A Tale of Types: William Caxton in Worcester Cathedral Library

In Worcester Cathedral Library we have, amongst the collection of incunabula (i.e. printed books produced before 1501) a small but fascinating group of books or fragments printed by the father of English printing, William Caxton. These include two leaves from Caxton’s first edition of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, published in Westminster in 1478. These two leaves are recorded in a letter from the donor in 1919 as being “spare ones” in a copy of the first edition which he calls the “earliest and I think rarest of the Caxton books”. In addition the Library also has a small folio of fragments from what was effectively the fourth edition of Canterbury Tales, published from the same premises in Westminster in 1498 by Caxton’s successor Wynkyn de Worde.

Wynkyn de Worde was a native of Wörth in Alsace. He is believed to have been in Caxton’s employment from around the mid 1470s, when Caxton was first printing in Bruges. Wynkyn followed his master to England, and went on to print English books for around sixty years, initially as Caxton’s foreman. Following Caxton’s death in 1491 Wynkyn took over the tenancy of Caxton’s premises in the precincts of Westminster Abbey as an independent printer, and stayed there until 1500, when he relocated to premises in Fleet Street in the City of London. He died in 1535.

It seems clear that Caxton left his printing business and materials to Wynkyn, as he had no son of his own. Following a period of about six months, when printing ceased at the Westminster workshop (possibly due to delays in the probate of Caxton’s will) Wynkyn resumed production no later than mid-1492, using Caxton’s types, initials, woodcuts and device. It is from this early period in Wynkyn’s production that Worcester Cathedral Library’s Canterbury Tales fragments come, with Wynkyn most likely using the text from his own independently marked copy of Caxton’s 2nd edition as a starting point.

During his printing career Caxton employed a number of different type founts, which scholars have given the designations Type 1, Type 2 and so on, up to his last fount, Type 8. Certain of these types went through minor amendments and were given the designation 2* or 4*, to indicate they were not a wholly new type fount, but rather a minor variation of an earlier fount. One of Caxton’s books in particular shines a light on a curious incident in his printing career which, with one other exception, is unique in both his output, and, as far as we know, that of any 15th century printed book.

On 2nd September 1483 Caxton completed one of the longest texts he ever produced, namely an edition of Confessio Amantis, a collection of love tales in verse by Chaucer’s contemporary John Gower. In the colophon (usually found at the end of the book, and where the printer records the title, printer’s name, date and place of printing), and sadly missing in the Worcester copy, Caxton mistakenly gives the date as “a thousand CCClxxxxiij” (i.e. 1493). Fortunately he also gives us the regnal year “the first yere of the regne of Kyng Richard the thyrd”, which fixes the true date of the book as 1483.

Confessio Amantis forms the first instalment of a series of large texts Caxton started planning in 1482. This and Golden Legend are his only books printed on large paper. In Confessio Amantis he used the paper size then called “bastard” (which was half way between the normal size “median” and the extra-large “royal”, which he used in Golden Legend). This gave him space for 46 lines of type. Gower’s short lines of verse, composed of eight syllables each, enabled Caxton to save paper by printing in two columns per page (only the second time he had done this, the first being in Doctrine to learn French and English published in 1480).

Confessio Amantis is highly unusual in two other respects. In the autumn of 1483 Caxton was employed on two works, the Confessio Amantis and the Knight of the Tower. To better appreciate its peculiarities we need to learn a little more about the physical make-up of the early printed book.

Manuscripts or printed books of the time were made up of “quires”, a set of four sheets of paper or parchment doubled so as to form eight leaves. Hence the term “quire” became synonymous with any collection or gathering of leaves, one within another, in a manuscript or printed book. A “signature”, being a letter or figure, or a set or combination of figures, was then placed by the printer at the foot of the first page (and frequently on one or more of the succeeding pages) of every sheet (quire) in a book, for the purpose of showing the order in which these are to be bound.

The numbering of the signatures in Confessio Amantis is highly unusual in that Arabic numerals are used in the first half of the book, and Roman numerals in the rest. So for signature o we see printed “o1, o2, o3, and o4”, for signature p we see “pi, pii, p3, and p4”, whilst for signature q we see “qi, qii, qiii, and qiiij.

But the mystery of Confessio Amantis builds when we realize that Caxton employs two forms of type, namely his Type 4 and Type 4* throughout the book. There are a number of examples throughout the book where Types 4 and 4* are used, but none so noticeable than in signature z, where on the recto (front) of signature ziiij the first column is in Type 4 whilst the second column is printed in Type 4*. To the untrained eye an examination of the lower case w gives the game away, where clear differences can be seen from one column to the next.



The two typefaces used by Caxton in the John Gower poetry signature ziiij

Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)


Caxton’s use of two distinguishable states of type is exceptional, both in his work and in fifteenth century printing. Only one other book, Caxton’s Knight of the Tower, is printed using both states of type.

We can trace two possible explanations for this state of affairs. George D. Painter suggested that it is possible that Caxton’s compositor (the man that sets the type) at some point stops, and a colleague takes over on another press (at the time Caxton is thought to have had four presses in his workshop, two using Type 4 and two using Type 4*). From that point on the rest of the book was set in Type 4*.

However, another theory put forward by William Blades accounts for the mixture of founts. Before the cases in the workshop containing Type 4 were emptied out to accommodate the new fount (Type 4*) one compositor had got ahead of his colleagues, who had not finished their task of replacing the old letters with new. He subsequently progressed with the printing of the book, using the new Type 4*.

One last peculiarity seems, at first, to place doubt on both these two theories, namely that the table at the start of the book (essentially an introduction to the contents) is also printed in Type 4*. However when we understand that this section of the book was always printed last, it becomes clear that the new type should be used here. From the Prologue onwards (until the changes detailed above) the fount reverts back to Type 4.



The last page of the table and the first of the prologue to John Gower’s poetry

Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)



Steve Hobbs




Confessio Amantis by John Gower. William Caxton, Westminster, 2nd September 1483. [WCL Inc 34]


William Caxton. A Quincentenary Biography of England’s First Printer by George D. Painter. Chatto & Windus, London, 1976.


The Life and Typography of William Caxton, England’s First Printer by William Blades. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2014.


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