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The Development of Printing in England

Updated on October 17, 2013


The art of printing arrived in England twenty-five years after its invention in Germany by Gutenberg. This delay was mainly due to Jack Cade’s Rebellion and the Wars of the Roses, which rendered the print culture in England far behind other European countries, especially when compared to Italy and Germany, whose printing industry had already been established.

Initially, it was William Caxton who, after learning the mechanics of printing in Cologne, opened an office somewhere close to Westminster Abbey in 1476. Caxton was particularly interested in publishing recent English literary texts, which included Chaucer’s works and Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur. During this period, printing in England was yet uncensored and the quality of printing was quite poor. The typography used by Caxton and his successors was soft and thin, and the same pictures were included more than once in the same book, even if they were irrelevant to the context.


Printing in the Sixteenth Century

After the first two decades of the sixteenth century, England started to witness a drastic change in society’s demand for printed copies of books. Erasmus’ influence on the English intellectuals and scholars during his stay in England triggered off a greater demand for educational books. It is also interesting to note that the advancement in printing by Caxton’s successors was also encouraging this sense of ‘pan-European ‘new’ learning’ (Sanders, p. 88) amongst the English. Due to the wider circulation of foreign texts, English poets like Wyatt and Surrey were employing Italian poetry techniques into their own poems. In fact, some historians believe that it was Wyatt who first introduced the Petrarchan poem to the world of English literature. However, the most remarkable event in the sixteenth century in terms of printing was the launch of the Stationers’ Company in 1557. Coincidentally, this year also marked the end of Queen Mary’s sovereignty and the beginning of Queen Elizabeth’s long reign. From this year onwards, printing became an organized industry under the surveillance of the Crown. Due to the religious and political controversies taking place during the Elizabethan era, the regulations and control imposed on printing did not leave enough space for a variety of texts. An outstanding printer of the sixteenth century, who was also a member of the Stationers’ Company, was John Day. He remains mostly renowned for contributing to the sudden improvement in printing quality in England, which by far had still been lacking in legibility.

The political controversies that emerged in the seventeenth century when King James I succeeded to the throne continued to restrict the flow of literary texts. The King demanded that any printed text should be aligned to his political and religious beliefs. Consequently, the literature of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century reflected the culture of the ruling elite. These ideas are best depicted in the dramatic plays penned Shakespeare, most of which dealt with moral issues and social order and often portrayed aristocratic or royal characters as protagonists.

Although theatres had been closed down during the Civil War, plays were still being printed and some readers still sought for their copies. Likewise, the outburst of educational, grammar and prayer books during the late sixteenth century lead to the opening of the first public libraries in England.

The Impact of the Civil War on the Printing Press

In the seventeenth century, the rates of literacy and readership in English towns and villages were on the rise. Moreover, the middle class was also growing, and more people were pursuing educational opportunities. The prominent printing texts in the early seventeenth century were publications of murders, witchcraft stories and ballads. Single sheet pamphlets recounting moral stories and ballads were becoming quite popular amongst the English public and could be purchased at a very cheap price. The oral culture of ballads was thus being transformed into print. Strangely enough, the most common genre of the murder stories was that of women murdering their husbands. These publications communicated a moral purpose and were meant to instill a sense of repentance in the readers’ conscience. News pamphlets recording crimes and trials were also being distributed.

The English Civil War between the Royalists and Parliamentarians brought about major changes and developments in the printing press. In this period of political crisis, print was reflecting the events taking place, and at the same time creating political division. From the 1640s onwards, different voices relating to both political and religious reasoning were appearing in print. For instance, the Quakers started printing their own pamphlets and handing them out. The Quakers’ women preachers were also the first females to deliver their message in print. In this respect, print was also a way of creating different communities and maintaining oppositional views.

The first publications of newspapers can also be traced back to the seventeenth century, but back then these manuscripts were more commonly referred to as newsbooks. Writers could express their opinions and antagonistic views on both Parliaments and Royalists in these frequently distributed publications.



Other important events which characterized the late seventeenth century were the overthrow of King James II of England, known as the Revolution of 1688, the outbreak of the plague in 1665 and the Great Fire of London in 1666. As the Reformation period gave way for the dawn of the eighteenth century, the Puritans started to encourage people to write and read, and thus contributed to the numerous printed copies of conduct books and novels that prevailed from the end of the seventeenth century and throughout the following century.


(a) Bragg, Melvyn (2006, January 26) Seventeenth Century Print Culture (Audio recording from BBC Radio 4). Retrieved from

(b) Hamilton, Frederick W. (1918). A Brief History of Printing in England. Retrieved from

(c) Jagodzinski, Cecile M. (1999). Privacy and Print: Reading and Writing in Seventeenth-Century England. Retrieved from

(d) Raymond, Joad (1996). The invention of the newspaper: English newsbooks, 1641-1649. Retrieved from Google Books database.

(e) Sanders, Andrew (2004). The Short Oxford History of English Literature (3rd ed.).New York: OxfordUniversity Press.


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