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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

XIII. The Introduction of Printing into England and the Early Work of the Press

§ 2. William Caxton

William Caxton, our first printer, was born in the weald of Kent between the years 1421 and 1428, probably nearer the earlier date. The weald was largely inhabited by descendants of the Flemish clothmakers who had been induced by Edward III to settle in that district, and this would, no doubt, have a certain effect on the English spoken there, which Caxton himself describes as “broad and rude.” He received a good education, though we are not told where, and, having determined to take up the business of a cloth merchant, was apprenticed, in 1438, to Robert Large, one of the most wealthy and important merchants in London and a leading member of the mercer’s company.

Here Caxton continued until the death of Large, in 1441, and, though still an apprentice, appears to have left England and gone to the Low Countries. For the next few years we have little information as to his movements; but it is clear that he prospered in business for, by 1463, he was acting as governor of the merchant adventurers. In 1463, he gave up this post to enter the service of the duchess of Burgundy, and, in the leisure which this position afforded him, he turned his attention to literary work. A visit to Cologne in 1471 marks an important event in Caxton’s life, for there, for the first time, he saw a printing press at work. If we believe the words of his apprentice and successor Wynkyn de Worde, and there seems no reason to doubt them, he even assisted in the printing of an edition of Bartholomaeus de Proprietatibus Rerum in order to make himself acquainted with the technical details of the art.

A year or two after his return to Bruges, he determined to set up a press of his own and chose as an assistant an illuminator named Colard Mansion. Mansion is entered regularly as an illuminator in the guild-books of Bruges up to the year 1473, which points to Caxton’s preparations having been made in 1474. Mantion was despatched to obtain the necessary type and other materials, and it appears most probable that the printer who supplied them was John Veldner of Louvain. Furnished with a press and two founts of type, cut in imitation of the ordinary book hand, Caxton began to print.