Great Englishmen - M. B. Synge

William Caxton (1412-1491)

Did it ever occur to you that when the Bible was translated into English, all the copies had to be written by hand; and when Chaucer wrote his long poems, anyone who wanted them had to have them copied? No one knew about printing. No one had ever heard of a printing press at this time. The monks made it their duty to copy out these books. It took a lifetime to copy some, as they painted many of the letters and put beautiful borders round the pages. Then the people had to give a great deal of money for these books, nearly all their money sometimes, and only the rich and learned could read them.

William Caxton was the first man who brought the art of printing into England.

He was born in Kent, in a wild part of the country, where few people lived, where "a broad and rude English was spoken." Probably it was in a lonely farm-house in this wild district that the first English printer spent his early years.

We do not know where Caxton went to school, but he had a good education for those days. He says, in a book he wrote and printed, "I am bounden to pray for my father and mother's souls, that in my youth sent me to school."

When he was about fifteen he was apprenticed to a mercer named William Large, of the City of London. The name "mercer" was given at this time to merchants trading in all kinds of goods. Amongst other things William Large, Caxton's master, did a small trade in books, being very wealthy, so that Caxton had the opportunity of seeing some of the old manuscripts, as the books written by hand were called. There were many apprentices with Caxton: they all wore flat round caps, their hair cut quite close to the head, coarse, long coats, and tight stockings.

They walked before their masters and mistresses at night, bearing a lantern and bearing a long club on their shoulders.

Caxton must have seen the grand procession of Henry VI., who was crowned while he was still serving under William Large.

Henry VI. had just been crowned King of France, and was received in London with all the pomp and show the citizens could produce.

When Caxton had served under William Large for seven years, his apprenticeship was over, and we lose sight of him for a space of seven years more.

In 1441 Large died, leaving Caxton a legacy of a large sum of money, which shows that the boy must have behaved well during his apprenticeship, and won the respect of his master.

The following year Caxton left England to go to the Low Countries, that is, the countries we now call Holland and Belgium. He probably went as a merchant on his own account, but we do not hear much about him there. He learnt French well, and developed a great taste for books and manuscripts. Before long we find him acting as a copyist to the Duke of Burgundy, a very powerful prince in that part. Very tedious did he find this copying, and very soon he threw it aside for another art, which was then becoming known in Germany. I mean the art of printing.

We are not quite certain who really first invented printing, though we know that Caxton first brought it to England.

One story says that there was a man named Coster, who, during his walks in the woods, used to cut letters out of the bark of the trees, by which he made letters and sentences for his children.

He then discovered a kind of ink to put on the blocks of wood, so that they left a mark on the pages. He only printed on one side of the paper, and then pasted the leaves together. Soon after, Coster made metal letters inside of wooden, some tin, some lead. Finding it answered well, he got some workmen to come and help him. One night, when Coster was out and the other men gone home, one of the workers named John, stole all the metal letters or types, and ran away with them to Germany and set up a printing-press.

But most stories tell us that a man named Guttenberg invented printing.

First he made pictures in wood and impressed them on paper. After a time he made metal types, and printed a copy of the Bible, which took him seven years.

Caxton, of course, heard of this printing, and Guttenberg's name was known all over Germany.

In 1470 Caxton went to Cologne to learn the art of printing, and there, in a small attic, he worked away, knowing what a gain it would be to his country if he could introduce the art. He first printed a "History of Troy" that he had translated from the French. In the preface he wrote, "my pen is worn, my hand weary and not steadfast, mine eyes dimmed with over-much looking on the white paper, and my courage not so ready to labour as it hath been. Age creepeth on me daily."

Still he laboured on, and after an absence of thirty-five years, he returned to England with his treasure, a printing-press, and several printed copies of his "History of Troy" to sell. For in those days there was no proper bookseller, no bookbinder. Caxton had to bind his own books, and very clumsy they looked when they were bound.

The wooden boards between which the leaves were fastened were as thick as the panel of a door. They were covered with leather. Outside on the cover were large brass nails with big heads, and the book was fastened by a thick clasp. The back was stuck with paste or glue laid on thickly. "No one can carry it about, much less read it," says a man, writing of one of Caxton's printed books.

At the time when most men would have retired to enjoy ease and comfort, the busy Caxton was plunging with energy into his new work.

Before long he had printed all the English poetry in existence. Special pains did he take to print Chaucer's poems carefully, and several times he tried to improve the type of the "Canterbury Tales."

William Caxton


Busy as Caxton was with his printing, he was yet busier translating books into English for the people to read. It is of no use to tell you all the names of the books he translated and printed, as you could not remember them.

One book he printed for the people was "The love of books." It was written about one hundred years before Caxton printed it, and is very amusing in parts. The author says that people who use books badly should not be allowed to read them. He speaks very severely to those who read with "unwashed hands, dirty nails, greasy elbows leaning over the volume, munching fruit and cheese over the open leaves." Caxton added to this book a great deal about using books rightly.

He was not encouraged in his printing, for the great men were too much taken up with affairs of the country to take notice of him.

Caxton worked on till he was nearly eighty, and he worked up to the day of his death.

"He was not slumbering when his call came, he was still labouring at the work for which he was born."

He died quietly on a sunny summer day, at his house in Westminster, and was buried in a little chapel near.

It was eventide, and the sun was sending its last red streaks of light into the little workshop of Westminster, when four workmen entered, clothed in black, and looking grave, sad, and downcast. The room looked deserted, papers lay about, the ink-blocks were dusty, a thin film had formed on the ink, the machinery looked oily and unused.

The four men drew in their stools, "those stools on which they had sat through many a long day of quiet labour, steadily working to the distant end of some manuscript," working for their master, who would now no more direct their work and encourage them to the end.

"Companions," said one, "companions, this good work will not stop"

"Who is to carry it on?" sadly asked another.

"I am ready," said the first speaker, whose name was Wynkyn.

A cry of joy rose to the lips of the honest workmen, but it faded again as they thought of him they had lost. Tears stood in their eyes as they whispered, "God rest his soul."

"I have encouragement," replied Wynkyn. "We will carry on the work briskly in our good master's house. Printing must go forward."

Thus they settled to carry on the good work their master had begun, the work at which he had laboured so honestly and faithfully, the work by which the name of Caxton will ever be remembered and honoured.