouragement of the Duchess, he continued his personal work of translating well known texts into English.  As his career progressed, further travelling was required, particularly his trip to Cologne where the printing industry was rapidly growing due to the advancing of printing presses. Caxton became fascinated by this new German technology and swiftly returned to Bruges, joining forces with a local Flemish Calligrapher, Colard Mansion, to start their own printing press.

Caxton completed the translation of his first literary text into English, the ‘Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye’.  This became not only the initial project for the Bruges’ printing press, but was the first book ever printed in English anywhere in the world; one of the books being a gift to the Duchess. As a side note, in 2014, the Duke of Northumberland put up for auction one of the last remaining originals of this printed book which sold for over £1,000,000.00.

With the success of his printing press in Bruges, Caxton decided to return to England and continue his works with the opening of a new press.  On 18 November 1477, in Westminster, London, Caxton used his press to produce the first ever dated, printed book in England, ‘The Dictes and Sayengis of the Phylosophers’.

Caxton went on to print further well known scripts including an edition of Chaucer’s, ‘The Canterbury Tales’ and it is believed he printed over one hundred books during his lifetime.   Further translations were also carried out by Caxton and it is reported that he printed the first translated edition of Aesop’s Fables, a selection of animal tales which brought many well-known sayings into the English language, (but more about that another time!)

So for all of you that love books and enjoy being the first to open a new book from the bookshop, we owe a lot of thanks to Mr Caxton; not only for his translations of some wonderful old writings into our lovely English language, but for printing them and allowing us the magic that is….. the book!