Born in Hadlow, Kent around 1420, William Caxton traveled to London somewhere between the age of 14 and 16 to serve as an apprentice to a London merchant, When Caxton’s master passed, Caxton inherited a sum large enough to begin his own business. From London, Caxton traveled to Bruges, where he finished his apprenticeship and was later employed by Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy (sister to King Edward IV), likely as her financial advisor. She encouraged Caxton’s translation of the French tale, “The Recuyell of the Histories of Troye,” into English. From 1462 to 1470, Caxton served as governor of the English Nation of Merchant Adventures, where he negotiated contracts for his fellow merchants and acted as a diplomat for the King.
“In the epilogue of Book III of the completed translation, entitled The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, he [Caxton] tells how his “pen became worn, his hand weary, his eye dimmed” with copying the book; so he “practised and learnt” at great personal cost how to print it.” (Enclyclopedia Britannica)
In Cologne in the early 1470s, Caxton learned something of the printing business, a skill he brought back to Bruges and later to England. He joined forces with Flemish calligrapher Colard Mansion to set up a printing press. Caxton’s translation of “The Recuyell of the Histories of Troye” was the first book printed in the English language (1475). Caxton’s translation from the French of The Game and Playe of the Chesse (in which chess is treated as an allegory of life) was published in 1476.
“In 1476, when he was in his 50s, Caxton was back in London [in Westminster], and he started printing and selling books. This included very influential books, such as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, [Gower’s Confession Amantis], Le Morte d’Arthur, Sayengis of the Philosophres (Sayings of the Philosophers) and The Book of the Knight in the Tower, published 1484. This included some of the first verses in the Bible to be printed in English.
Al these thynges consydered, there can no man resonably gaynsaye but there was a kyng of thys lande named Arthur. For in al places, Crysten and hethen, he is reputed and taken for one of the nine worthy, and the fyrst of the thre Crysten men.
– William Caxton, Preface to Sir Thomas Malory Le Morte Darthur (1485)[Biography Online]
Caxton printed more than 100 books in his lifetime. “Although a pioneer of printing in England, Caxton showed no great typographical originality and produced no books of remarkable beauty. Kings, nobles, and rich merchants were Caxton’s patrons and sometimes commissioned special books. His varied output—including books of chivalric romance, conduct, morality, history, and philosophy and an encyclopaedia, The Myrrour of the Worlde (1481), the first illustrated English book—shows that he catered also to a general public. The large number of service books and devotional works published by Caxton were the staple reading of most literate persons. He also printed nearly all the English literature available to him in his time.” (BBC-History)
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