A Fifteenth Century Bestseller

William Caxton was a London merchant who in his middle age decided to invest in new technology and diversify his business.  Having lived and worked on the continent in the 1450s and 60s, he had seen first-hand the products that were coming off the newly establishing printing presses and with an entrepreneurs eye he saw the opportunity that this exciting new technology offered.  In 1476 having returned to England, he established a printing press ‘at the sign of the Red Pale’ within the precincts of Westminster Abbey.  At first the press was run my inexperienced hands and the earliest products of the Red Pale lack flair.  

They improve after 1481, when Caxton has the good business sense to entrust the pressman of greater skill.   The man he put in charge was a Dutchman called Wynkyn de Worde. De Worde had a keen artist’s eye and he greatly improved the work of the press, developing the clarity of the typefaces and the layout of the text.  Equally commercially minded, de Worde took to illustrating the Red Pale’s books with woodcuts, many by his own hand.      


One of the earliest products of Caxton and de Worde’s collaboration, was an edition of the Legenda Aurea, the Golden Legend. The Golden Legend is a text compiled by Jacobus de Voragine (1230-98), Archbishop of Genoa.  It is a collection of hagiographies, lives of the saints and was among the most popular late medieval texts.  As well as having a keen business brain, Caxton was also a gifted man of letters and he translated the text of the Golden Legend into English.  Wynkyn de Worde was entrusted with the typesetting and to the text he added over a hundred individual woodcuts, many by his own hand.  This English version of the Golden Legend was first printed at the Red Pale in 1483 and when it went to press it was ground-breaking, it was the earliest book produced in Europe to be so profusely illustrated. 

In the intense religious atmosphere of late fifteenth century England, to print a hagiography in English with illustrations was a master stroke and when the book went to print it was an extraordinary success.  Caxton died in 1491 and in 1495 Wynkyn de Worde took over the press at the Red Pale, eventually moving to premises to Fleet Street.  Both in Westminster and in Fleet Street, he continued to re-print the Golden Legend of 1483, until it reached a ninth impression in 1527.

The woodcuts illustrated here are taken from an edition of the book printed by de Worde at the Red Pale in 1498, but they are the same blocks used in the 1483 edition.  They illustrate the Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension of Our Lord and the day of Pentecost.  The book is now very scarce and the illustrations here are taken (with permission) from a copy that is now owned by the University of Wales Trinity St David.  The book once belonged to Thomas Burgess (1756-1837), Bishop of St David’s and Bishop of Salisbury and he gave it to the college he founded in Lampeter.   

One thought on “A Fifteenth Century Bestseller

Add yours

  1. I’m glad to hear that you are finding treasure in Lampeter.
    Interesting, and a little unexpected, to see the Virgin so central in the depiction of Pentecost.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: