The First English Printer

I’m sure you know Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press with moveable type in Mainz, Germany in the 1450s. But who brought the printing press to England?

Credit is given to William Caxton, who was born sometime between 1415 and 1424, most likely in Kent, England. His career path was set when he was apprenticed to a member of London’s Mercers’ Company. This led him to spend much of his adult life as a merchant in the Low Countries. Caxton apparently learned printing in Cologne, Germany. His commercial experience must have caused him to realize its potential, because he started printing books in the Low Countries, beginning with his own English translation of the Recuyell of the Histories of Troy in Ghent in about 1473.

Caxton returned to England and set up the first printing shop near Westminster Cathedral in about 1476. From this location he published more than a hundred books between 1476 and his death in 1492. 

It’s unfortunate that he remains a relative unknown because he had a huge impact on the literature of his time. Always trying to create new markets for different types of writing, he published a series of prose romances in the later 15th century, thus introducing a new literary form to England. He published more than twenty of his own translations, including classics like Aesop’s Fables.  He used different type fonts and was the first English printer to commission woodcuts to use as illustrations, and is credited with providing the first usage of more than 1300 words. For years, the English called printed books Caxtons.

For more detail, see “William Caxton and the Introduction of Printing to England” by A.S.G. Edwards (https://www.bl.uk/medieval-literature/articles/william-caxton-and-the-introduction-of-printing-to-england).

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