Gateway to the Classics: Stories From English History, Book II by Alfred J. Church
Stories From English History, Book II by  Alfred J. Church

William Caxton, Printer

There never was anything that made a greater difference to the world than when books began to be printed, instead of being written by the hand. This wonderful invention was not made all at once. First there was printing from blocks, which is done by drawing or writing something on a piece of wood or metal, and taking an impression from it. But real printing began when a letter, or sometimes two or three letters, were made in wood or metal, put together in words, and then, having been covered with ink, were stamped on paper. These letters made in metal, for wood was soon given up, are called type. Type that was movable, i.e. could be put together and then taken to pieces, was the great secret of printing. When this was done, a real beginning was made. It is not certain who first did this. But it is commonly believed to have been one Gutenberg, who set up in business at Mentz in 1441, and in the following year printed two small books. In 1455 he printed a Bible which is called the Mazarin. The first English printer was William Caxton, who was born about 1422. For many years he was engaged in trade—he had been apprenticed to a mercer—and lived in Bruges, as governor of the English traders in that city. But he was always fond of books, and when he was about forty-seven years of age he began to translate from the French a book about the Trojan War. Not long after he entered the service of the Duchess of Burgundy (sister to our King Edward IV.), and on September 19, 1471, he presented to her his translation, which he had by that time finished. She was much pleased with the book. What a great lady liked was sure to be popular; so many people wanted to have copies that Caxton's hand, as he tells us himself, grew tired with writing, and his eyes dimmed with overmuch looking at the white paper. Then he began to think of printing.


Caxton Before Edward IV.

There was a printer in Bruges at this time of the name of Collard Mansion, who had his printing press in a room over a church porch. Caxton learnt the art from him, and the book was printed, as was also another, about chess, which was published in the following year. In 1476 Caxton left Bruges and returned to England (from which he had been absent five-and-thirty years), bringing with him a "fount" of Collard Mansion's type.

The place which he chose for carrying on his new business was the "Abbey" of Westminster. When we now speak of "Westminster Abbey," we mean the beautiful church founded by Edward the Confessor, as has been told in the first volume of these Stories. But at the time of which I am now writing the word meant much more. There was then a great house for monks, who were ruled by an Abbot, and all the buildings belonging to this were called the "Abbey." Among these were a gaol for the safe keeping of prisoners, and an almonry, where alms were given to the poor. Some houses near the Almonry were called by the same name, and in one of these, known as "Redhall House," Caxton set up his printing press. The first book printed in this place was published in 1477.

For fourteen years he lived and worked in Westminster. He was an important person in the parish (St. Margaret's, Westminster), for we find his name signed to the parish accounts, to show that he had looked through them, and found that they were all right. And he worked hard, not only at printing books, but also at writing them, or rather translating them either from the Latin or the French. The number that he printed and published during these fourteen years was about eighty, and a quarter of these he translated himself. It has been reckoned that these translations of his contain in all about four thousand five hundred pages, folio pages that is, and so four times as big as the pages we commonly see. We must remember that he did with his own hands a great deal of the actual work of printing. A master-printer now only sees that others do their work properly, but Caxton actually "composed," i.e. put the letters together into words, and "struck off" copies from the type when it had been composed.

He had many great and powerful friends. King Edward IV. gave him money, came, it is said, to see his printing-office, and had two books printed under his patronage. The Duchess of Burgundy, whose servant he had been at Bruges, also continued to be his friend. Perhaps, when he came to England in 1480 on a visit to her brother the King, she may have gone to Westminster to see Caxton. He dedicated a book to King Richard III., and another to Henry VII., and he presented the story of Æneas to Prince Arthur, King Henry's eldest son. This was in 1490, when the Prince was four years old.

In 1490 Caxton seems to have lost his wife, for we find that a certain "Mawde Caxton" was buried in the churchyard of St. Margaret's. If this lady was his wife, they had been married nine-and-twenty years. In this year Caxton began to print a book called Feats of Arms, but he stopped the work in order to print another which has the title The Art to Die Well. This is just what he would have been likely to do if some one very dear to him died about this time. He went on working up to the time of his death. This seems to have taken place about the end of the year 1491.

One Wynken de Worde, who was his chief assistant, and succeeded him in his business, says of a book published in 1492 with the title of Lives of the Fathers that lived in the Desert, that it had been "translated out of French into English by William Caxton of Westminster, lately deceased, and finished on the last day of his life." He was buried in the church-yard of St. Margaret. Six shillings and eightpence was paid for torches and sixpence for ringing the bells. These are much higher fees than were commonly paid. He does not seem to have left much besides his stock of books. Fifteen copies of one of them he left to the parish church. These were sold at different prices, varying from 6s. 8d. to 5s. 8d. during the next ten years. These prices would be equal to about £3 to £2 10s. of our money.

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