FOUR hundred years ago, in the year 1477, a great marvel appeared in England, and many of her proudest nobles and wealthiest citizens wended their way to the Almonry at Westminster, to see the small wooden printing press which William Caxton had brought from Bruges and there set up in a tenement called the "Red Pale," and to gaze in wonder at its almost supernatural productions.
The "Dictes and Wise Sayings of the Philosophers" was issued as a first-fruit of Caxton's press, and the causes which led to its selection form a story not without much historical interest.
In the year 1470 upon the restoration of King Henry VI to the throne of England, Edward IV and his partisans fought refuge at the Court of his brother-in-law, Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. William Caxton was then "Governor of the English Nation abroad," or Merchant Adventurers, whose head-quarters were at Bruges, and he was therefore the most influential among the many foreigners who resided in that city. There can be no doubt that during the few months which elapsed before Edward IV regained the English Crown, Caxton had it in his power to render many important services to his expatriated countrymen, and thus laid the foundations of that friendship and patronage which in after years proved of so much advantage to him, and which was in all probability a strong inducement to his adoption of a new vocation and settlement at Westminster.
However this may have been, it is certain that Earl Rivers, the brother of Edward's Queen, Elizabeth, was among the earliest to welcome and encourage Caxton. Good-will towards one who had always been a staunch adherent of the White Rose, and perhaps also a little pardonable vanity in wishing to see in print his own translation, may have led the Earl to patronise the infant press. So it came to pass that on the eighteenth day of November, 1477, was completed the "Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers," the book which is indisputably the first issued in this country bearing a distinct indication of its date of printing, and the only sure starting-point in the history of English Typography.
What grave incredulity would have seized the sagacious Earl and his sober printer had they been told that after the lapse of four centuries their countrymen would be honouring their memories in connection with that very work, and that a copy of it, however torn and time-worn, would be thought the brightest gem of which an English library could boast! How would the printer have laughed to scorn the idea that an art which would employ sunbeams instead of types - one almost as useful and precious as his own - would one day be used to reproduce with minutest accuracy this early work of the English press, and that this volume would be deemed a fitting tribute to his memory.