William Caxton: Mercer Translator and Master Printer

Dorothy Margaret Stuart describes how the earliest English printed book was issued from William Caxton’s press at Westminster in 1477, under the patronage of the ruling House of York.

In the year 1468, when Johannes Guthenberg died at Mainz, there occurred in the city of Bruges an event that determined the time and the place of the first introduction into England of the art with which his name must always be linked—the art of printing.

This event was the marriage of Edward IV’s sister, Margaret of York, and Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy.1

To the merchants of London and to their shrewd King, the political and commercial advantages implicit in the Anglo-Burgundian alliance were clear: what no one could then have foreseen was that within the next decade a new and decisive influence would be thence brought to bear upon the lives of all but the most abjectly illiterate Englishmen.

The young Duchess, coming from a country divided and to some extent impoverished by the Wars of the Roses, must have looked with wonder and delight at “the Florence of Flanders,” with its lordly libraries, its skillful limners, illuminators and architects, its classically-minded pageant-masters.

With her, as her “presenter,” came a kinsman of hers by marriage even better qualified than herself to appreciate these things—Antony, Lord Scales, later second Earl Rivers,2 eldest brother of Queen Elizabeth Wydeville.

And in the Tournament of the Golden Tree, held to celebrate her wedding, one of the doughtiest combatants was Louis de la Gruthuyse, Governor of Holland, a lavish patron of scholarship and art in Flanders.

Margaret of York must soon have learned that the head of the English trading fraternity in Bruges, the “Governor of the English Nation,”3 was a certain William Caxton, who had served the King, her brother, faithfully and skillfully in various negotiations, usually but not invariably connected with the wool trade.

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