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Printer William Caxton was born in Hadlow, or perhaps Tenterden, or maybe even Sevenoaks Weald

That we can all understand written English today might be said to be the result of the work of one Kentish man - William Caxton.

It was Caxton who introduced the first printing press to England, establishing his press in Westminster in 1476. The first book he published there was Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.

William Caxton from Kent
William Caxton from Kent

Caxton did not invent the press, but rather his work as a merchant and diplomat took him often abroad where he observed the new invention in Cologne.

That has not stopped him being named as one of the BBC's 100 greatest Britons because by mass printing books, Caxton enabled a standardisation of the English language and began a process that allowed literacy to gradually spread across the country.

Prior to Caxton's times, the country was a mess of different dialects giving rise not just differences in spelling, but with actual different words being used from one region to the next.

We can be proud that Caxton was a son of Kent, because we have that on his own authority, since in a preface to his first book, he remarked that he had been born and learnt his English in the Weald of Kent.

But where?

The William Caxton pub in Tenterden
The William Caxton pub in Tenterden

Annoyingly his exact place of birth is uncertain. Even the year is not known - though the best guess is that he was born around 1420 - others say 1415.

Three places in Kent claim the honour of being his birthplace: Tenterden, Hadlow and Sevenoaks Weald

Hadlow has an ancient seat, Caustons Manor, which is known to have been owned by the Caxton family, and until 1936, when it was pulled down, locals would even point out to you the house where they say William Caxton was born.

Tenterden on the other hand has court records of one Thomas Caxton and his wife Joan, who they claim is William's father. (Others say his parents were Philip and Dionisia.)

To cement their claim, Tenterden has named a pub there The William Caxton and a local road is Caxton Close.

Long Barn in the parish of Sevenoaks Weald may have been Caxton's birthplace
Long Barn in the parish of Sevenoaks Weald may have been Caxton's birthplace

Sevenoaks Weald, however, also has an old house (incidentally once occupied by Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicholson in the 1920s before they moved to Sissinghurst Castle) called the Long Barn, where they say William Caxton lived.

Perhaps one day, some evidence will be found that will determine who is right.

Caxton died in London in 1491 and is buried at St Margaret’s Church, in Westminster.

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