William Caxton (c. 1422 – c. 1491) was an English merchant, diplomat, and writer. He is thought to be the first person to introduce a printing press into England, in 1476, and as a printer was the first English retailer of printed books.
Neither his parentage nor date of birth is known for certain, but he may have been born between 1415 and 1424, perhaps in the Weald or wood land of Kent, perhaps in Hadlow or Tenterden. In 1438 he was apprenticed to Robert Large, a wealthy London silk mercer.
Shortly after Large's death, Caxton moved to Bruges, Belgium, a wealthy cultured city, where he was settled by 1450. Successful in business, he became governor of the Company of Merchant Adventurers of London; on his business travels, he observed the new printing industry in Cologne, which led him to start a printing press in Bruges in collaboration with Colard Mansion. When Margaret of York, sister of Edward IV, married the Duke of Burgundy, they moved to Bruges and befriended Caxton. It was the Duchess who encouraged Caxton to complete his translation of the Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, a collection of stories associated with Homer's Iliad, which he did in 1471.
On his return to England, heavy demand for his translation prompted Caxton to set up a press at Westminster in 1476, although the first book he is known to have produced was an edition of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales; he went on to publish chivalric romances, classical works, and English and Roman histories, and to edit many others. He was the first to translate Aesop's Fables in 1484. Caxton was not an adequate translator, and under pressure to publish as much as possible as quickly as possible, he sometimes simply transferred French words into English; but because of the success of his translations, he is credited with helping to promote the Chancery English he used to the status of standard dialect throughout England.
Caxton's family "fairly certainly" consisted of his parents, Philip and Dionisia, and a brother, Philip. His date of birth is unknown. Records place it in the region of 1415–1424, based on the fact that his apprenticeship fees were paid in 1438. Caxton would have been 14 at the date of apprenticeship, but masters often paid the fees late. In the preface to his first printed work The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, he claims to have been born and educated in the Weald of Kent. Oral tradition in Tonbridge claims that Caxton was born there; the same with Tenterden. One of the manors of Hadlow was Caustons, owned by the Caxton (De Causton) family. A house in Hadlow reputed to be the birthplace of William Caxton was dismantled in 1936 and incorporated into a larger house rebuilt in Forest Row, East Sussex. Further evidence for Hadlow is that various place names nearby are frequently mentioned by Caxton.
Caxton was in London by 1438, when the registers of the Mercers' Company record his apprenticeship to Robert Large, a wealthy London mercer or dealer in luxury goods, who served as Master of the Mercer's Company, and Lord Mayor of London in 1439. After Large died in 1441, Caxton was left a small sum of money (£20). As other apprentices were left larger sums, it would seem that he was not a senior apprentice at this time.
Caxton was making trips to Bruges by 1450 at the latest and had settled there by 1453, when he may have taken his Liberty of the Mercers' Company. There he was successful in business and became governor of the Company of Merchant Adventurers of London. 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 third wife of Charles the Bold and sister of two Kings of England: Edward IV and Richard III. 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 named Colard Mansion, and the first book to be printed in English was produced in 1473: Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, a translation by Caxton himself. In the epilogue of the book, Caxton tells how his "pen became worn, his hand weary, his eye dimmed" with copying the book by hand, so he "practiced and learnt" how to print it. His translation had become popular in the Burgundian court, and requests for copies of it were the stimulus for him to set up a press.
Bringing the knowledge back to England, he set up the country's first ever press in the almonry of the Westminster Abbey Church in 1476. The first book known to have been produced there was an edition of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales (Blake, 2004–07). Another early title was Dictes or Sayengis of the Philosophres (Sayings of the Philosophers), first printed on 18 November 1477, translated by Earl Rivers, the king's brother-in-law. Caxton's translations of the Golden Legend (1483) and The Book of the Knight in the Tower (1484) contain perhaps the earliest verses of the Bible to be printed in English. He produced the first translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses in English.
Caxton produced chivalric romances (such as Fierabras), the most important of which was Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur (1485); classical works; and English and Roman histories. These books appealed to the English upper classes in the late fifteenth century. Caxton was supported by (but not dependent on) members of the nobility and gentry.
Caxton's precise date of death is uncertain, but estimates from the records of his burial in St. Margaret's, Westminster, suggest that he died near March 1492. However, George D. Painter makes numerous references to the year 1491 in his book William Caxton: a biography as the year of Caxton's death, since 24 March was the last day of the year according to the calendar used at the time, so the year-change hadn't happened yet. Painter writes, "However, Caxton's own output reveals the approximate time of his death, for none of his books can be later than 1491, and even those which are assignable to that year are hardly enough for a full twelve months' production; so a date of death towards autumn of 1491 could be deduced even without confirmation of documentary evidence."
In November 1954, a memorial to Caxton was unveiled in Westminster Abbey by J. J. Astor, chairman of the Press Council. The white stone plaque is on the wall next to the door to Poets' Corner. The inscription reads:
Caxton and the English language
Caxton printed 80 per cent of his works in the English language. He translated a large number of works into English, performing much of the translation and editing work himself. He is credited with printing as many as 108 books, 87 of which were different titles, including the first English translation of Aesop's Fables (26 March 1484). Caxton also translated 26 of the titles himself. His major guiding principle in translating was an honest desire to provide the most linguistically exact replication of foreign language texts into English, but the hurried publishing schedule and his inadequate skill as a translator often led to wholesale transference of French words into English and numerous misunderstandings.
The English language was changing rapidly in Caxton's time and the works that 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 that 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 through printing—that is, homogenising regional dialects and largely adopting the London dialect. This facilitated the expansion of English vocabulary, the regularisation of inflection and syntax, and a widening gap between the spoken and the written word. Richard Pynson started printing in London in 1491 or 1492 and favoured what came to be called Chancery Standard, largely based on the London dialect. Pynson was a more accomplished stylist than Caxton and consequently pushed the English language further toward standardisation.
In the 1490 edition of Caxton's translation of the prologue to Virgil's Aeneid, called by him Eneydos, Caxton refers to the problems of finding a standardised English. Caxton recounts what took place when a boat sailing from London to Zeeland was becalmed, and landed on the Kent side of the Thames. A mercer called Sheffield who was from the north of England went into a house and asked the "good wyf" if he could buy some "egges". She replied that she could speak no French. This annoyed him, as he could also not speak French. A bystander suggested that Sheffield was asking for "eyren" and the woman said she understood that. After recounting the interaction, Caxton wrote "Loo what sholde a man in thyse dayes now wryte egges or eyren? Certaynly it is harde to playse euery man by cause of dyuersite and chaunge of langage." ("Lo, what should a man in these days now write: egges or eyren? Certainly it is hard to please every man because of diversity and change of language.")