William Caxton: The First Printer of English Literature

By Kathryn Walton

Twenty-five years after the printing press was invented, it was brought to England by a successful merchant called William Caxton. Caxton became the first person to print books in English for popular consumption, and in so doing, he shaped the nature of English popular literature for years to come.

Books in Medieval England and The Invention of the Printing Press

Throughout most of the medieval period, literature was transmitted orally or in manuscript form. Those who couldn’t read could enjoy literature when it was presented by practiced performers. Those who could read could enjoy texts written in manuscript form…if they could afford to access them.


Medieval manuscripts were really expensive. Many steps, much expensive material, and a whole lot of labour went into their construction. To make one, texts were written on vellum or parchment by a scribe and bound into a coherent volume. This video gives you an overview of the process.

All that work made books really pricey: so pricey that most people couldn’t afford them. And so, written literature in the early Middle Ages was really only available to the wealthy.


This all changed, however, with the invention of the printing press.

Techniques for creating multiple copies of books had been used in China and neighbouring countries since almost the beginning of the Middle Ages. In China, as early as the 7th century, seals were cut into wood, inked by hand, and pressed onto paper. Eventually versions of significant texts were even engraved into wood blocks so that multiple copies of those texts could be made. Paper too was invented in medieval China and eventually spread along trade routes to Europe where it was used even before the printing press was invented.

In Europe, however, it was in the 15th century that Johannes Gutenberg, relying on various techniques that were already in use, came up with a means by which multiple copies of a single text could be produced without having to carve that text onto woodblocks. Sometime around 1450, he came up with a method of creating and using movable type to press text onto paper quickly and easily. Multiple copies of his famous 1200-page Bible, printed in 1454, survive as a testament to the significance of his early work.

That this event was one of (if not the) most significant for the development of literature and even of western society cannot be stressed enough. The invention of the printing press allowed for literacy to spread more widely, for ideas to be shared more freely, and for literature to become accessible to many more people.

The first person to bring it to England, however, was not all that concerned with these eventual outcomes. William Caxton adopted the printing press as a money-making venture.


William Caxton’s Early Years

William Caxton was born somewhere in Kent sometime between 1415 and 1424. As the Dictionary of National Biography entry on him indicates, very little is known about his early years, his family, and his education. It is likely that he was sent to school by his parents, where he may have learned Latin and rhetoric, but he was not highly educated as he was apprenticed at a young age.

Caxton began his working career not as a printer (which was not yet something you could be), but as a clothmaker. He was a member of the Mercer’s company which dealt in cloth, haberdashery, and other luxury goods. Significantly for Caxton, this group of merchants was one that was heavily involved in international trade, so Caxton was introduced to the international market at an early age.

Once he was established in the business, he became a prominent and successful merchant. He moved to the continent and by 1450 Caxton was either travelling regularly to or living in Bruges. He established an extensive business for himself there. His mercantile influence allowed him to eventually become a political figure and diplomat, and by 1465, he was the governor of the English nation in Bruges.

Spread from the facsimile of the “Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers” printed by William Caxton in 1477. Facsimile printed in 1877. Wikimedia Commons

In the years that followed, however, political conflict that arose out of the Wars of the Roses made some of Caxton’s commercial projects more challenging. And so, in the early 1470s, he turned to printing books as a means of making money.

The Establishment of Printing in English

While the printing press had been invented by Gutenberg around 1450, no books were being printed in English. There was no market for English books on the continent where the printing presses were located. So, Caxton saw an excellent business opportunity: one that would allow him to create a monopoly for himself and secure an entire nation as a market of potential buyers. Ever the shrewd businessman, he jumped at the chance.

He printed his first English book on the continent. For this first book (and the first book ever printed in English), Caxton chose to make his own translation of The History of Troy. He made this translation with the support (or at least in the name of) Margaret of Burgundy. As the ODNB indicates, he employed her name to show his buyers that “the most fashionable Englishwoman of the time” had approved of his text.

Page from “The Canterbury Tales,” by Geoffrey Chaucer, printed at Westminster by William Caxton, 1477.

At first, it proved a bit hard for Caxton to sell these books. There was no market for English books on the continent, and the English market was still mostly interested in buying manuscripts rather than printed texts. The printed book was something new and it took time to catch on. So, Caxton had to continue in his roles as a diplomat and as Mercer in order to prevent himself from going bankrupt (as many other early printers did).


Eventually, however, Caxton figured out how to make his business viable. He headed to England and set up a printing press in Westminster at the sign of the Red Pale. He chose that location so that he could sell to the affluent and fashionable members of the court.

The first book printed in England was his edition of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. It was a shrewd choice. It is a quintessentially “English” book: it was already in English, and Chaucer had written it to offer an image of English society. It was also already popular with audiences. So, he chose something he knew would sell well. And it did.

From there, Caxton was able to make his press viable by producing works that were already popular. He published his own translations of French texts, the work of established English poets, other popular histories and romances, and religious and didactic texts sure to appeal to the English audience. He wasn’t necessarily interested in establishing an “excellent” canon of English literature. He published anything that would be profitable.

Caxton’s Early Print and Popular Culture

In establishing a printing press, and in what he chose to print, Caxton was following and creating a new and exciting trend in popular culture. He wanted his books to appeal to fashionable people who would buy them, and so he created books that would appeal to that group of people. In his early days, for example, he chose to print English translations of French texts because those French texts were the ones popular with the literary elite. He also chose The Canterbury Tales because it had been a very popular work with audiences ever since Chaucer composed it in the late 14th century.

He also tried to expand his audience outside of the gentry to whom written literature had traditionally really only been available. In his edition of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, he writes an appeal to his audience members to buy his book and indicates what kind of audience he was hoping would do so; as he says, he is “humbly beseeching all noble lords and ladies, with all other estates, of what estate or degree they be of, that shall see and read in this book.” He appeals here to his audience of fashionable readers, but also indicates that this kind of text could be available to anyone. In so doing, he is expanding his market.

He also to some extent sought to influence and define popular culture through what he printed. In that same preface to Malory, he hopes that all these “noble lords and ladies” will “find many joyous and pleasant histories, and noble and renowned acts of humanity, gentleness, and chivalries. For herein may be seen noble chivalry, courtesy, humanity, friendliness, hardiness, love, friendship, cowardice, murder, hate, virtue, and sin.” He hopes that his readers will “do after the good and leave the evil, and it shall bring you to good fame and renown.”

In this statement, Caxton basically lays out his business plan. He is selling an image of a lifestyle to his audience (in this case the image is of courtly splendor). He is asking them to follow that image, and he is asking that they buy more books so that they can read more about what this image looks like.

So, in establishing the first printing press in England, Caxton both catered to and defined English popular culture, setting the stage for the monumental impact the printed word would have on English society for centuries to come.

Kathryn Walton holds a PhD in Middle English Literature from York University. Her research focuses on magic, medieval poetics, and popular literature. She currently teaches at Lakehead University in Orillia. You can find her on Twitter @kmmwalton.

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Top Image: The printer’s mark of William Caxton. Late 15th century. Reading University Special Collections JGL 1/2/3.