Five Fascinating Facts about William Caxton
Interesting trivia about the pioneer of English printing
1. The first book printed by Caxton in English was a book about Troy. Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye (alternatively spelt Recueil des Histoires de Troye) was printed by Caxton in 1475. It was the first book printed in English, though it wasn’t actually printed in England: at the time, Caxton was living in Belgium and it was published in Bruges in 1475. (Actually, the date of publication may have been 1474 or even 1473, but ‘ca. 1475’ is the date given by Caxton.) The book was a translation of a French courtly romance written by a chaplain to Philip III, Duke of Burgundy, named Raoul Lefevre. Caxton would go on to print nearly 90 different books over the next two decades. Caxton’s translation of this Troy book would also inspire an early Elizabethan play. Caxton’s Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye would serve as the model for the Tudor morality play Horestes (1567), about the Greek myth of Orestes (most memorably dramatized by ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus).
2. A copy of Caxton’s Troy book sold in 2014 for a million pounds. When the Duke of Northumberland sold a copy of Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye at auction, it sold for £1 million, because of its iconic status as the first English book ever printed. Only 18 copies of Caxton’s original print run survive.
3. However, this wasn’t the first book Caxton published. Although Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye was the first book in the English language to be printed, Caxton had earlier helped a German printer named Johann Schilling to publish a thirteenth-century Latin encyclopedia, De proprietatibus rerum, by Bartholomeus Anglicus.
4. It’s been suggested that the English spelling of ‘ghost’ is due to Caxton. According to Simon Garfield in his entertaining book about fonts and typefaces, Just My Type: A Book About Fonts, the decision to spell ‘ghost’ with an ‘h’ was probably influenced by Caxton’s time spent in Belgium among Flemish speakers. More widely, Caxton has been credited with influencing the standardisation of the English language, as he and later printers opted for uniformity of spelling (most notably seen in the later adoption of ‘Chancery Standard’, the English dialect spoken at the London courts, by English printers).
5. As well as being the first person to print books in English, William Caxton was also a gifted translator. Among the early books he brought into print were translations of Ovid’s epic poem Metamorphoses, Jacobus de Voragine’s book on saints the Golden Legend, and Aesop’s Fables. Several of Caxton’s printed works contain the earliest English translations of Bible verses to be published.
If you enjoyed these William Caxton facts, you can discover more about his interesting life and work here. For more fascinating literary trivia, we recommend our book crammed full of 3,000 years of interesting bookish facts, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.
Image: William Caxton showing specimens of his printing to King Edward IV and his Queen (illustration, 1877), via Wikimedia Commons.