Littell's Living Age/Volume 134/Issue 1726/William Caxton

From The Fireside.


William Caxton, the first English printer, was a Kentish man, born about 1412. His parents were worthy people, and it is memorable that at a time when, from political troubles and the unsettled state of the country, education was neglected, the parents of Caxton reared their son carefully. "I am bounden," says he, "to pray for my father's and mother's souls, that in my youth sent me to school, by which by the sufferance of God I get my living, I hope truly." He was apprenticed to a citizen of London, a mercer, that name being then given to designate a general merchant trading in various goods. That Caxton was a diligent and faithful apprentice may be inferred from the fact that his master, William Large, in 1441 left him in his will a legacy of £13, 6s. 8d., a handsome sum in those days. After he received this legacy he went abroad, being probably engaged in mercantile pursuits. He continued for the most part in the countries of Brabant, Flanders, Holland, and Zeeland, all at this time under the dominion of the Duke of Burgundy, one of the most powerful princes of Europe. While Caxton's countrymen were contesting in the battle-field the claim of the rival houses of York and Lancaster, he was exercising his acute and observant mind, acquiring the French and Dutch languages, and preparing himself, by a peaceful and thoughtful life, for his great work as a benefactor to his country. In 1464 he was sent on a mission by Edward IV., to continue and confirm some important treaties of commerce with the Duke of Burgundy. The Low Countries were at that time the great mart of Europe, and Caxton, bred to commerce, from his experience would be able to enter into treaties beneficial to his own long-troubled land. In 1450, Gutenberg, generally considered to be the first printer, entered into partnership with Fust, a rich merchant of Mentz, who supplied the sums necessary to carry the invention into effect. Charles, the son and successor to the Duke of Burgundy, whom Caxton had known, first married Margaret, sister to our Edward IV., and Caxton, who could scarcely have been a merchant on his own account, was appointed to some post in the household of the duchess. The exact nature and salary of his office are not known, but he was on terms of familiar intercourse with Margaret, who seems to have rightly appreciated her estimable countryman. Caxton had been deeply interested in the new and wondrous art of printing, and he had exercised himself in making some translations from books that pleased him. "In 1469," he says, "having no great charge or occupation, and wishing to eschew sloth and idleness, which is the mother and nourisher of vices, having good leisure, being at Cologne, I set about finishing the translation [of the "Histories of Troy"]. When, however, I remembered my simpleness and imperfections in French and English, I fell in despair of my works, and after I had written five or six quairs, purposed no more to have continued therein, and the quairs [books] laid apart, and in two years after labored no more in this work, till in a time it fortuned the Lady Margaret sent for me to speak with her good Grace of divers matters among the which I let her have knowledge of the foresaid beginning." "The duchess," he adds, "found fault with myne English, which she commanded me to amend, and to continue and make an end of the residue; which command I durst not disobey." The duchess both encouraged, and rewarded him liberally. He mentions in the prologue and epilogue to this book that his eyes are dim with overmuch looking on the white paper, and that age was creeping on him daily, and enfeebling all his body; that he "had learned and practised at great charge and dispense to ordain this said book in print, and not written with pen and ink, as other books be." This, it seems, was not the first book he had printed at Cologne. He returned to England about 1472, when he would be sixty years old, after having lived thirty years on the Continent. He brought with him some unsold copies of the works he had printed at Cologne. Thomas Milling, Bishop of Hereford and Abbot of Westminster, was Caxton's first patron. It was probably by his permission that Caxton set up his printing-press in the almonry or one of the chapels attached to the Abbey.