Caxton Prints 1st Book in England
William Caxton was born in Kent around 1420 (the precise year is not known). He was apprenticed in 1438 to Robert Large, a wool merchant who later became Mayor of London. Large must have taught him well because Caxton established a successful business in Bruges after Large’s death in 1441.
Caxton prospered, became the head of the Merchant Adventurers in Holland and Flanders, and was used in trade related diplomatic missions to the Burgundian court. It was the English wife of Duke Charles the Bold of Burgundy, Margaret, who persuaded him to resume his stalled translation of Raoul le Fevre’s French romance, The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye.
Caxton’s love of literature and his eye for business saw him spend a year in Cologne learning the new art of printing – Guttenberg had invented the press in 1450. In 1474 Caxton produced the first book printed in the English language, a copy of his translation of le Fevre.
In 1476 Caxton set up a printing press in England, at Westminster, the first known publication from this being The Dictes or Sayingis of the Philosophres, dated 18th November 1477. Caxton was no fool; this had been translated from the French by the king’s brother-in-law, Anthony Woodville, the 2nd Earl River - perhaps the first celebrity book in English history. As well as being the first English printer he was the first English bookseller, his rivals at that time in London being foreigners.
Caxton was a prolific translator, and some 20 or so of the works he published were the product of that work. He also published the greats of English literature as it then stood – Chaucer , Malory, and Gower among them. Before his death in 1492 he is thought to have produced around 100 different volumes, though sadly fewer than 40 are known to still exist.
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From Sean Meaney on 18th November 2010
I thought you might be interested to know that the Dictes or Sayingis of the Philosophres might not have been the first book published by Caxton in England. He had a translation from French of the Game and Playe of the Chesse complete by 31st March 1474, about two years before he established his first press at Westminster in 1476. When a copy was offered for sale in a Bernard Quaritch catalogue in 1872, he describes it as "the first book printed in England from Caxton's press". This was possibly booksellers' hype, but it might be true - the translation had been on the stocks for two years before Caxton printed it.