In 1446, he departed for Bruges, where he was successful in business and became governor of the Merchant Adventurers. His trade brought him into contact with Burgundy, and it was thus that he became a member of the household of Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy, the sister of the English King. This led to more continental travel, in the course of which he observed the new printing industry. He wasted no time in setting up a printing press in Bruges, in collaboration with a Fleming, Colard Mansion, on which the first book to be printed in English was produced in 1475 - Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, a translation by Caxton himself. Bringing the knowledge back to his native land, he set up a press at Westminster in 1476, and the first book known to have been printed there was Dictes or Sayengis of the Philosophres (Sayings of the Philosophers, first printed on November 18, 1477), written by none other than Earl Rivers, the king's brother-in-law. The most important work printed by Caxton was an edition of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.
As a good example of the English prose, here comes a text from the Prologue to Caxton's translation of Eneydos (the Aeneids) from 1490. It is re-written by Z.A. Simon in a modern style as if Caxton would have dictated it to a modern secretary. The words of uncertain meaning are marked with asterisks (*). (Note that, though over 500 years old, there is no unknown word in this text that would not be understood through a good encyclopedic dictionary, which somehow questions the theory of quick revolutionary changes in language change). For introduced or eliminated spaces we showed the words in Italics with a "-" sign. Caxton's original spelling is shown in W.F. Bolton, The English language (Cambridge, 1966: 1-4).
Prologue to his Aeneids (1490)
After diverse works made, translated and achieved, having no work in hand; I sitting in my study where-as lay many diverse pamphlets and books. Happened that to my hand came a little book in French, which late was translated out of Latin by some noble clerk of France which book is named (A)Eneids, made in Latin by that noble poet and great clerk Virgil, which book I saw over and read therein. How after the general destruction of the great Troy, (A)Eneas departed bearing his old father Anchises upon his shoulders, his little son Yolus on his hand, his wife with much other people following, and how he shipped and departed with all thystorye* of his adventures that he had er* he came to the achievement of his conquest of Italy as all a-long shall be showed in this present book. In which book I had great pleasure, by cause of the fair and honest terms and words in French. Which I never saw to fore like, nay none so pleasant nay so well ordered, which book as me seemed should be much requisite to noble men to see as well for the eloquence as the histories. How well that many hundred years passed was the said book of (A)Eneids with other works made and learned daily in schools specially in Italy and other places, which history the said Vergil made in metre. And when I had advised me in this said book, I delivered* and concluded to translate it in-to English. And fortwyth took a pen and ink and wrote a leaf or twain* which I oversaw again to correct it. And when I saw the fair and strange terms therein, I doubted that it should not please some gentlemen which late blamed me saying it* in my translations I had over-curious terms which could not be understand of common people, and desired me to use old and homely terms in my translations, and fain* would I satisfy every man, and so to do took an old book and read therein, and certainly the English was so rude and brood* that I could not well understand it. And also my lord Abbot of Westminster did do show to me late* certain evidences* written in old English for to reduce it to our English now used. And certainly it was written in such wise that it was more like to Dutch* than English, I could not reduce nay bring it to be understunden.* And certainly our language now used veried fair* from that, which was used and spoken when I was born. For we English men been born under the domination of the moon, which is never steadfast but ever wavering, wexing one season and waned and discreased* another season. And that common English that is spoken in one shire varied from a-nother. In-so-much that in my days happened that certain merchants were in a ship in Thames for to have sailed over the sea into Zeland, and for lack of wind they tarried atte* foreland, and went to land for to refresh them.* And on of them named Sheffield, a mercer, came in-to an house and asked* for meat, and especially he asked after eggs. And the good wife answered, that she could speak no French. And the merchant was angry, for he also could speak no French, but would have eggs, and she undestood** him not. And then at last a-nother said that he would have eyren? Then the good wife said that she undestood** him well. Loo what should a man in these days now write, eggs or Eiern,* certainly it is hard to please every man, by cause* of diversity and change of language. For in these days every man that is in ony* reputation in his country, will utter his communication and matters in in such manners and terms, that few men shall understand them. And some honest and great clerks have been with me and desired me to write the most curious terms that I could find. And thus between plain rude and curious I stand abashed, but in my judgment, the common terms that be daily used been lighter* to be understood* than the old and ancient English. And for as much as this present book is not for a rude Uplandish man to labour therein, nay read it, but only for a clerk and a noble gentleman that feeled* and understondeth* in fights of arms in love and in noble chivalry. Therefore in a mean between both I have reduced and translated this said book in-to our English not over rude* nay curious but in such terms as shall be understood* by God's grace according to my copy. And if any* man will intermit in reading of it* and finded* such terms that he can not understand let hi go read and learn Vergil, or the (e)pistles of Ovide, and there he shall see and understand lightly all. If he have* a good reader and informer. For this book is not for every rude and uncunning* man to see, but to clerks and very gentlemen that understand gentleness and science. Then I pray all them that shall read in this little treatise to hold me for excused for the translating of it*. For I knowledge my-self ignorant of cunning to enterprise* on me so high and noble work. But I pray master John Skelton late created poet laureate in the university of Oxenford* to oversee and correct this said book. And tadresse* and expone where-as shall be found fault to them that shall require it. For him I know for sufficient to expone* and English every difficult that is therein. For he had late* translated the epistles of Tulle* and the book of Diodorus Siculus, and diverse other works out of Latin in-to English not in rude and old language, but in polished and ornate terms craftily, as he that had read Virgil, Ovid, Tullius, and all the other noble poets and orators, to me unknown: And also he had read the ix* muses and understand their musical sciences, and to whom of them each science is appropred.* I suppose he had dronken* of Elycon's* well. Then I pray him and such other to correct, add or minish* where-as he or they shall find fault. For I have but followed my copy in French as nygh* as me is possible. And if any* word be said therein well, I am glad, and if otherwise, I submit my said book to their correction. Which book I present unto the high born, my to-coming natural and souvereign lord Arthur by the grace of god Prince of wales Duke of Cornewall and Earl of Chester first begotten son and heir unto our most dradde* natural and souvereign lord and most Christian king, Henry the VII*, by the grace of god king of England and of France and lord of Ireland, beseeching his noble grace to receive it in thank of me his most humble subject and servant. And I shall pray unto almighty God for his prosperous increasing in virtue, wisdom, and humanity that he may be equal with the most renommed of all his noble progenitors. And so to live in this present life, that after this transitory life he and we all may come to everlasting life in heaven, Amen.