People have been telling stories since long before the invention of writing allowed them to be recorded. Homer's heroic poem of the Trojan Wars, "The Iliad", was created by the ancient Greeks in the 8th century BC and was written down only much later. The Romans produced lengthy prose fictional works such as "The Satyricon" of Petronius (c. 50 AD) and "The Golden Ass" of Apuleius (c. 150 AD). In the Europe of the Medieval period tales of chivalry and romance were very popular. It was from this literary tradition that Thomas Malory created, in the english language, Le Morte d'Arthur, his tale of the life of King Arthur and his Round Table knights. This work is certainly a early, substantial prose work written by Malory in the early 1470s and published by William Caxton in 1485. It should not be forgotten, however, that Caxton's edition, for all it's romance and magic, was sold, not as a work of fiction, but as fact.
Other early english works written in a novel form include:"Beware the Cat" by William Baldwin (1561) - a piece of magical and horror fiction, involving a werewolf, Grimalkin and talking cats, with an anti-catholic undercurrent.
Philip Sidney's "The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia" (1581) - a lengthy prose piece of fiction written by one of Elizabethan England's finest poets. It was originally begun when Sidney was a young man for the purpose of entertaining his sister, Mary Herbert, the Countess of Pembroke. It is a tale of "sex, politics, violence, soporifics, mobs, and cross-dressing"; part romance, part classical drama.
"The Unfortunate Traveller" by Thomas Nashe (1594) - an episodic, picaresque, novel describing the adventures of its main character, Jack Wilton, as he travels around Europe.
"The Blazing World" by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1666)- a satirical work of utopian fiction and one of the earliest works of science fiction.
John Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress" (1678) - this well known, and ever popular, work of religious fiction has been translated into over two hundred languages and has never been out of print since it was first published. At over 100,000 words long it is certainly a substantial work and might reasonably be described as a novel.
"Oroonoko" by Aphra Behn (1688)- a tale of an African Prince tricked into slavery. Aphra Benn was also a successful playwright and is said by some to be the first professional woman author.
Jonathan Swift's "A Tale of a Tub" (1704) - a prose parody seen at the time as a satire on religion and, as a result, damaged Swift's career in spite of its success.
It can be seen from the above that there are a number of early contenders for the title of "First English Novel" yet none of these works have been widely accepted as such. Some are seen as simply not being substantial enough to qualify as novels; "Oroonoko", for example, is often described as a novella. Others are rejected because of their unsophisticated linear episodic structure. Malory's "Le Morte d'Arthur" is excluded on the grounds that it is merely a retelling of earlier popular tales and it may be that the works of Swift and Bunyan are overlooked because of their religious and satirical subjects.
It is perhaps for these reasons that many consider the first English novel to have been a later work; Daniel Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe" which was first published in 1719. It describes the adventures of Robinson Crusoe during the 28 years he spends ship-wrecked on a desert island. It seems to be the case that accounts of these real-life castaways, like Alexander Selkirk, were popular with the reading public at the time that Defoe produced this work. The aspect that appears to mark "Robinson Crusoe" out as an innovative work is the fact that Defoe is not simply relating a succession of exciting episodes for the reader to enjoy but endeavouring to describe the complete man and his life in all its aspects including the mundane.
It is the depth of the characterisation of Crusoe that marks Defoe's work as a contender for being the first, true novel to be written in England. While that is a matter that will be discussed and argued over for years to come what does seem to be the case is that the publication of "Robinson Crusoe" marks the beginning of the rapid development of the English Novel. Samuel Richardson's "Pamela" and Henry Fielding's "Joseph Andrews" and "Tom Jones", Lawrence Stern's "Tristram Shandy", Oliver Goldsmith's "The Vicar of Wakefield" all paving the way for Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens and many more who brought the art of the novel to new heights in the decades and centuries that followed.