William Caxton (c. 1415~1422 – c. March 1492) was an English merchant, diplomat, writer and printer. He was the first English person to work as a printer and the first person to introduce a printing press into England. He was also the first English retailer of books (his London contemporaries were all Dutch, German or French).
In 1446, he went to Bruges, where he was successful in business and became governor of the Merchant Adventurers. His trade brought him into contact with Burgundy and it was thus that he became a member of the household of Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy, the sister of the English King. This led to more continental travel, including travel to Cologne, in the course of which he observed the new printing industry, and was significantly influenced by German printing. He wasted no time in setting up a printing press in Bruges in collaboration with a Fleming, Colard Mansion, on which the first book to be printed in English was produced in 1473: Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, a translation by Caxton himself. Bringing the knowledge back to his native land, he set up a press at Westminster in 1476 and the first book known to have been issued there was an edition of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (Blake, 2004-7). Another early title was Dictes or Sayengis of the Philosophres (Sayings of the Philosophers), first printed on November 18, 1477, written by Earl Rivers, the king's brother-in-law. Caxton's translation of the Golden Legend, published in 1483, and The Book of the Knight in the Tower, published 1484, contain perhaps the earliest verses of the Bible to be printed in English.
Caxton produced chivalric romances, classical-authored works and English and Roman histories. These books strongly appealed to English upper classes around the end of the fifteenth century. Caxton was supported by, but not dependent on, nobility and gentry.
Caxton's precise date of death is uncertain, but estimates from the records of his burial in St Margaret's, Westminster, show that he died in about March 1492.
Caxton was not without his detractors. There was widespread unease amongst the merchant class of the time, who felt that if the printed page were to become widely available to the population, then it might filter through to the poor. The poor, it was believed, might then "become aware and enlightened of their circumstances" and, ultimately, dissatisfied and aggrieved. This, it was felt, might lead to unrest and civil disturbance.
In challenging the wisdom of his critics, Caxton announced: "If tis wrong I do, then tis a fine and noble wrong".
However, the English language was changing rapidly in Caxton's time and the works he was given to print were in a variety of styles and dialects. Caxton was a technician rather than a writer and he often faced dilemmas concerning language standardisation in the books he printed. (He wrote about this subject in the preface to his Eneydos.) His successor Wynkyn de Worde faced similar problems.
Caxton is credited with standardising the English language (that is, homogenising regional dialects) through printing. This was said to have led to the expansion of English vocabulary, the development of inflection and syntax and the ever-widening gap between the spoken and the written word.
However, Richard Pynson, who started printing in London in 1491 or 1492 and who favoured Chancery Standard, was a more accomplished stylist and consequently pushed the English language further toward standardisation.
It is asserted that the spelling ghost with the silent letter h was adopted by Caxton due to the influence of Dutch spelling habits.