Westminster Abbey: The sanctuary and almonry

Pages 483-491

Old and New London: Volume 3. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878.

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In this section



"I pray you, let us satisfy our eyes
With the memorials, and the things of fame,
That do renown this city."—Shakespeare, "Twelfth Night."

The Right of Sanctuary—Benefit of the Clergy—Prohibition of Sanctuary—The Westminster Sanctuary becomes a Sink of Iniquity—Distinguished Personages who have fled hither for Refuge—Birth of Edward V. in the Sanctuary—Restraint on the Privileges of Sanctuary—Death of Skelton, the Poet—Abolition of the Privileges of Sanctuary—Cities of Refuge among the Ancient Jews—The Sanctuary in the Middle Ages—Amusing Description of a Procession of Sanctuary Men—The Buildings of the Sanctuary described—The "Quaker" Tavern—The Almonry—St. Anne's Chapel—The Gate House Prison, and its Distinguished Inmates—The Bishop of London's Prison—Caxton, and the first Printing-press in England—List of Works issued from Caxton's Press—Caxton's Accuracy as a Printer—Caxton's House near the Almonry.

"Not far from the Abbey," writes Pennant, "stood the Sanctuary, the place of refuge, absurdly indulgenced in old times to criminals of certain descriptions. The church belonging to it was in the form of a cross, and double; one (chapel) being built over the other. Such is the account that Dr. Stukely gives of it, for he remembered it standing, as we are told in the first volume of the 'Archæologia;' it was of vast strength, and only with much labour was it demolished. It is supposed to have been the work of the Confessor." The right of sanctuary, Stow tells us, extended not only to the church itself, but to the churchyard and close adjoining, and even to a considerable distance. "At the entrance of the Close," he writes, "there is a lane that leadeth towards the west, called Thieving Lane, for that thieves were led that way to the Gate House while the Sanctuary was in force." This lane is now absorbed in Prince's Street, between Storey's Gate and the Broad Sanctuary.

A short account of the privilege of sanctuary may be of interest here. It appears that under our Norman kings this privilege was of a twofold character, protecting both debtors and criminals from arrest—the one general, and belonging to all churches; the other peculiar and particular, granted to sundry places by royal charter. Among such places in London were the Minories and St. Katharine's Hospital, near the Tower; Fulwood's Rents and Baldwin's Gardens, near Gray's Inn; Whitefriars, between Fleet Street and the Thames; the old Mint in Southwark; and the neighbourhood of the Abbey.

"The general sanctuary afforded a refuge to those only who had been guilty of capital felonies. On reaching it, the felon was bound to declare that he had committed felony, and came to save his life. By the common law of England, if a person guilty of felony (excepting sacrilege) fled to a parish church or churchyard for sanctuary, he might, within forty days afterwards, go clothed in sackcloth before the coroner, confess the full particulars of his guilt, and take an oath to abjure the kingdom for ever; swearing not to return unless the king's licence were granted him to do so. Upon making his confession and taking his oath, he became attainted of the felony; he had forty days, from the day of his appearance before the coroner, allowed him to prepare for his departure, and the coroner assigned him such port as he chose for his embarkation, whither the felon was bound to repair immediately, with a cross in his hand, and to embark with all convenient speed. If he did not go directly out of the kingdom, or if he afterwards returned into England without licence, he was condemned to be hanged, unless he happened to be a clerk, in which case he was allowed the benefit of clergy."

A peculiar sanctuary might (if such privilege were granted by the king's charter) afford a place of refuge even to those who had committed high or petty treason; and a person escaping thither might, if he chose, remain undisturbed for life. He still, however, had the option of taking the oath of abjuration and quitting the realm for ever. Sanctuary, however, seems in neither case to have been allowed as a protection to those who escaped from the sheriff after having been delivered to him for execution.

"The right of sanctuary," says Mr. Timbs, "was retained by Westminster even after the dissolution of the monasteries, &c., in 1540. Sanctuary men were allowed to use a whittle only at their meals, and compelled to wear a badge. They could not leave the precinct, without the Dean's licence, between sunset and sunrise."

Formerly, as we learn from Blackstone's "Common Laws of England," "the benefit of the clergy used to be pleaded before trial or conviction, and was called a declinatory plea, which was the name given also to that of sanctuary. But as the prisoner upon trial had an opportunity of being acquitted and totally discharged, and, if convicted of a clergyable felony, was entitled equally to his clergy after as before his conviction, this course was deemed extremely disadvantageous; and therefore the benefit of the clergy was rarely pleaded, excepting it was prayed by the convict before judgment was passed upon him."

Henry VII. wrote to Pope Alexander, desiring him to exercise his authority in prohibiting sanctuary to all such as had once enjoyed it; and to adjudge all Englishmen who fled to the sanctuary for the offence of treason, to be enemies to the Christian faith. "This request," as Baker in his "Chronicles" tells us, "was granted by the Pope, to the great contentment of the king and quiet of the realm."

The Westminster Sanctuary is thus noticed in Capgrave's "Chronicles of England" in 1409:—"In this tyme Jon Prendigest, Knyte, and William Longe, kepte the se so weel, that no Englichman had harm. But many of the kyngis hous had envye with him, that he was compelled to take Westminster; and there so streytid, that he dwelled in the porch of the cherch both nyte and day. William Longe kepte stille the se, onto [the time that the] Chaunceler sent for him, and hite him he schuld no harm have; but whan he had him he sent him to the Toure."

Whatever may have been the advantages and benefits resulting from the right of sanctuary to the weaker classes in a rude and lawless age, it must be owned that in the course of time the charitable charter of Edward the Confessor became a curse to the metropolis; the sanctuary at Westminster becoming the home and head-quarters of all that was low and disreputable, and indeed a very sink of iniquity. It grew into an asylum for vagabonds, debtors, thieves, highwaymen, coiners, and felons, who could defy the law as long as they remained within its precincts. Here they formed a community of their own, adopted a common language and a code of habits, and demoralised each other and their neighbours as well.

Dean Stanley observes, respecting the right of sanctuary at Westminster, that it "was shared by the Abbey with at least thirty other English monasteries, but probably in none did the building occupy so prominent a position, and in none did it play so great a part." The grim old fortress, which was still standing in the seventeenth century, is itself a proof that the right reached back, if not to the time of Edward the Confessor, at least to the period when additional sanctity was imparted to the whole Abbey by his canonisation in 1198; and the right professed to be founded on charters by King Lucius.

Some instances of its use may be of interest here. To the Sanctuary at Westminster Judge Tresilian (temp. Richard II.) fled for refuge, but was dragged thence to Tyburn, where he was hanged. In 1441 the Duchess of Gloucester fled thither, being accused of witchcraft and high treason, but the wonted privilege was denied to her; and the same lot shortly afterwards befell one Thomas Barret, a gallant soldier who had served under the Duke of Bedford in the French wars, for he was "barbarously taken hence to death." In 1456 the Protector (the Duke of York), the Earl of Warwick, and others, "were noted with an execrable offence of the Abbot of Westminster and his monks, for that they took out of Sanctuarie at Westminster John Holland, Duke of Excester, and conveyed him to the Castle of Pontfracte." In 1460 Lord de Scales, as he was on his way to seek shelter at Westminster, was killed in crossing the Thames. It is known to every reader of history how Elizabeth Woodville, the Queen of Edward IV., in the year 1471, escaped from the Tower, and registered herself and her companions here as "Sanctuary women;" and how here, "in great penury, and forsaken of all her friends," she gave birth to Edward V., who was "born in sorrow and baptised like a poor man's child." She is described by Sir Thomas More as sitting here "alow in the rushes," in her grief and distress. Here the unhappy queen was induced by the Duke of Buckingham and the Archbishop of York to surrender her little son, Edward V., to his uncle Richard, who carried him to the Tower, where the two children shared a common fate.

In the year 1487, during the pontificate of Innocent VIII., a bull was issued, by which a little restraint was laid on the privileges of sanctuary here. It provided that if thieves, murderers, or robbers, registered as sanctuary men, should sally out, and commit fresh crimes, which they frequently did, and enter again, in such cases they might be taken out of their sanctuaries by the king's officers; and also, that as for debtors, who had taken sanctuary to defraud their creditors, their persons only should be protected; but that their goods out of sanctuary should be liable to seizure. As for traitors, the king was allowed to appoint keepers for them in their sanctuaries to prevent their escape.

Long before this these privileged places had become great evils, and Henry VII. had applied to the Pope for a reformation of the abuses connected with them, but he could obtain only the concession here recorded, a concession which was confirmed by Pope Alexander VI. in 1493.

In the Sanctuary died the poet Skelton, tutor and poet Laureate to Henry VIII. He had fled thither to escape the vengeance of Cardinal Wolsey, whom he had lampooned in verses which show more dulness than malice.

The old sanctuaries and "spitals" continued in full force till the dissolution of the religious houses under Henry VIII., when several statutes were passed regulating, limiting, and partly abolishing the privilege of refuge, though it was not until the 21st of James I. that the latter was wholly swept away—in theory at least. The change introduced by Henry, as we learn from history, was followed by what has been termed the "age of beggars and thieves;" for when the poorer classes, who had grown up in dependence on the old abbeys and monasteries, came to be suddenly deprived of the means of subsistence by the stoppage of their alms, society had to suffer—not altogether undeservedly—for the change which the tyrannical king had brought about. It became necessary, there fore, to enact further laws for the punishment of sturdy and wilful beggars, and ultimately to bring in sundry "poor laws" to meet the case of the other large population which had been reduced to poverty by the stoppage of the alms on which they had lived. How far these measures tended to the happiness and social improvement of the lower orders it is not difficult for any reader of history to judge.

At the Reformation these places of sanctuary began to sink into disrepute. They were, however, still preserved, and though none but the most abandoned resorted to them, the dread of innovation, or some other cause, preserved them from demolition, till, in the year 1697, the evils arising from them had grown so enormous that it became absolutely necessary to take some legislative measures for their destruction.

The privilege of sanctuary caused the houses within the precinct to let for high rents, but this privilege was totally abolished by James I., though the bulk of the houses which composed the precinct was not taken down till 1750.

It may be questioned how far it was politic to invest any place with such sanctity as that it should shelter a murderer against the strong hand of the law; for it will be remembered that the "cities of refuge" in the Old Testament were appointed for the benefit of none but those who had killed a neighbour by mischance (see Deut. iv. 42). Taking sanctuary was well understood among the ancient Jews. There were three cities of refuge on the east and three on the west side of Jordan. The Rabbins say that the high roads leading to these cities were kept free and in good repair, that finger-posts pointed in the direction leading to them, and that every facility was given to the refugee to make his escape from the hands of the avenger of blood. The Rev. Mr. Nightingale, in the "Beauties of England and Wales," says, "It is certain that among the Hebrews, with whom the practice originated, these privileged places were not designed to thwart or obstruct the ends of justice, but merely to protect the offender against the revenge of the friends of the slain."

As a proof of the extent to which the privilege of sanctuary was used in the Middle Ages, it may be mentioned here that the Rev. A. G. L'Estrange, the author of the work "From the Thames to the Tamar," states that at Beaulieu Abbey, near Southampton, in the year 1539, there were no less than "thirty-two sanctuary men for debt, felony, and murder." He adds that the sanctuary at Beaulieu was held in such reverence that even monarchs dared not violate it. "The greatest criminal or most obnoxious rebel who gained its gates and registered himself upon its books, was safe from his pursuers." It is said that after the rough work of the Reformation had been carried out in London the great church in the royal city of Lancaster was specially reserved by Henry VIII. as conferring that privilege on murderers.


In Machyn's "Diary" (written in 1556) is the following amusing description of a procession of Sanctuary men:—"The vj. day of December the Abbot of Westminster went a procession with his convent. Before him went all the Santuary men, with crosse keys upon their garments, and after whent iij for murder; on was the Lord Dacre's sone of the North, was wypyd with a shett abowt him for kyllyng of on Master West squyre dwellyng besyd . . . ; and anodur theyff that dyd long to one of Master Comtroller . . . dyd kylle Recherd Eggylston, the Comtroller's tayller, and kylled him in the Long Acurs, the bak-syd Charyng Crosse; and a boy that kyld a byge boye that sold papers and prynted bokes with horlying of a stone, and yt hym under the ere in Westmynster Hall; the boy was one of the chylderyn that was at the sckoll ther in the Abbey; the boy ys a hossear sune aboyff London-stone."

We have given at the commencement of this chapter Dr. Stukeley's description of the Sanctuary. There were, however, here really two sanctuaries, the Great and the Little; or rather, perhaps, two branches of the same institution. At the west end of the latter, in the time of Maitland, towards the end of the reign of George II., there were remains of "a prodigious strong stone building, of two hundred and ninety feet square, or seventy-two feet and a half the length of each side; and the walls in thickness no less than twenty-five feet." This fabric originally had but one entrance or door below, and that in the east side, with a window hard by, which seems to have been the only one below the height of twenty-two feet of the building, where the walls were reduced to three feet in thickness, and contained four windows on the south side. "The area of this exceedingly strong tower," continues Maitland, "(exclusive of the arched cavities in the walls), by a wall from east to west, three feet in thickness, was divided into two spaces, about eleven feet each in width, representing a frame for bells, which plainly evinces it to have been the strong Bell Tower that was erected in the Little Sanctuary, by Edward III., for the use of the collegiate church of St. Stephen, and not, as Strype imagines it to have been, the church of the Holy Innocents, for that was the church of St. Mary-le-Strand." The walls of this building, says Mr. Mackenzie Walcott, were of Kentish rag-stone, cemented with mortar made of the same material. "Three angles of the lower church were built solid, sixteen feet square. In the upper church square rooms were made over these corners: probably one was the sacristan's parvise, and another the revestry. The principal gate was covered with plates of stout iron, while the esplanade at the top was paved with flat stones, and built upon with many little houses. The little circular staircase towards the east, and upon the outside near the principal entrance, led to the upper church, and may have been the work of King Edward III., when the larger staircase on the south-east angle was appropriated to his new clochard; it contained seventeen stairs, built in large blocks of stone."

THE LITTLE SANCTUARY. (From a Drawing by J. T. Smith, 1808.)

Stow, in his description of Westminster, says, with reference to this ancient structure, "He [i.e. King Edward III.] also builded to the use of this chappell (though out of the Palace Court), some distance west, in the Little Sanctuarie, a strong clochard of stone and timber, covered with lead, and placed therein three great bels, since usually rung at coronations, triumphs, funerals of princes, and their obits. Of those bels, men fabuled that their ringing sowred all the drinke in the towne."

This strong tower, or a part of it, was afterwards converted into a tavern, which bore the sign of the "Three Tuns;" and its vaults served the purposes of a wine-cellar. The church was demolished about the year 1750, and on part of its site a meat-market was subsequently built. The market was removed early in the present century, and in its place was erected the present Guildhall, or Sessions House, of which we shall have more to say when dealing with the modern memories of Westminster.

In the Great Sanctuary was formerly a tavern called the "Quaker." Pepys, on the 3rd of August, 1660, informs us that he dined at an ordinary called the "Quaker"—a somewhat unusual godfather for a sinful tavern. This house was pulled down only in the beginning of the present century to make way for an extension of the market-place, which in its turn has made room for a new Sessions House, as above mentioned. The last landlord opened a new public-house in Thieving Lane, and adorned the doorway of this house with twisted pillars decorated with vine-leaves, brought from the old "Quaker" tavern. Mr. J. T. Smith has given a view of this house in the additional plates to his "Antiquities of Westminster."

Close to the Sanctuary, and indeed adjoining its western side, was the Eleemosynary or Almonry, where the alms of the Abbey were daily doled out to the poor and needy. But it is far more memorable on quite another account—namely, as the first place in which a printing-press was set up in England. This was, says Pennant, in the year 1474, when William Caxton, encouraged by the learned Thomas Milling, then abbot, produced here "The Game and Play of the Chesse," "the first book ever printed in these kingdoms. There is," he adds, "a slight difference about the exact spot where it was printed; but all agree that it was within the precincts of this religious house."

The Almonry was a building, analogous to our more prosaic modern alms-houses, erected by King Henry VII. and his mother, the Lady Margaret, to the glory of God, for twelve poor men and poor women. The building was afterwards converted into lodgings for the choir-men of the Abbey, and called Choristers' Rents. These were pulled down at the beginning of the present century. Hard by stood the Chapel of St. Anne, now commemorated by St. Anne's Lane. This lane occupies part of the ground covered by the orchard and fruit-gardens of the Abbey; and close to the present Dean's Yard gate were "The Elms." Across the court ran the granary, parallel with what was the prior's lodging.

We have already stated that the Almonry was divided into two parts; and from Mr. Mackenzie Walcott's "Westminster" we learn that "the Great Almonry consisted of two oblong portions, parallel to the two Tothill Streets, and connected by a narrow lane (the entrance being from Dean's Yard); and that the Little Almonry, running southward, stood at its eastern end.

The Gate House, of which we have spoken in the preceding chapter as opening into Dean's Yard, adjoined the Almonry, and was once the principal approach to the Monastery itself. It stood at the western entrance of Tothill Street, and dated from the time of Edward III. Walter Warfield, "butler to the Abbey Church of Westminster," is stated to have been its builder. Many distinguished prisoners have been immured within its walls. Many of the royalists during the Civil Wars were confined here; among them was Colonel Richard Lovelace, the gay and gallant cavalier poet, who presented the petition of the Kentish men to the House of Commons for the restoration of the king to his rights. He is reported to have been a sort of "admirable Crichton" of his day, and, in the language of one of his friends, "the most beautiful and amiable person that the eye ever beheld." Be this, however, an exaggeration or not, it is certain that here, in the long tedious hours of his "durance vile," he wrote that exquisite poem, entitled "To Althea from Prison," in which occurs the stanza:—
"Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an hermitage."

It is sad to learn that the writer of such lines should have died in poverty, or, at all events, in dependence on the bounty of others, in the neighbourhood of Shoe Lane.

Dr. Goodman, Bishop of Gloucester, was another inmate of this prison in the seventeenth century, being committed by the Primate on his refusal to sign the Canons of the Church of England. In 1663, a notorious impostor, called the "German Princess," was incarcerated here, for having enticed a citizen's son into marriage; she afterwards became an actress, and in the end was hanged at Tyburn for a robbery. After the Restoration, the famous Court dwarf, Jeffrey Hudson, here ended his days, having, after a life of continued misfortune, been imprisoned for his presumed complicity in the "Popish Plot." Sir Walter Scott has made his readers familiar with "Sir" Jeffrey Hudson in his "Peveril of the Peak;" the brush of Vandyck has immortalised his dwarfish appearance; and his clothes were long preserved as articles of curiosity in Sir Hans Sloane's Museum.

Once more, in 1701, the Kentish men sent to Westminster five representatives, deputy-lieutenants of the county, to remonstrate against the proceedings of the House of Commons. This petition being considered "scandalous and seditious," these gentlemen were entrusted to the custody of the Serjeant-at-Arms; and we are told that they were confined in the Gate House Prison until the close of the session.

In 1716, Mr. Harley, uncle of the Earl of Oxford, and Ambassador at Hanover, was imprisoned here for prevarication in certain answers about his foreign negotiations; here too, was incarcerated Jeremy Collier, the author of a valuable Ecclesiastical History; and Richard Savage, the poet, who lodged in Westminster, was committed to this gaol for taking part in a lamentable street quarrel in which Mr. James Sinclair was killed. Among state prisoners, however, there were none sent hither more illustrious than Sir Walter Raleigh, who passed within its walls the night preceding his execution. Here his loving wife took her sad farewell of him, at the same time telling him that his judges had granted to her his body. "Well mayst thou, Bess," said he, smiling, "dispose of that when dead, which thou hadst not ever the disposing of when alive." At midnight, after her departure, he calmly sat down and wrote these lines:—
"E'en such is Time! that takes on trust
Our youth, our joys, our all we have,
And pays us but with age and dust;
Who in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wandered all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days."

The old Gate House Prison was held by lease, under the Dean and Chapter, as a speculation; the keeper obtaining fees, but being responsible for the safe keeping of his prisoners, and also for the good behaviour of his warders. In the middle of the last century, the building had fallen into such a dangerous state of decay, that it was shored up completely from the bottom to the top; and in 1776 an order was made by the Dean and Chapter, directing its demolition, with the adjacent almshouses, and the lead and iron to be sold by direction of the surveyor of the church. The building in its latter years was used almost wholly as a debtors' prison: as we learn from Mr. Mackenzie Walcott's "Memorials of Westminster," the debtors "used to let down an alms-box, extended on a pole forty feet long, in order to collect the benevolences of the passers-by. They were allowed to purchase ardent spirits; and the keeper used to go and shout from the window to the barman of the neighbouring tavern, the 'Angel,' by the not very gentle or complimentary appellation of 'Jack-ass, jack-ass,' thereby to signify the thirst of the prisoners."

Adjoining to the Gate House, on the east side, was another building of about the same age, which was used for "the Bishop of London's prison for clerks convicts;" and close by this prison was "the long ditch," over which Queen Maud, the consort of Henry I., erected a bridge leading to Tothill Street and the Broadway.

As we have stated above, the constant tradition is that it was in the Almonry where William Caxton set up the first printing-press in England, under the auspices of the then abbot, Thomas Milling. Caxton was a native of the Weald of Kent, and born about the year 1412. He came to London, and resided in Westminster, being apprenticed to a mercer, and supporting his parents in his house until their death. He was left by his master a legacy of twenty marks, and spent some years abroad engaged in mercantile and diplomatic business. In 1464 he was employed by Edward IV. to negotiate a treaty with Philip, Duke of Burgundy. At Cologne he had printed and published one or two books, now so rare that scarcely a copy is known even to German bibliographers; and returning to England about 1472, set up a printing-press, as already mentioned, within the precincts of the Abbey. By some writers it has been thought not wholly improbable that at first he erected his press near one of the little chapels attached to the aisles of the Abbey, or in the ancient Scriptorium. There is some little doubt as to which was the first of the books that he printed here, whether "The Game of Chess," or "The Romance of Jason;" the first of these works Caxton himself had translated from the French, and the copies of it bore date 1474. In Timbs' "Things not Generally Known," we find that "Bartholomæus de Glanville, who flourished about the middle of the fourteenth century, wrote 'De Proprietatibus rerum,' which was first printed in folio by Caxton, in 1480. It was translated into English by Trevisa, and printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1507. Dr. Dibdin, in his 'Typographical Antiquities,' styles this 'a volume of extraordinary typographical beauty and rarity.' It is the first book printed on paper made in England." It is, however, certain that Caxton soon found patrons of his new craft in Henry VII., and the royal family and many of the nobility. One or two of his works, including "The Wise Sayings and Dictes of Philosophers," were translated for his press by Anthony, Earl Rivers, under-governor to the Prince of Wales. It would be impossible to give here a full list of the works which in their turn came from Caxton's press. "The Moral Proverbs of Christina of Pisa," "A 'Chronicle,' with a Description of Britain subjoined to it," "The Mirror of the World," "Reynard the Fox," "Tully on Old Age and Friendship" (both translated by Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester), "Godfrey of Boulogne," the "Polychronicon," the "Confessio Amantis," "Order of Chivalry," "Picture of London," "Morte d'Arthur," "History of Charlemagne," "Book of Travellers," "The Fait of Armes and Chivalry," and Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales." For Chaucer's memory Caxton had a special veneration, as he showed by ordering a long epitaph to be written on the poet at his own expense, and inscribed on one of the pillars near his grave in the south aisle of the Abbey.

Stow, in his "Survey of London," says that "in the Eleemosynary, or Almonry (at Westminster Abbey), now corruptly called the Ambry, for that the alms of the Abbey were there distributed to the poor, John Islip, Abbot of Westminster, erected the first press for book-printing that ever was in England, and that Caxton was the first that practised it in the said Abbey." Whether Caxton's press was at first actually within the walls of the Abbey Church, or merely in a small chapel near the Abbey, has always been a doubtful point; but be that as it may, we may state, for the benefit of the uninitiated, that the word "chapel" is to this day known in connection with printing-offices, and that the chief officer is called the "father of the chapel," and each member of it a "chapelonian." Thomas Milling was Abbot of Westminster in 1472, at the time when Caxton is stated to have established the art of printing in Westminster, and Islip did not succeed to the abbacy till some ten years after Caxton's death; so it is clear, judging from the above quotation, that Stow, wonderfully accurate as he was, still was not infallible.

Caxton appears to have carried on his business as a master printer to the very last, and to have taken also an active part as a parishioner of St. Margaret's, in the churchwardens' books of which parish his name occurs constantly as an auditor of the accounts. He died at his house in the Almonry, or (as he spells it) the "Almonestrye," in 1490–1, and was buried in St. Margaret's Church, to which he left by will a bequest of books, long since lost and dispersed. Though his work was confessedly not equal to the printing executed on the Continent during the same period, yet there was at the time when he lived no one whose talents, habits, and character were so well fitted to introduce and establish the art of printing in England. To record the fact that he succeeded in such an enterprise, the benefits of which we are all still enjoying, is praise enough, for it is an assertion of his claim to be regarded as one of the greatest benefactors of his country. It may here be remarked, in passing, that until the year 1642 it was never doubted that Caxton was the introducer of printing into this kingdom; but at that time a dispute happening to arise between the Stationers' Company and some private persons respecting a patent for printing, the case was formally argued in a court of law, and in the course of the pleadings the credit was proved incontestably to belong to William Caxton.

The following testimony to Caxton's character as both editor and printer is borne by Mr. Thomas Wright, F.S.A.:—"The art of printing had been invented and exercised for a considerable time, in most countries of Europe, before the art of criticism was called in to superintend and direct its operations. It is therefore much more to the honour of our meritorious countryman, William Caxton, that he chose to make the 'Canterbury Tales' one of the earliest productions of his press, than it can be to his discredit that he printed them very incorrectly. He probably took the first MS. that he could procure to print from, and, as it happened, changed it for the better, always giving the original reading in a foot-note."

The art of printing speedily gained high repute, and found followers accordingly, for previous to Caxton's death we find Wynkyn de Worde and three other foreigners, and another Englishman, one Thomas Hunt, established as printers in the metropolis.

We have already mentioned the tradition that it was in or near the Abbey that the first printingpress in England was set up by Caxton; but a placard printed in Caxton's largest type, and preserved in the library of Brasenose College, Oxford, fixes the Almonry as the scene of his labours; for in this placard Caxton invites customers to "come to Westmonester into the Almonestrye, at the 'Reed Pale,'" the name by which, as Mr. John Timbs tells us in his "Curiosities of London," was known the house in which Caxton is said to have lived. It stood in Little Dean Street, on the north side of the Almonry, with its back against that of a house on the south side of Tothill Street, or what is now the space between Tothill Street and the Westminster Palace Hotel. Bagford describes this house as of brick, with the sign of the "King's Head;" it was pulled down in November, 1845, before the removal of the other buildings in the Almonry. The house had a somewhat picturesque appearance: it was built partly of brick, and partly of timber and plaster; it was three storeys in height, the last storey having a wooden gallery or balcony resting on the projecting windows below, and doors leading out of it. The illustration given on page 492, copied from an engraving published in 1827, shows the house as it stood in the first half of the present century.