Anthony Woodville and the first English printed book

The Wars of the Roses is a period that many find fascinating, including myself. With such great figures as Edward IV, Elizabeth Woodville, Richard Duke of York, Richard III and the Earl of Warwick, it can be such an action packed era to look at. As a longstanding member of the Richard III Society, I have been associated with those involved in the conflict for a while now but it was not until I became a history student at Derby University did I want to learn more than just the basics.  However, as much as I have loved learning about these people, there was one who instantly stood out for me, Anthony Woodville. Personally I think that he is one of the underrated characters of the period. Without his thirst for knowledge, we wouldn’t have had printed books in England as early as the late fifteenth century, for Anthony was William Caxton’s patron and encouraged him to bring his printing industry from Burgundy to London. He was a man who was dedicated to family, religion and chivalry. Most importantly, he was one of the best tournament champions in England at the time.

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Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers, presenting his translation of the Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers to Edward IV, 19th Century (Private Collection: Look and Learn)

Anthony was the oldest surviving child of Richard and Jacquetta Woodville (the dowager duchess of Bedford). Still, he seems to have been outshadowed by his much more famous sister, Elizabeth Woodville, the wife of Edward IV. It is clear that both Anthony and Elizabeth had a strong relationship as he helped defend her when Lancastrian ships attacked London. He was also within Edward IV’s confidence as he accompanied him into exile in Burgundy in 1470.[1] It was during this time in exile that it is believed Anthony first became acquainted with William Caxton, a writer and printer in Bruges. With a shared interest in books, Anthony soon became Caxton’s patron and persuaded him to relocate to London upon their return.[2] It was in 1476 that Caxton is known to have set up his printing press and books translated by Anthony were soon in publication. The Dictes and Sayings of Philosophers was translated into English by Anthony and was the first book with an accurate date to be published in England in 1477.[3] It is a collection of wisdoms by ancient philosophers. The translation was taken from a French version of the original Arabic.[4] This French version was discovered by Anthony during one of his many pilgrimages, this one was to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.[5]

The translation of The Dictes and Sayings came at a time of hardship in Anthony’s personal life. It is believed to have been translated not long after the death of his mother, Jacquetta, in 1472 and a pointless mission to Brittany where he had lost a lot of men under his control.[6] The translation was unusual for the time as Anthony had purposefully omitted misogynist language.[7] Caxton was known to have not liked this removal that Anthony had made. It was Anthony’s chivalrous nature that won out during this translation process, rather than a desire to conform to wider societal norms. In fact, he was perhaps one of the final knights of his time who tried his best to keep chivalry alive at a time when, in hindsight, it would never be revived.

A manuscript copy was presented to Edward IV, as seen in the image above, which was directly copied from a printed version of the text. It is quite possible that The Dictes and Sayings of Philosophers and Anthony’s other book The Cordyal were used in his role as tutor to the future Edward V.[8] With this in mind, who knows what type of king Edward would have made when he had been taught by one of the greatest minds and athletes of his day.

[1] https://www.britannica.com/biography/Anthony-Woodville-2nd-Earl-Rivers (Accessed 14/09/18)

[2] Davies, C. S. L., Peace, Print and Protestantism, 1450-1558 (London: Hart-Davies MacGibbon Ltd, 1976), p. 132.

[3] https://www.britannica.com/biography/Anthony-Woodville-2nd-Earl-Rivers (Accessed 14/09/18)

[4] Hellinga, L., William Caxton and Early Printing in England (London: British Library, 2010), p. 61.

[5] Pidgeon, L., ‘Antony Wydevile, Lord Scales and Earl Rivers: Family, Friends and Affinity, Part 2.’, The Ricardian, 16 (2006), p. 5.

[6] Pidgeon, L., ‘Antony Wydevile, Lord Scales and Earl Rivers: Family, Friends and Affinity, Part 2.’, p. 5.

[7] Pidgeon, L., ‘Antony Wydevile, Lord Scales and Earl Rivers: Family, Friends and Affinity, Part 2.’, p. 15.

[8] Hellinga, L., William Caxton and Early Printing in England, p. 64

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