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Richard Atkyns Issues the First English Publication on the History of Printing

Title page and frontispiece of Atkyns's work reproduced from Bliss's reproduction.
Creative Commons LicenseJeremy Norman Collection of Images - Creative Commons
Title page and frontispiece of Atkyns's work reproduced from Bliss's reproduction (1982).

In 1664 English writer Richard Atkyns published in London at the press of John Streater a 24-page pamphlet entitled The Original and Growth of Printing: Collected out of history, and the Records of the Kingdome. Where is also Demonstrated, that Printing appertaineth to the Prerogative Royal; and is a Flower of the Crown of England. Atkyns's pamphlet was the first publication in England entirely on printing, and the first English work on the history of printing. Atkyns' motivations were primarily political rather than scholarly. Atkyns preceded the pamphlet version with a broadside edition published circa 1660, of which Bliss located only two copies (British Library and Chetham Library, Manchester).

"About 1660 there was discovered in the public library of Cambridge an early work, said to have been printed at Oxford in 1468, on the Apostles' Creed. Its title ran Exposicio sancti Jeronimi in simbolum apostolorum ad papam Laurentium. Impressa Oxonie et finita anno Domini 1468, 4to.[2] Shortly after its appearance Atkyns printed and published an anonymous broadside entitled The Original and Growth of Printing. This was afterwards, in 1664, enlarged, with answers to objections, and published in his own name in quarto. It is to this broadside and its reprint that Atkyns owes his fame, and by means of which, it is supposed, he hoped to repair his shattered fortunes by proving that the right and title of printing belonged to the crown alone, and by securing for himself the office of patentee for the printing of law books.

"He first endeavoured to establish that printing in England began at Oxford; and that Stow, Sir Richard Baker, and Howell, in asserting that the art of printing was introduced into England in 1472, "do most erroneously agree together", although their error might have arisen "through the mistake of the first writer only." His discovery of the Exposiciois his leading argument. He writes that:

"A Book came into my hands, printed at Oxford in 1468, which was three years before any of the recited authors would allow it to be in England. The same most worthy Person, who trusted me with the aforesaid Book, did also present him with a copy of a Record and MS. in Lambeth House, heretofore in his custody, belonging to the See, and not to any particular Archbishop of Canterbury, the substance wereof was (of which the following is an outline) that Thomas Bourchier, Archbishop of Canterbury, moved the then King (Henry VI) to use all possible means for procuring a Printing Mold … to which the King readily harkened and committed the Management of the Design to Mr. R. Turnour … who took to his assistance Mr. Caxton. After having spent 1,500 marks in gifts and expenses they succeeded in bringing over from Harlemone of Cuthenburg's (sic) under-workmen, whose name was Frederick Corsells, or rather Corsellis, and brought him safe to London. It not being thought prudent to set him on work there, Corsellis was carried with a guard to Oxford, which guard constantly watched, to prevent Corsellis from any possible escape till he had made good his Promise in teaching how to Print. So that at Oxford Printing was first set up in England."

"Atkyns naively adds that he would not have undertaken this work were it not for a double notion that he was too much a friend to truth and a friend to himself "not to love one of my best arguments of Instituting the King to this Art [of printing] in his private capacity", for which of course Atkyns was to be one of the agents. Atkyns's story has long since been discredited. It is only by implication that Atkyns himself infers from the manuscript that the printer of the Exposicio was one Corsellis; the researches of a host of bibliographers, from the learned Dr. Conyers Middleton downwards, have proved, moreover, that the book was antedated by ten years, probably by the omission of an X by the printer by design or accident; it has also been shown that no other book was printed at Oxford until 1479. As to "the Record and MS. in Lambeth House", one fatal objection to the story of Caxton and Corsellis contained in it is, that the former has not made the slightest allusion to it even in his Polychronicon, which is brought down to the end of the reign of Henry VI. Again, Dr. Ducarel, the librarian at Lambeth, one of the greatest antiquarians of his time, and who made complete indexes to the registers and manuscripts under his care, after fruitless research for the record alluded to by Atkyns, declared its existence to be a myth, and the whole story of Corsellis "a mere fable." Whether Atkyns was the inventor of it, or a dupe of others, cannot now be determined; but one thing is clear, that he was an interested person, and had it not been from a private motive he would not have advanced such a story, which has in almost every sentence a ring of falsehood and improbability." (Wikipedia article Richard Atkyns).

In A Pair on Printing (1982) Carey S. Bliss reproduced Atkyns's pamphlet, with a new introduction. 

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