William Caxton | Sunday Observer
Scientists and inventors

William Caxton

14 August, 2022

William Caxton was the man who brought the new art of printing from the Continent to England in the 15th century. He was not only our first printer, but also, one of our pioneer educators, a moulder of taste, and an establisher of literary tradition.

First English printer

Caxton has been dubbed the ‘First English printer.’ He was also a man of letters and educationist who strove throughout his life to bring cultural values to the people.

To him, the process of printing was to popularise certain books, authors and translators well known for their high literary knowledge. Printing was not a business for him as he only wanted to educate the people of his country.


William Caxton

Caxton was born in Kent in 1424, but the exact date of his birth is not known. We also do not know anything about his early education. However, his name appeared in the books of the Mercers’ Company as an apprentice to Robert Large in 1438.

He worked as an apprentice for three years. After a few more years he was admitted to the Livery of the Mercers’ Company.

In 1462 King Edward IV gave permission to the company to appoint a Governor at Bruges. A year later, Caxton performed the duties as the Governor of the English Nation at Bruges.

After reading the French manuscript of Raoul le Fevre’s Le Receuil des Histoirs de Troyes he wanted to translate it into English. Half way through, however, he got cold feet and gave it up. Due to the persistence of the new Duchess of Burgandy Caxton finished the translation.

It was in 1472 that he learned the new craft of printing. Thereafter, he set up a small press at Burges with Colard Mansion and printed The Recuyed of the Historyes of Troy. It was the first ever book printed in the English language. In 1476, he translated a French book and published it as The Game and Play of Chess Moralist. Caxton goes down in history as the man who opened the golden gates of literature to all of us.

In 1477, he translated another French book into English as Dictes or Sayengis of the Philosophres. King Richard III and King Henry VII encouraged him to go ahead with his translations and printing. He dedicated the Order of Chivalry To King Richard III. In 1478, he printed Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales using his small press.

Caxton’s success in England attracted others to the printing trade. In 1481, he published the Mirrour of The World, the first of his books to be illustrated. Some of his books had no punctuation marks except the full stop and the comma. He also never numbered the pages of his books.

The reason for such lapses was that he was more interested in the material than the appearance of the product. Before printing a book he checked its moral and literary value.

Eighty books

He used his tiny press to publish 80 books. Some of them had been translated into English by himself.

Out of all his publications, The Chronicles of England stands out. Later the book came to be known as Caxton’s Chronicles. After translating the Lives of the Fathers in 1491, Caxton laid down his pen and his life. Lovers of English literature will always remember William Caxton as a marvellous man who pioneered the printing of English books.