William Caxton (c. 1415~1422 – c. March 1492) was an English merchant, diplomat, writer and printer. He was the first English person to work as a printer and the first person to introduce a printing press into England. He was also the first English retailer of books (his London contemporaries were all Dutch, German or French).
Caxton and the English language
William Caxton's prayer book saved by National Trust
William Caxton -- The Master Printer
Wynkyn de Worde -- The Master Printer
Wynkyn de Worde's works
Caxton's date of birth is unknown, but records place it in the range 1415 to 1424. He was born in Kent and went to London in the period 1437-1438, when he was between the ages of 14 and 17, to serve as an apprentice to Robert Large, a wealthy London mercer, or dealer in cloth, who served as Master of the Mercer's Company, and Lord Mayor of London in 1439.
In 1446, he went to Bruges, where he was successful in business and became governor of the Merchant Adventurers. His trade brought him into contact with Burgundy and it was thus that he became a member of the household of Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy, the sister of the English King. This led to more continental travel, including travel to Cologne, in the course of which he observed the new printing industry, and was significantly influenced by German printing. He wasted no time in setting up a printing press in Bruges in collaboration with a Fleming, Colard Mansion, on which the first book to be printed in English was produced in 1473: Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, a translation by Caxton himself. Bringing the knowledge back to his native land, he set up a press at Westminster in 1476 and the first book known to have been issued there was an edition of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (Blake, 2004-7). Another early title was Dictes or Sayengis of the Philosophres (Sayings of the Philosophers), first printed on November 18, 1477, written by none other than Earl Rivers, the king's brother-in-law. Caxton's translation of the Golden Legend, published in 1483, and The Book of the Knight in the Tower, published 1484, contain perhaps the earliest verses of the Bible to be printed in English, rather than copied.
Caxton produced chivalric romances, classical-authored works and English and Roman histories. These books strongly appealed to English upper classes around the end of the fifteenth century. Caxton was supported by, but not dependent on, nobility and gentry. The most important works printed by Caxton were Le Morte d'Arthur and Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. He produced two editions of the latter. Caxton's precise date of death is uncertain, but estimates from the records of his burial in St Margaret's, Westminster, show that he died in about March 1492.
Caxton was not without his detractors. There was widespread unease amongst the Merchant Class of the time, who felt that if the printed page were to become widely available to the population, then it might filter through to the poor. The poor, it was believed, might then "become aware and enlightened of their circumstances" and, ultimately, dissatisfied and aggrieved. This, it was felt, might lead to unrest and civil disturbance. In challenging the wisdom of his critics, Caxton announced: "If tis wrong I do, then tis a fine and noble wrong".
From the Golden Legend printed by Wiliam Caxton
Caxton and the English language
Caxton printed four-fifths of his works in English. He translated a large amount of works into English. He translated and edited a large amount of the work himself. However, the English language was changing rapidly in Caxton's time and the works he was given to print were in a variety of styles and dialects. Caxton was a technician rather than a writer and he often faced dilemmas concerning language standardisation in the books he printed. (He wrote about this subject in the preface to his Eneydos.) His successor Wynkyn de Worde faced similar problems.
Caxton is credited with standardising the English language (that is, homogenising regional dialects) through printing. This was said to have led to the expansion of English vocabulary, the development of inflection and syntax and the ever-widening gap between the spoken and the written word. However, Richard Pynson, who started printing in London in 1491 or 1492 and who favoured Chancery Standard, was a more accomplished stylist and consequently pushed the English language further toward standardisation.
It is asserted that the spelling ghost with the unnecessary letter h was adopted by Caxton due to the influence of Dutch spelling habits.
The earliest-known printed book bearing the stamp of William Caxton, the father of British printing, has been saved for the nation by the National Trust at a cost of almost £500,000. The book, dated 1487 and printed in Latin, is the only surviving example of the earliest edition of the Sarum Missal, the most commonly used rite for celebrating Mass in pre-Reformation Britain.
Additions and crossings-out by members of the same prominent Cheshire family that has owned it for at least 500 years chart religious, social and personal changes over the centuries.
"This isn't just rare, it's unique," said Mark Purcell, the libraries curator of the National Trust. "It is a very significant part of the national cultural heritage and it is thrilling to have saved it."
Caxton, who died in 1492, was the first man to introduce a printing press to England after witnessing the new printing industry in Germany. By the 1470s, he was operating his own press in Westminster. A year or so later he appears to have been commissioned to produce the Sarum Missals.
It is a mystery how many copies were printed but the National Trust's volume, bought from the Legh family of Lyme Park, Cheshire - who have owned it since at least 1508 - still has 243 of the original 266 pages. Numerous alterations by the Legh family show that the Missal was a working book.
Mr Purcell said: "What is remarkable is that it is the only one that has survived. It is hard to think of another book that has stayed in the same family for 500 years."
The National Trust, with lottery money and support from other charities, paid £465,000 for the Missal. It will be displayed at Lyme Park from next spring.
From An Exhibition: November 1976 - April 1977 of Printing in England from William Caxton to Christopher Barker
Cordyale, or Four last thinges.
Westminster: William Caxton, 24 March 1479 Bv. 2. 21
The French original of this work, entitled Les quatres choses derrenieres, was translated from the Latin, attributed to Gerard van der Vlyderhoven, by Jean Mielot, secretary to Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy, and was printed by Caxton at Bruges about 1475-6. This English version is by Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers, who was the brother-in-law of King Edward IV, and had accompanied him on his flight to the Low Countries in 1470. Caxton and Rivers probably met for the first time towards the end of Caxton’s stay in Bruges and Rivers translated The dictes or sayengis of the philosophores, which Caxton issued in Westminster on 18 November 1477. This was the Harleian copy. In 1743-5 it was in the possession of Thomas Osborne, a London bookseller, to whom the Harleian Library had been sold by Edward Harley’s widow. In 1773 this copy appeared again in James West’s sale (catalogue p.114, no.1873) and was sold to William Hunter for £14.
CHRONICLES OF ENGLAND
The Chronicles of England.
Westminster: William Caxton, 10 June 1480 Bv. 2. 31
This work, compiled by Caxton, is largely based on the Brut which gives an account of the history of England from the time that "Albyne with his susters entred into this isle" until the accession of Edward IV. From 1480 to 1528 the Chronicles of England was always in demand and copies of not less than twelve editions survive. With this is bound Discripcion of Britayne, issued by Caxton on 18 August 1480 as a supplement to the Chronicles of England. It is an extract from the translation made by John Trevisa in 1387 of Ranulph Rigden’s Polychronicon.
GODEFROY of Boloyne
Godefroy of Boloyne, or the siege and conqueste of Jherusaslem, or Eracles
Westminster: William Caxton, 20 November 1481 Bv. 2. 29
This work was translated from French by Caxton himself. The text which he used is to be found in a fifteenth-century illuminated manuscript on vellum in the British Library. An edition was printed at Paris in 1500 with the title Les faits et gestes de preux Godefroy de Bovillon et de ses chevelereux freres Baudouin et Eustache. This copy belonged in 1650 to Mathew Goodwin. In 1776 it appeared in the sale of John Ratcliffe’s library, when it was bought by George Nicol, a London bookseller, who presumably sold it to William Hunter.
[Westminster: William Caxton, after 2 July 1482] Bv. 2. 9
Higden’s Polychronicon had been written in Latin in the first half of the fourteenth century and translated into English in 1387 by John Trevisa, chaplain to Lord Thomas of Berkeley, at the request of his employer. Caxton added his own prologue, inserted a table of contents and continued the chronicle to 1461; Trevisa’s translation had ended at 1357.
William Hunter bought this copy at John Ratcliffe’s sale in 1776 (catalogue p.86, no.1669).
The book callid Cathon.
[Westminster: William Caxton, after 23 December 1483] Bv. 2. 16
Caxton dedicated this book to the City of London and in his prologue he compares the customs of Rome with those of London. The distichs of Cato had been translated by Benet Burgh, then vicar of Malden in Essex and later High Canon of St. Stephen’s, Westminster, where he may have known Caxton, who translated the extensive gloss from a French original. An early owner of this copy was Francis Laxton. Later it was in the Harleian Library and then in that of James West (1704-1773) who was Treasurer of the Inner Temple and President of the Royal Society. At West’s sale in 1773 it was bought by John Ratcliffe for £4. 7. 6. and William Hunter bought it at Ratcliffe’s sale in 1776 (catalogue p.73, no.1427).
The lyf of our Lady.
[Westminster]: William Caxton,  Bv. 2. 20
This book "was compiled by Dan John Lydgate, Monk of Bury, at the excitation and stirring of the noble and victorious prince, King Harry the Fifth". Lydgate, a monk of the Benedictine Abbey of Bury St. Edmund’s, supposed to have been born about 1375, was ordained a sub-deacon in 1389, a deacon in 1393, a priest in 1397, arrived at his greatest eminence as a poet about 1430, and died about 1461. After pursuing his studies at Oxford, he travelled in France and Italy; returning home he opened a school in his monastery and amused himself by writing poetry. Riston called him a "voluminous, prosaick, and drivelling monk", but Gray and Coleridge esteemed him highly. This copy belonged to John Ratcliffe and appeared as no.1218 in the catalogue of the sale of his books in 1776.
VORAIGNE, Jacobus de
The legends named in latyn legenda aurea.
Westminster: wylyam caxton, [1487?] Bg. 1. 1
This is a mixed copy, containing sheets of both the first edition printed after 20 November 1483, and the second edition, printed about 1487. The last three leaves are for a shorter copy which belonged in 1697 to John Finch. The volume was no.1865 in James West’s sale, 1773, when it was bought by William Hunter for £12. 5s. The work is a collection of saints’ lives, each to be read on a certain day in the Church’s calendar. The original work was written in Latin between 1250 and 1280 by Jacobus de Voraigne, Archbishop of Genoa. In the fourteenth century at least two independent translations into French were made, a relatively free one by Jean Belet and a more literal one by Jehan de Vignai. About 1483 an English translation, known as the Gilte Lengende, was made. Caxton’s translation is based on three translations of the book, in Latin, French, and English. He combined and adapted these, with many additions from other sources. The finished work was one of the largest books Caxton ever printed, a folio volume of just under 900 pages. At one point he nearly abandoned the task in despair but he was encouraged to go on by the Earl of Arundel who promised to take a reasonable quantity of copies when completed and to pay him an annuity of a buck in summer and a doe in winter. The book contains seventeen folio-width woodcuts, including the arms of Arundel and the life of Jesus, and about fifty column-width pictures of Old Testament scenes and saints carrying their emblems; it also contains the largest block that Caxton ever used, a cut of the Saints in Glory.
The myrroure of the blessyd lyf of Jhesu Cryste.
[Westminster:] William Caxton, [ca.1490] Bv. 2. 24
This is a copy of the second edition; the first was printed by Caxton about 1486. St. Bonaventura was born in Tuscany in 1221. In 1243 he became a Franciscan, in 1253 a teacher at Paris, in 1256 General of his Order, and in 1273 Bishop of Albano and cardinal. He died in 1274 during the Council of Lyons. He was the author of a number of religious books, among which was his Speculum vitae Christi, which was written for the guidance of a devout lady; it became very popular and was several times translated into French. In the early part of the fifteenth century Jean de Gallopes, chaplain to John, Duke of Bedford and Regent of France, made a French prose translation which bears a close resemblance to the text as printed by Caxton; the author of this English text was Nicholas Love. The book is illustrated with twenty-seven woodcuts of a very much superior execution to those which had been previously in use, they are not large but are simply and gracefully designed in the Flemish manner. This copy was no.1870 in James West’s sale in 1773, when it was bought by Ratcliffe for £9. 9s. In Ratcliffe’s sale, 1776, it was no.1664.
The MYRROUR of the worlde.
[Westminster:] William Caxton,  Bv. 2. 30
This work, at one time attributed to Vincentius Dellovacensis, is an English version of L’image du monde (or Le livre de clergie) which was probably written by Walter of Metz, and was derived chiefly from the Imago mundi, attributed variously to Honorius Inclusus, James of Vitry, Alan of Lille, and others. This is a copy of the second edition; the first was printed by Caxton in 1481. Caxton made his English translation from a French text written in Bruges in 1464. The first edition was requested and paid for by Hugh Dryce, a mercer and alderman of the city of London, who intended to present the book to Lord Hastings. It was the first book printed by Caxton for which he had woodcuts made. Of them Edward Hodnett wrote: "England stumbles on to the book-illustration stage with some of the poorest cuts ever inserted between covers." They represent schoolmasters and pupils, scholars with a globe, a compass, figures, and other paraphernalia, a Salvator mundi, the creation of Eve, and a woman singing from notes while a man accompanies her on a flute. On A2v of this copy there is an inscription stating that the book was bought at Shrewsbury in 1510 from John Trustanes, "scolar", by Thomas Botelar, "vicar of moch wenlok". On A1r there are the signatures of Anne Greasbrooke and William Barnsley. This copy was no.1017 in John Ratcliffe’s sale, 1776, when it was bought by William Hunter for £4. 17s.
The bok yf Eneydos.
[Westminster: William Caxton, after 22 June 1490 Bv. 2. 10
This version of the Aeneid was translated by Caxton from a French paraphrase of parts of Virgil’s poem which reduced it to a historical narrative in prose. The French version was published at Lyons in 1483 by Guilleume le Roy, who was both translator and printer. Gavin Douglas, in the prologue to his Scottish poetical version of the Aeneid, writes thus of the present work:
Thoch Wylliame Caxtoune had no compatioun
Of Virgill in that buk he preyt in prois,
Clepand it Virgill in Eneados,
Quhilk that he sayis of Frensche he did translait,
It has nathing ado therewith, God wate,
Nor na mare like than the Deuil and samct Austin.
Haue he na thank tharfore, bot lois his pyne;
So schamefully the storie did peruerte,
I reid his work with harmes at my hert,
That sic ane buk, but sentence or ingyne,
Suld be intitulit aftir the poete diuine.
The binding of this copy bears the armorial stamp of Sir Orlando Bridgeman (1606?-1674) who was Chief Baron of the Exchequer, Lord Chief Justice of Common Pleas, and Lord Keeper of the Great Seal.
TREATISE of love.
This treatyse is of loue.
[Westminster: Wynkyn de Worde, 1493] Bv. 2. 19
Based on a French adaptation of Ancrene Riwle, this book has sections on the Passion, the seven deadly sins, the signs of spiritual love, the virtues of the apple tree, the love of Jesus, and the avoiding of evil thoughts. With it is bound: The chastysing of goddes chyldern, printed by Wynkyn de Worde about 1494, which was the first book printed at Westminster with a title page. This volume was in the Harleian Library and from 1743 until 1751 or later it was in the possession of Thomas Osborne the bookseller. It was no.1871 in James West’s sale, when it was bought by William Hunter for £5
Scala perfectionis [English:] The ladder of perfection.
[Westminster:] Wynkyn de Worde, 1494 Bv. 2. 7
This first edition of one of the classics of English devotional literature was the first book to which Wynkyn de Worde put his name; a rhymed "enuoye" on the last leaf informs us that "this heuenly boke more precyous than golde" was printed "in Willyam Caxtons hows" at the special command of Lady Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby, and mother of King Henry VII. It is the first and most important of the books commissioned by Lady Margaret from Wynkyn de Worde, who was later to style himself "Prynter unto the moost excellent pryncesse my lady the kinges moder". This copy was bought by William Hunter at James West’s sale in 1773 for £2. 12. 6.
Vitas [sic] Patrum. [English]
Westminster: Wynkyn de Worde, [before 21 August] 1496 Bv. 2. 13
The Lives of the Fathers were translated from the French by William Caxton who "finished it at the last day of his life". The words on the title page (and repeated on the last leaf) are cut in wood, showing white on a black ground. The woodcuts which illustrate the book are among the first which de Worde commissioned. The series is copied with some reversals from the edition of St. Jerome’s work on the desert saints issued at Lyons in 1487 by Nicholas Philippe and Jean du Pre, one of the editions on which Caxton based his translation. This was the Harleian copy. William Hunter bought it at James West’s sale in 1773 for £4. 10s.
ENGLAND. Laws, statutes, etc.
Statuta bonum publicum concernencia edita in parliamento tento apud westmonasterium xiii, die Octobris anno regni ... Regis Henrici septimi xi.
[Westminster:] Wynkyn de Worde,  Bv. 2. 18
Four editions of these statutes were published in 1496, three by de Worde and one by Pynson; copies of any of them are extremely rare. This copy was sold as a duplicate from the British Museum Library in 1769, presumably because they also had a copy on vellum. On the verso of the title page there is a large woodcut of King Henry VII’s arms, which in this copy has unfortunately been coloured by hand.
The MYRACLES of oure blessyd Lady.
Westmynster: Wynkyn de Worde,  Bv. 3. 4
This is the only known copy of this work.
The woodcut of Calvary which appears as a frontispiece was used first by Caxton about 1491 in his Book of prayers, and was thereafter produced by de Worde in several works printed by him. John Ratcliffe bought this book at the West sale in 1773 for 8s., and William Hunter paid 15s. 6d. for it when Ratcliffe’s library was sold three years later.
GUIDO de Monte Rocherii
In Ciuitate Londonensi: per Winandum de Worde, 1502 Cm. 2. 25
This work is divided into three parts: the first treats of the sacraments, and the administration thereof; the second of penitence, auricular confession, and the enjoining of penance; the third, of faith, and what belongs to the information of the people. It must have been popular for it had already been printed by Pynson in 1490 and 1500, two editions, one by Pynson and one by Notary, were to be issued in 1508, and de Worde was to reprint it in 1509.
Nova legenda Angliae.
London: Wynkyn de Worde, 1516 Bv. 2. 11
This work was known as Capgrave’s Lives of the saints. The author was an Augustinian friar who was made Provincial of his Order in 1456. He was a client of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, whose life he wrote in Latin. In English he wrote lives of St. Gilbert of Sempringham and of St. Katherine, also a chronicle of English history extending to 1417. He died in 1464.
A woodcut of the Saints in Glory appears on both sides of the first leaf and also on the recto of the last leaf. It depicts twenty saints carrying their emblems, the Trinity enthroned, and nine seraphim. This woodcut had already appeared in two editions of Legenda aurea by Worde, 1483 and 1487, and he also used it in editions of 1521 and 1527. There is also a woodcut of the King’s arms facing the first page of the text. William Hunter bought this copy at James West’s sale in 1773 for £2. 15s.
CATHERINE, Saint, of Siena
Dyalogues and reuelacyons of the newe seraphycall
Spouse of Cryste Seynt Katheryne of Sene.
London: Wynkyn de Worde 1519 Bv. 2. 26
"A ryghte worshypfull and devoute gentlyman, Rycharde Sutton esquyer, stewarde of the holy monastery of Syon," finding the manuscript of this work "in a corner by itselfe" caused the book to be printed "at his greate coste". In addition to red-letter chapter headings and other evidence of special care, results of Sutton’s expenditure are visible in eight large and fairly elaborate woodcuts representing the visions of Saint Catherine. This copy was bought by William Hunter at John Ratcliffe’s sale in 1776.
The FLOURE of the commaundements of god.
A translation by Andrew Chertesey of La fleur des commandements de Dieu. There had been two previous editions by de Worde, in 1509 and 1510.
London: Wynkyn de Worde, 1521 Bv. 2. 23
There are two woodcuts on the recto of the title page, one showing Moses and the other a pope with a monk and a bishop kneeling before him. On the verso of the title page there is a woodcut of the Crucifixion which had previously appeared in Missale secundum vsum Sarum, printed by J. Notary and J. Barbier for de Worde in 1498. There are four other small woodcuts in the text.
On the verso of the last leaf there are two inscriptions by an early owner: "Robtus Dates Student off the myddill temple [ ]" and "Iste liber ptnet ad me Robtum Date". This was John Ratcliffe’s copy; it has his inscription "Perfect" on the fly-leaf facing the title page.
The rule of seynt Augustyne, bothe in latyne and englysshe / with thwo exposicyons. And also ye same rule agayn onely in Englysshe without latyne or exposicyon.
London: imprynted by Wynkyn de Worde, 1525 Bv. 3. 10
The translator was Richard Whitford, a member of the Brigittine house at Isleworth, known as Syon House; he called himself "the olde wretche of Syon". Whitford furnished de Worde with a number of translations, of which this was the first. There is an interesting advertisement on the title page: "The traslatour doth aduyse & couseyll all ye disciples of this rule to bere alway one of these bokes upo them syth they ben so portatyue & may be had for so small a pryce". In his preface "Unto the deuoute and ghostly reders" Whitford says that he was required to make this translation seven years ago and "I (the rather and more lyghtly) dyd graut thereto / that I had not before yt tyme seen or herde of ony other translacyon / but that was olde / scabrouse / rough / & not of the englysshe comynly vsed in these partyes". He adds that the rule was first written unto women and he has made this translation for use by both sexes. The two expositions are by Hugo of St. Victor and Whitford. This was John Ratcliffe’s copy.
Patron Saints of the British Isles
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