Margaret Ford, International Head of Books and Manuscripts, with the Caxton Cicero

‘As far as we know, there are only four other copies in private hands’: the Caxton Cicero

The Caxton Cicero — published exactly 540 years ago — contains the first works of classical antiquity ever printed in English. Specialist Margaret Ford discusses its significance in the history of literature

It was in about 1475, while England was locked in a bitter and bloody civil war, that the merchant William Caxton (c. 1422-c. 1491) returned to England from the relative safety of the Low Countries to set up a printing press in Westminster.

At around 50 years of age, he had recognised a great commercial opportunity: to become the first printer in England.

‘William Caxton is a national hero,’ says Christie’s International Head of Books and Manuscripts Margaret Ford, ‘and he deserves that reputation not only for bringing the printing press to England, but also for introducing the English more widely to literature in their own language.’

Until Caxton’s arrival, printed books had to be imported from Europe and were usually in Latin for the international market, or the vernacular for a more local readership.

Born in England, Caxton had spent much of his career travelling across the continent, negotiating trade deals for the English crown. In the Low Countries and the Rhineland he had learned the art of printing pioneered only 20 years previously by Johannes Gutenberg (c. 1400-1468). Now he was bringing that new technology home.

A portrait of William Caxton by an unknown artist held by the National Portrait Gallery in London. Woodcut. 3⅞ in x 2½ in (97 mm x 63 mm) paper size.
Given by the daughter of compiler William Fleming MD, Mary Elizabeth Stopford (née Fleming), 1931. Photo © National Portrait Gallery, London

A portrait of William Caxton by an unknown artist held by the National Portrait Gallery in London. Woodcut. 3⅞ in x 2½ in (97 mm x 63 mm) paper size. Given by the daughter of compiler William Fleming MD, Mary Elizabeth Stopford (née Fleming), 1931. Photo: © National Portrait Gallery, London

Caxton consciously developed a printing programme of largely literary texts in English aimed at the upper echelons of society, several translated by Caxton himself.

‘He’s a good and interesting translator,’ says Ford. ‘A few texts are a little rote, but for the most part he is creative and literary.’

Caxton also printed the translations of others. For example, the works of Cicero offered in the Valuable Books and Manuscripts sale on 14 July — Of Old Age  and Of Friendship — were translated into English by Stephen Scrope and John Tiptoft.

‘As far as we know, there are only four other copies of the Caxton Cicero in private hands,’ says Ford. 

‘To have any largely complete work from Caxton’s press is rare, and to have one so textually important is significant.’

These are the first works of classical antiquity printed in the English language.

The Caxton Cicero, bound with The Knight of the Tower (7 leaves only). Sold for £400,000 on 14 July 2021 at Christie’s in London
The Caxton Cicero, bound with The Knight of the Tower (7 leaves only). Sold for £400,000 on 14 July 2021 at Christie’s in London

The Caxton Cicero is considered a milestone in early English Humanism. The Roman statesman and scholar’s thoughts on leading a good life, based on reason and our common humanity, resonated with English intellectuals of the 15th century.

‘There was also an economic imperative to provide the public with books they wanted to read,’ says Ford. ‘Cicero was fashionable among Caxton’s patrons and benefactors.’

However, at a time of shifting factions and political instability, the printer was shrewdly watchful about those who supported him. These were dark times, and one of his most active patrons, Earl Rivers of the powerful Woodville family, was beheaded in 1483.

English artist Edward Henry Wehnert’s (1813-1868) imagining of William Caxton reading the first proof sheet from his printing press in the Almonary, Westminster Abbey, March 1474. From Illustrations of English and Scottish History, Volume I. Engraving. Photo The Stapleton Collection  Bridgeman Images

English artist Edward Henry Wehnert’s (1813-1868) imagining of William Caxton reading the first proof sheet from his printing press in the Almonary, Westminster Abbey, March 1474. From Illustrations of English and Scottish History, Volume I. Engraving. Photo: The Stapleton Collection / Bridgeman Images

In order not to offend, Caxton would sometimes avoid mentioning his patrons, simply referring to ‘a singular frende & gossib of myne’.

It is not known, for example, who commissioned Caxton to translate and publish The Knight of the Tower  by Geoffroy de la Tour Landry. Seven pages of this exceedingly rare edition are bound in with the Caxton Cicero offered on 14 July.

Written by the 14th-century French nobleman for the edification of his daughters on reaching marriageable age, it advises women on how to behave in a courtly setting.

William Caxton’s printer’s mark

William Caxton’s printer’s mark

‘It is a fascinating work, because it reveals so much about the education of women at that time,’ says Ford.

Only six copies of the book survive today, and its rarity is due in part to its risqué nature. The manual didn’t shy away from the subject of sex, and by the dawn of the 16th century in England it was already being warned against as too instructive in ‘vices, subtlety and craft’ and charged with containing ‘grossly offensive passages’.

‘The fact that it was forgotten for so long makes it all the more exciting for us as a discovery’ — specialist Margaret Ford

The Caxton volume containing both the Cicero and the Knight of the Tower  fragment comes from the Kenyon Library at Gredington in Wales. The 5th Baron Kenyon, a keen bibliophile, made the volume available to scholars in the middle decades of the 20th century, yet it somehow escaped bibliographic notice, and so it emerges onto the public stage for the first time only now.

‘The fact that it was forgotten for so long is surprising,’ says Ford, ‘but that makes it all the more exciting for us as a discovery.’

The Caxton Cicero, here showing The Knight of the Tower (7 leaves only).  Sold for £400,000 on 14 July 2021 at Christie’s in London
The Caxton Cicero, here showing The Knight of the Tower (7 leaves only). Sold for £400,000 on 14 July 2021 at Christie’s in London

It is fair to say that Caxton had a transformative impact on British literary tastes, and on the English language itself. 

Not only was he responsible for disseminating Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales  in print for the first time (it has never been out of print since), he published British chroniclers including the Benedictine monk Ranulf Higden (c. 1280-1364), who was a fierce advocate of the English language.

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When Caxton died, around 1491, the printing business was inherited by his protégé Wynkyn de Worde, who moved the enterprise from Westminster to a place that would become synonymous with the printed word: Fleet Street.