The history of English literature might have looked very different if a middle-aged merchant named William Caxton had not been invited to a wedding in 1468. It was a lavish affair. The bride was Edward IV’s sister Margaret of York, who dazzled all as she was carried into the city of Bruges in a golden litter drawn by white horses. Forming a powerful Anglo-Burgundian alliance, she became the third wife of Duke Charles the Bold.


Caxton had been involved in the marriage negotiations and, as an English merchant based in Bruges, he had a front row seat to the wedding of the century. A few years later, he ventured into his second career as a printer and began publishing the first ever books printed in English. Several people he met in connection to the marriage – not least Margaret herself – would become his most valuable supporters.

The first book printed in English was a milestone, but its story is not very well known today. Its upcoming 550-year anniversary is the perfect moment to reassess its importance. Curiously, the book was not a Bible, nor was it a text by a famous English author like Geoffrey Chaucer. It was, in fact, The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, a translation of a French medieval romance. It was printed around 1473–74 – and not in England. Caxton’s continental connections were crucial to the success of his venture, and they impacted his choice of text.

The story of the first book printed in English is one of international exchanges and collaborations, and of a great woman without whom we might have never heard of the name William Caxton.

An early 19th-century engraving of William Caxton (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Who was William Caxton and how did his printing career start?

We know next to nothing about Caxton’s youth. He tells us in his preface to The Recuyell that he was born in the Weald of Kent, and that he had spent 30 years on the continent, mostly in Brabant, Flanders, Holland and Zeeland. He was likely born in the early 1420s, making him around 50 years old when he turned to printing – an interesting midlife shift.

Records show that he lived in Bruges, among a community of English merchants. He made visits to the northern Low Countries and to German-speaking regions, as well as the occasional trip to London. Bruges was the centre of trade between Flanders and England, so it is no surprise that we find Caxton the merchant residing there for long periods. The southern Low Countries were ruled by the dukes of Burgundy, whose courtly splendour Caxton witnessed first hand.

While England saw constant unrest during the Wars of the Roses, Bruges was going through a cultural golden age. The city was famous for its production of beautiful manuscripts. Many of the most visually stunning medieval books came from there. Members of the Burgundian elite, like Philip the Good and Louis Gruuthuse, were known for their literary patronage and extensive libraries.

When Edward IV fled England following a rebellion in 1470, he was hosted by Gruuthuse, whose library left a marked impression on the monarch. Many books Edward IV later acquired for his own library (after his restoration to the throne with victory in the battle of Tewkesbury in April 1471) were works also found in Gruuthuse’s collection. The tastes of the English and Burgundian courts were intertwined. This idea that what was fashionable in the Low Countries would appeal to an English audience is reflected in the books Caxton would later translate and print. Burgundian books were the height of sophistication.

Caxton was a successful businessman, even becoming governor of the Merchant Adventurers and taking on diplomatic roles for Edward IV. But he lost these roles when Edward was in exile. In 1471–72, Caxton went on a fateful trip to Cologne. After years in a busy job, he suddenly had “good leyzer” (good leisure time) and “none other thynge to doo”, so he kept himself busy translating a French book. He also found himself for the first time in a place where books were printed.

William Caxton and Anthony Woodville present a book to King Edward IV, whose interest in literature was influenced by his time on the continent (Photo by World History Archive)
William Caxton and Anthony Woodville present a book to King Edward IV, whose interest in literature was influenced by his time on the continent (Photo by World History Archive)

Why did Caxton choose The Recuyell for his first book?

In around 1450, the German goldsmith Johann Gutenberg had introduced his pioneering printing press to Europe. Following his early experiments in Mainz, the technique of mechanical printing, using letters that could be moved around, had spread to other European cities. Cologne was one of the earliest adopters of the new printing press – and Caxton was perfectly placed to begin learning about the mechanics and commercial aspects of printing.

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Caxton’s successor in the printing business, Wynkyn de Worde, wrote that the Englishman was involved in printing Latin books while in Cologne. Caxton seems to have acted more as a publisher at this stage, hiring a local printer who had the expertise he lacked. But Caxton had been bitten by the printing bug and he began to consider the possibilities. It wasn’t long before he entered the fray with his English translation of The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye.

The Recuyell was originally written by Raoul Lefèvre for Philip the Good. The book is less about the Trojan War than the supposed earlier destructions of Troy by Hercules. This was a story that allowed the dukes of Burgundy to trace their familial line back to the heroes of ancient Greece. Hercules, they claimed, had married a Burgundian woman, and they had a son – the dukes’ ancestor.

The Burgundian court was fascinated by figures from Greek mythology. The story of Jason and Medea had been a favourite of Philip the Good, even inspiring the name of his new chivalric order, the Order of the Golden Fleece. His son Charles the Bold was more drawn to Hercules. His court was decorated with tapestries depicting the divine hero’s adventures, while during Charles and Margaret’s wedding celebrations short plays were staged depicting episodes from Hercules’s life.

Caxton was shrewd in choosing this book to translate and later set to print. Not only was the story all the rage at the Burgundian courts, but its heavy focus on Hercules meant it would have appealed to the current duke in power, Charles. Caxton probably judged correctly that this book would be popular with an English audience, too. We know, for instance, that Edward IV later commissioned a lavish manuscript version of the same romance.

The Trojan horse in a 15th-century French copy of The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye (Photo by The Picture Art Collection / Alamy Stock Photo)
The Trojan horse in a 15th-century French copy of The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye (Photo by The Picture Art Collection / Alamy Stock Photo)

What was the role of Margaret of York?

Caxton started off enthusiastically. But he tells us in the The Recuyell’s preface that he found the translation work more difficult than expected, so he put it aside for a while. This is where Margaret of York stepped in. When Caxton returned from Cologne, he showed her the work, and the English duchess – who had by now received more training in French than Caxton – found a mistake in his translation. She asked him to correct it and encouraged him to finish his work.

Margaret gave Caxton the confidence he needed, lending her support to the enterprise. Although it was likely not a financial form of patronage, the association with a Burgundian duchess gave the first book printed in English a great deal of prestige. Margaret may have supported it because it made a fitting gift for her husband. She also commissioned a book about Alexander the Great for him. However, Margaret was a formidable patron in her own right.

The earliest printed books were all in Latin. Only a few had been printed in vernacular languages, with no evidence that this trend would take off

Her library featured religious texts – the kind of reading expected of a noblewoman – but it also contained historical works. Although books like this are usually assumed to have been for a male audience, it seems that Margaret had a personal interest in having an English version made.

Caxton’s decision to print his pioneering book represented a risk. The earliest printed books are all in Latin. Only a few had been printed in vernacular languages, with no evidence that this trend would take off. Yet English was becoming an increasingly acceptable language for literature. It had become the language of parliament in 1362, an English translation of the Bible had appeared in the 1380s, and Chaucer had been a key advocate. Caxton seems to have reasoned that there would be a demand for his book. As it turned out, he was right.

Caxton's southern bias

How the London dialect became the dominant force in printed English

When William Caxton began translating and printing works in English, he had to settle on a form of English his readers would understand. This was no easy task, for medieval English was by no means fixed. Instead, it consisted of a collection of often wildly varying regional dialects.

Caxton wrote about the difficulties of choosing the right language in several of his books. In The Recuyell, he reveals uncertainty about his own Kentish English, since “I no doubt spoke an English more broad and rude than anywhere else in England”.

Caxton spent many years on the continent, where he learned both Dutch and French. This impacted the vocabulary and spelling of his translations, and goes some way in explaining the strange spelling conventions of English today.

He received regular complaints from readers about his language. “Certainly it is hard to please every man,” he sighs in the Eneydos (his translation of Virgil’s Aeneid), not just because “common English spoken in one shire varies from that of another”, but also because “the language we use today is very different from that which was spoken when I was born.”

Eventually, the London printer settled on – surprise! – a London dialect, aimed at “a clerk and a noble gentleman”. This dialect had influences from Latin and French, which were seen as more prestigious. Caxton’s language is not “too rude” nor too “curious”, featuring “common terms used on a daily basis”.

He clearly wanted his books to be understood by as many people as possible. Though he may not have known it at the time, Caxton’s choice of a London dialect would go on to have an enormous impact on the long-term evolution of printed English, because it helped lay the groundwork for a southern city dialect becoming the paradigm.

These were early steps in the standardisation of spelling, where dialectal variants – though they still exist in spoken English – are not seen on the page.

Now back in the Low Countries, he began gathering materials for his bold plan. He needed to build a press, acquire ink, buy paper – notoriously expensive – and find tradesmen to help him. All of this was not easy, considering that printing was such a recent innovation. But his continental connections, both mercantile and courtly, allowed him to do something he would have never been able to do in England, where there was no paper mill nor any skilled tradesmen.

Caxton commissioned the Flemish printer Johan Veldener to create a set of letter types. The type was modelled on the manuscript hands of Burgundian scribes, as early printed books were typically made to look like manuscripts. Although The Recuyell does not list the location of printing, Caxton travelled between Bruges and Ghent in this period, following the movements of Margaret’s court. Sometime in 1473–74, printing of The Recuyell was completed.

Showing his sharp business brain, Caxton created a presentation copy of the book, following the Burgundian tradition of gifting patrons with specially decorated manuscripts. The copy opens with a large woodcut image depicting Caxton kneeling before Margaret as he presents her with the book, while a court monkey “apes” Margaret’s gesture in receiving the book.

A contemporary woodcut showing Caxton presenting The Recuyell to Margaret of York, who is “aped” by a court monkey (Photo by The Picture Art Collection / Alamy Stock Photo)
A contemporary woodcut showing Caxton presenting The Recuyell to Margaret of York, who is “aped” by a court monkey (Photo by The Picture Art Collection / Alamy Stock Photo)

Was The Recuyell a sales success?

We don’t know how many copies of The Recuyell Caxton produced (18 copies of the book survive today, which is a relatively high number). However, we can assume that it was a success because Caxton would spend much of the rest of his life translating and printing books in English. In fact, less than a year after The Recuyell appeared, Caxton printed another book in English, The Game and Playe of the Chesse, this time dedicated to Margaret’s brother, George, Duke of Clarence.

Then Caxton made another significant move in the history of English publishing, setting up a printing press back home. But before he headed across the channel to London, Caxton commissioned extra sets of types while still able to make use of continental expertise, shipping these – together with his leftover paper – to England.

All this preparation paid off, because in 1476–77 Caxton’s new press in Westminster produced the first book printed in English in England. It was, perhaps fittingly, a version of The Canterbury Tales by that titan of English literature, Geoffrey Chaucer.

During the production of these books, Caxton had learned important lessons about marketing and audience. At first he targeted elite customers (early printed books were expensive to make, so he needed well-heeled readers). But once he settled in England, his readership began to expand. His shop’s location on the premises of Westminster Abbey introduced him to a new clientele – members of parliament, lawyers and merchants were all within walking distance.

However, Caxton was still close enough to the palace to continue his links with courtly circles. The second book to emerge from Caxton’s press in Westminster, The Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers, was translated and supported by Anthony Woodville, brother-in-law of Edward IV. This was yet another noble patron who helped make Caxton’s endeavour viable, and whom he probably would never have met if it were not for Margaret and her dream wedding.

Lydia Zeldenrust is a historian specialising in literature of the late medieval period, and lecturer in Middle English literature at the University of Glasgow


This article was first published in the March 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine


Lydia Zeldenrust is a historian specialising in literature of the late medieval period