On 12th November 1954 a memorial was unveiled at Westminster Abbey for William Caxton, merchant and England's first printer and publisher. He also imported books into England and was a bookseller. The ceremony was performed by Colonel the Hon. J.J. Astor, chairman of the Press Council. The white stone tablet was originally on the wall just outside Poets' Corner door. In 2018 it was moved inside the new triforium lift lobby and can be seen there.
Caxton rented a shop near this spot from 1476 and the Prior of Westminster also received rent from him for tenements and a loft over the gate to the Almonry (near the west end of the Abbey). The inscription reads:
1476 Near this place William Caxton set up the first printing press in England. This stone was placed here to commemorate the great assistance rendered to the Abbey Appeal Fund by the English speaking press throughout the world. 1954
Life and career
Caxton was born in Kent and after schooling was apprenticed to a London wool merchant. Later he spent many years in Bruges and Holland, rising to an eminent position among his fellow merchants. He went to Cologne and embraced the new technique of printing and acquired a press in order to publish his translations of various French books. Bringing his press to England he rented premises at the sign of the Red Pale in Westminster. Between 1473 and his death he published a hundred books. He was a member of the Mercers Company. His wife's name is not known but his daughter Elizabeth married Gerard Crop. Caxton died in the early part of 1492 and was buried in the churchyard of St Margaret's Westminster.
Memorials in St Margaret's Westminster
In St Margaret's church a memorial was erected to Caxton in 1820 and is by the sculptor Henry Westmacott. This inscription reads:
To the memory of William Caxton who first introduced into Great Britain the art of printing and who A.D. 1477 or earlier exercised that art in the Abbey of Westminster. This 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 30th April 1882 a stained glass window was erected in St Margaret's but this was destroyed by blast in 1940. But the tablet in a marble frame recording its erection still remains, just above Caxton's main memorial. Lord Tennyson wrote the lines especially for the window, the theme being Caxton's own motto Fiat Lux:
Thy prayer was "Light, more Light" - while Time shall last! Thou sawest a glory growing on the night, But not the shadows which that light should cast, Till shadows vanish in the Light of Light.
At the base of the window "This window was presented by the printers of London A.D. 1882 in memory of William Caxton".
In the Edward Lloyd window in the north aisle of the church, which partially survived the bombing, is a representation of Caxton at his press.
A William Caxton was buried at the church in 1479 and a Maude Caxton in 1490 - these may or may not have been the printer's parents or his wife.
A fragment of his printing is in Westminster Abbey Library (printed fragment 30) and the Prior's rent book and sacrists' accounts in the archives record payments made by him.
"William Caxton" by G.D. Painter, 1976
"Caxton, England's first publisher" by N.F. Blake, 1976
"Caxton in focus" by Lotte Hellinga, 1982
"Caxton. His contemporaries and successors in the book trade from Westminster documents" by H.M. Nixon, 1976
"Caxton the businessman: a new glimpse" by Matthew Payne in The Library vol.17, 2016 (re. a newly found reference in a daybook probably belonging to R. Nunneley)