William Caxton’s exact date of birth is unknown, but history dictates his birth be around 1422 in the Weald of Kent.
In 1438 aged 16, Caxton became an apprentice to Robert Large a London merchant, and upon the death of his employer, he moved to Bruges, and spent some thirty years working there as a merchant.
His success as a merchant was shown, when he became “Governor of the English Nation,” at Bruges in Belgium.
In 1469, he entered the service of Margaret, the Duchess of Burgundy who was the sister of King Edward IV of England. Where he undertook the translation of “Raoul le Fevre’s history of Troy” into English, which he undertook in 1471-1472 in Cologne, where he learnt the trade of printing.
Upon his return to Bruges, joined up with Colard Mansion, using his new found knowledge and set up a printing press. Their partnership lasted for two years and in that time many publications were undertaken including; “The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye,” and “The Game and Playe of the Cheese” a moral treatise on government that he dedicated to the Duke of Clarence.
1476, William Caxton left Bruges, and came home to England, setting up a printer’s shop in London, with Wynkyn de Worde as his foreman and his successor upon his death.
This was the first printing press in all England. In his lifetime he printed in excess of one-hundred books; Chaucer’s – Canterbury Tales, Gower’s – Confession Amantis and the list goes on.
He was much more than a mere printer, he translated many books, using his knowledge of French, Latin and the Dutch language.
William Caxton died in the early months of 1492, and left one daughter, who married Gerald Crop. William Caxton was buried in St.Margaret’s churchyard in the borough of Westminster. It was not until 1820, that a memorial was erected, the work of sculptor Henry Westmacott. The inscription read: “To the memory of William Caxton who first introduced into Great Britain the art of printing and who AD 1477 or earlier exercised that art in the Abbey of Westminster. The tablet of remembrance of one to whom the literature of his country is so largely indebted was raised Anno Domini MDCCCXX by the Roxburghe Club, Earl Spencer K.G.President.”
On the 30th April 1882, a stained glass window was erected in St.Margaret’s Church, but this was damaged in 1940, during World War Two. Yet a marble tablet still remains, recording its erection.
In 1954, close to Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey, a memorial was unveiled to William Caxton.
William Caxton and his successors had carried on the early works of printing by Johannes Gutenberg. They would carry forth much to stabilize English literature for future generations.