The History and Antiquities of London, Westminster, Southwark, and Parts Adjacent, vol. 4
The was at the west end of the sanctuary; and derived its name from being the place where the alms collected at the abbey were given. The name is still preserved in that of Great , the opening in , from . There is also the Little , at the east end of the former; on the middle of the south side of Great , is Almonry-yard.
This place is an object of interest and curiosity, from the circumstance of its being that where William Caxton erected the printing-press, to print with moveable , that was ever known in this country. I have marked as emphatical the words metal types, because it is by no means clear that Caxton was the person to introduce this valuable art into England.
This honour, however, was universally given to Caxton by our earliest writers, who assert, that, during a residence of many years in Holland, Flanders, and Germany, he acquired a knowledge of the whole method and process of the art; and that by the patronage of the great, and especially the abbot of , he set up a press within the abbey, and began to print books there about the year .
It has been asserted that his press was fixed in that part of the abbey called Islip's chapel; and that afterwards he removed his materials to the in the year . Caxton. was certainly the to bring the art to perfection in this country. He was born in Kent, in the reign of Henry IV., and served an apprenticeship to Robert Laye, (or Large) a mercer, who, after being sheriff and lord mayor of London, died in , leaving by will to his apprentice, William Caxton. He then went abroad to settle, and was entrusted by the mercer's company to be their agent, or factor, in Holland, Zealand, Flanders, &c.
In , a commission was granted to him and Richard , esq. to transact and conclude a treaty of commerce between the king, Edward IV., and his brother-in-law, Philip duke of Burgundy, to whom Flanders at that time belonged. The commission styles them ambassiatores, procuratores, nuncios, and deputatos speciales, and gives to both, or either of them, full powers to treat, &c.
When the lady Margaret of York, the king's sister, arrived at Bruges, on the occasion of her marriage with Charles, duke of Burgundy, Caxton appears to have been of her royal highness's retinue. He was either of her household, or held some constant part or office under her; because he says he received from her a yearly fee or salary, besides many other good and great benefits. Being more expert than most others in penmanship and languages,
|particularly Latin and French, it is highly probable that he was employed by the duchess in some literary way.
He resided many years at the court of this duchess, and dedicated or addressed some of his works to her; others he addressed to Edward IV; and others again to the duke of Clarence, the king's brother. He afterwards printed, also, for Henry VII. and his son prince Arthur.
His residence in Flanders gave him opportunities of becoming acquainted with the then newly-invented art of printing; in which, when he had perfected himself, which he did not accomplish (as he himself says) without great labour and expence, he was employed by the duchess to translate out of the French, and print a large volume, which appeared under the title of
and is the book we know of that was printed in the English language. The whole title-page ran thus:
This translation was finished, therefore, in , and was, doubtless, printed with all possible speed afterwards. The close of it has this remarkable statement:--
By this it would appear, that before any part of this work was put to press, the whole of it was composed, or set up; otherwise it
|would have been impossible it should have been begun and completed in the same day.
It appears, that shortly after this he returned to England; for the edition of another of his books,
is dated , and is allowed by all typographical antiquaries to have been the specimen of the art, in English, printed in this country. The title is as follows:--
It has been generally asserted, that all his books were printed at , yet we have no assurance of this fact from himself, nor any mention of the place before the year , when he printed Earl Rivers' Translation of the Sayings of the Philosophers, &c. several years after he began printing. It has also been represented that Islip was abbot of at that time; but this is a mistake, if, as some assert, that Thomas Milling was abbot in , was made bishop of Hereford a few years after, and probably held the abbey in , in which year he was succeeded by John Estney; so that Milling, who was reputed to be a great scholar, must have been the generous friend and patron of Caxton, who gave that liberal reception to an art so beneficial to learning. There is no clear account of the age of Caxton, but he was certainly very old; probably above fourscore at the time of his death. He lived at least years after he had finished his translation of the Recuyel of Troy, and pursued his business with extraordinary diligence, at , till the year , in which year he died.
Since the time of good old Caxton's residence in the , this place has become the nest of women of the lowest description, being occupied by houses in a most villainous condition.
In the was a chapel dedicated to St. Catherine, and not (according to Stow) to Anue; but when, or by whom, it was founded is not known. It was very near this chapel that Caxton carried on his business.
On the south-west side of the abbey church is the , a neat square, formerly open, but recently railed in. Here is