A guest post by London Historians member Ursula Jeffries.
A contemporary described William Caxton as a man ‘by no means dull nor benumbed by sloth’. This faint praise scarcely does justice to the man who introduced printing to England but then this whole era has somehow failed to inspire the excitement or interest that the Tudor period enjoys. It may be because Edward IV never received the accolade of having his own Shakespeare play or that the awful confusion wrought by the Wars of the Roses (with the consequent devastation to life, land and literature) makes it hard to find a clear focus. 1066 and all that, always a worthy source of information, claims that kings became less and less memorable, sometimes even getting in the wrong order. It also provides a useful questionnaire requiring you to advise Warwick the Kingmaker whether you have ever been King before and, if so, state how many times and ‘also whether deposed, beheaded or died of surfeit’.
This decade does indeed have a new king (Edward), the former king (Henry VI) and then the new king back again. No wonder that Caxton trod a perilous patronage tightrope as he changed the face of English literature and even the English language. The official line was that Henry died in 1471 in the Tower of London ‘of pure displeasure and melancholy’ although a violent fate is much more likely. Edward was ruthless and politically successful but he also collected and commissioned illuminated vernacular texts and it was his sister Margaret who encouraged and funded the first book ever to be printed in English in late 1474. As Caxton writes “All the books of this story…thus emprunted, as ye see here were begun in one day and finished in one day”.
Caxton returned from business in Europe and established a printing press in his rented premises ‘at the sign of the Red Pale’ at Westminster from 1476 . London was still a walled city surrounded by small villages and with just one bridge and the occasional outbreak of plague but it was an active business, adminstrative and ecclesiastical centre. The fourth cathedral of St Paul was at this pre-Reformation time still regarded as an important and architecturally stunning building with its spire and ‘parvis’ where the lawyers met. Dunbar wrote: I warn thee com not there but thy purse may sweat, [unless] thou have the peny redy to tak to.
This was the decade that saw the last private battle on British soil (Nibley Green) and the death of Malory whose ‘Morte d’Arthur’ was to inspire a whole dynasty of legend and story. Edward was wheeling and dealing first to recommence the Hundred Years War with the Treaty of London in 1474 and then through political cunning to change sides with the Treaty of Picquiny in 1475. Thus he failed to become king of half of France but was bought off by Louis XI (known as the universal spider) and came back with a lump sum of 75,000 crowns, a pension of 50,000 crowns per annum and a dowry for his daughter. Meanwhile the Treaty of Utrecht in 1474 established the Hanseatic League in the Steelyard (commemorated by a plaque at Cannon Street) with all that meant for foreign trade.
‘While jesting with aldermen, or dallying with his mistresses, or idling over the new pages from the printing press of Westminster, Edward was silently laying the foundations of absolute rule.’ In this one sentence a late nineteenth century historian (the Rev Green) helps to explain the power of the Tudor era. Alchemy was an obsession; the population of England was only 3 million; printing was so new there was scarcely a vocabulary to describe it but this decade, in all of its colourful detail, can claim a special place in London’s history.
See also related post, The Battle of Barnet.