England’s First Printing Press and Earl Rivers

England’s First Printing Press and Earl Rivers’ Influence, by Susan Higginbotham

Earl Rivers Presents Printed Book to King Edward VI
Earl Rivers Presents Printed Book to King Edward VI

Around late 1475 or early 1476, William Caxton, an English merchant who had been living abroad, returned to England with his printing press, the first to be introduced to England. By 1476, he had printed his first major project: Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers, the oldest of Elizabeth Woodville’s brothers, was quick to see the possibilities of this new technology. He decided to translate The Dicts and Sayings of the Philosophers, which he had read during a pilgrimage to Santiago, from French into English, and give it to Caxton to print. Translation was an important activity in the fifteenth century, and a highly valued one. John Trevisa wrote that it gave men access to “cunning, information, and lore” that they might have otherwise been denied.

Unfortunately, The Dicts, a collection of maxims and improving moral stories, has little appeal for modern audiences. Its charm comes chiefly in Caxton’s epilogue, where Caxton wrote that Anthony (a widower at the time) had left out certain unflattering observations of Socrates concerning women. Why, Caxton pondered, did Anthony omit this material? “But I suppose that some fair lady hath desired him to leave it out of his book. Or else he was amorous on some noble lady, for whose love he would not set it in his book.” We do not know how Anthony received this speculation about his love life, but he went on to publish two more books with Caxton, one being a translation of Christine de Pisan’s Moral Proverbs and the other being a translation of the Cordiale (a treatise on the Four Last Things). During his lifetime, in fact, Anthony was the only noble in England who patronized Caxton’s press. Plainly, he was not motivated simply by a desire to follow fashion.

After The Dicts was printed, Anthony presented the translation in manuscript form to Edward IV, pictured in the manuscript with his queen and his eldest son as Anthony and a tonsured figure, probably the author of the French version of the book, kneel before them. An onlooker wearing ermine is likely Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who was to order Anthony’s execution a few years later.

It is also possible that Anthony was responsible for the publication of a far more influential book than those he translated: Caxton’s 1485 edition of Le Morte

D’Arthur. In his prologue, Caxton refers to a “certain gentleman” who supplied him with the late Thomas Malory’s manuscript. Lotte Hellinga, a Caxton specialist, has suggested that the gentleman in question might have been Anthony, whose name it would have been impolitic for Caxton to mention during Richard III’s reign.

Anthony was also a poet. Caxton wrote that he had written “ballads against the seven deadly sins,” but the only verses of that have survived are those that he wrote on the eve of his execution on June 25, 1483. They read:

 Somewhat musing

And more mourning

In remembering

The unsteadfastness;

This world being

Of such wheeling

Me contrarying

What may I guess?


I fear doubtless


Is now to seize

My woeful chance;

For unkindness

Without the less,

And no redress

Me doth advance.


With displeasure

To my grievance

And no ‘surance

Of remedy;

Lo! In this trance

Now in substance

Such is my dance

Willing to die.


Methinks truly

Bounden am I

And that greatly

To be content;

Seeing plainly

That fortune doth wry

All contrary

From mine intent.


My life was lent

Me to one intent

It is nigh spent;

Welcome Fortune!

But I ne’er went

Thus to be shent

But so it meant

Such is her won[t].



Susan Higginbotham is the author of The Woodvilles: The Wars of the Roses and England’s Most Infamous Family.

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Beth von Staats

is the owner and administrator of QueenAnneBoleyn.com. Blogger of "The Tudor Thomases", Beth specializes in writing magazine articles, online historical articles, short stories, and flash fiction.