It is believed that when young Caxton entered his teens, he was sent to London to apprentice under Robert Large, a successful and wealthy merchant. Large was the owner and founder of Mercers’ Company.
In 1441, Large left for the heavenly abode leaving Caxton a small sum of money, (£20). Following the death of his master, Caxton took his mercantile life quite seriously and in no time started trading in the Low Countries.
By 1450, he travelled frequently to Bruges, the epicentre of European wool trade and within three years, settled at the place. His business thrived and expanded, making him one of the most successful and influential merchants in the English trading industry. Caxton sold woollen cloth and in return imported foreign luxury goods.
In 1463, he took up the coveted post of Governor of the English Nation of Merchant Adventurers. In this new-found role, he was responsible for protecting the economic interest of the English government as well as his merchant colleagues.
It was during his governance that he negotiated a trade agreement with the royal family, Dukes of Burgundy. The trade agreement fastened his relationship with the Burgundian court and the royal family and eventually led to his appointment as the secretary to the Duchess of Burgundy, Margaret, sister to King Edward IV and King Richard III.
Towards the end of 1460s, Caxton’s interest soon drifted solely from trade and industry to literature. He voraciously read and tried his hand at translating; his first being Raoul Le Fèvre’s ‘Recueil des histoires de Troye’ which completed in 1471.
As a secretary to Duchess of Burgundy, Caxton was engaged in continental travels. During one of his trip to Cologne, he first chanced upon the printing industry. Cologne was a university city and had thus become an important centre of printing in the north-west Germany. Furthermore, its ideal location made it a commercially important center for book trade.
While in Cologne, Caxton acquired first-hand knowledge of the printing industry. He collaborated with Johann Schilling to publish an edition of a 13th century encyclopaedia, Bartholomeus Anglicus’s ‘De proprietatibus rerum’ or ‘On the Nature of Things’.
Inspired by the printing press, he set up his own press in Bruges, together with Fleming and Colard Mansion. The first book printed by his printing press was coincidentally his own work, a translation ‘Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye’ produced in 1473. The huge demand for the book encouraged him to set up a press. He printed a couple of books in French.
In 1476, Caxton returned to London. At Westminster, he set up a printing press and devoted his time to printing and writing. The first book produced by the press was an edition of Chaucer’s ‘The Canterbury Tales’. The first dated book printed in English was ‘Dictes or Sayengis of the Philosophres’ printed on November 18, 1477.
In addition to printing, Caxton translated a few books including, ‘Golden Legend’ in 1483, ‘The Book of the Knight in the Tower’ in 1484 and Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses in English’. ‘The Book of the Knight in the Tower’ contains the earliest verses of the Bible to be printed in English.
Caxton did not limit himself to printing books of a single genre. He instead produced varied works of chivalric romances, English classics, philosophies, encyclopaedia, conduct, morality and Roman histories. He printed a large number of service and devotional books. In 1481, he produced first illustrated English book, ‘The Myrrour of the Worlde’. Works of English literature printed by Caxton include John Gower’s ‘Confessio amantis’ (1483) and Sir Thomas Malory’s ‘Morte Darthur’ (1485). He also printed works of Chaucer and John Lydgate.
Personal Life & Legacy
Nothing is known of Caxton’s personal life including his marriage and children.
Though there is no accurate information regarding his death, it is assumed that he died somewhere around 1491 and 1492. He was buried at St. Margaret's, Westminster. His printing press thrived for forty years after his death under Wynkyn de Worde, one of his immigrant workers.
Posthumously, in 1954, a memorial dedicated to Caxton was unveiled in Westminster Abbey by J.J. Astor. The plaque read the following inscription, ‘Near this place William Caxton set up the first printing press in England.’