Sunday, June 9, 2013

The first true Virginian - The Honourable Sir William Berkeley

by Anna Belfrage

Sometimes (quite often) you stumble over facts that pique your curiosity. This is what happened to me when I was researching the background for my book Like Chaff in the Wind. As most of the book is set in the Colony of Virginia, I read extensively about colonial life in Jamestown, spending many happy hours expanding my knowledge. To write – or read – about Jamestown in the seventeenth century without mentioning Sir William Berkeley is more or less impossible, and so one of my cameo characters was born.

Sir William, quite the dashing man.
William Berkeley is the longest serving Governor in Virginia history – an impressive thirty years of service - a complex character that alternated moments of great insight with others of sheer pigheadedness.

Born into the landed gentry in Somerset, he received a thorough education and graduated from Oxford at the age of twenty with a B.A. Some years later he received a position at court, where he became a member of “the wits”, a group of literary young men who entertained the court. William penned a number of plays, one of which was performed in the presence of Charles I and his wife Henriette Marie. Major honour, no doubt, but I’m not sure his plays have withstood the tooth of time.

The political situation in England and Scotland was unstable, and when Charles I decided to impose the Book of Common Prayer on the Scots, things turned nasty. William was called to serve as a soldier, and spent a number of years in Scotland, participating in the Bishops’ Wars. Not an experience William much liked, (but he must have done something right as his efforts earned him a knighthood) and when an opportunity came up to buy the governorship in Virginia he did just that, arriving in Jamestown in 1642.

I think it was love at first sight. From the moment William set foot in Virginia, it seems to me he pulled up his roots and transplanted them in the fertile soil of the colony. There were probably a number of reasons why William so took to colonial life, but I would bet the main reason is spelled P-O-W-E-R. At a distance of eight weeks from London, William could set about building his fiefdom just as he wanted it, and being an educated man who’d spent a number of years working within the administration of the Royal Court, I am sure he was bursting with ideas as to what to change.

A contemporary map of Virginia - note especially The Virginian Sea

William quickly concluded that Virginia was far too dependent on tobacco and, as an example, he set about diversifying the crops at his own plantation, Green Spring. Not that it made much impression on his fellow planters who preferred to cultivate a cash-crop like tobacco to such fripperies as lemons and oranges, mulberry trees and rape. Repeatedly during his long tenure, William would try to wean the colony away from tobacco – with no success whatsoever, as in this matter the planters and the distant English government were in total agreement; the planters wanted to make money, the Government wanted to tax them on it.

In 1642, William opposed the revival of the Virginia Company of London – this would have made his own position precarious. The following year he showed considerable political flair when he decided to share his powers with the General Assembly (a colonial parliament –  mostly made up of William’s peers), thereby strengthening the concept of local rule within the colony. This was a small, but important step towards future autonomy.

The 1622 Massacre, in which the Powhatan killed more than a third of the colonists Woodcut, M Merian

He also succeeded in pacifying the Powhatan, all the while balancing elegantly between the different political factions in the colony. England was on the brink of Civil War, and Virginia had its fair share of conflicts between parliamentarians and royalists.  William himself never had any doubts as to where his loyalties lay. He was the king’s man through and through, and once the parliamentarian forces had won the war “back home”, William opened the colony to royalist refugees. In 1652 he was forced to resign, but eight years later he was back as governor.

So far, William is quite the paragon of virtues, isn’t he? Foresighted, well-educated, brave and loyal – quite the example! Unfortunately, there were darker sides to William’s character. In religious matters he was a bigot, showing open hostility towards all those not belonging to the Anglican Church. Of course, in William’s case Puritans were not only religious adversaries, but also political foes, and it seems he had problems distinguishing between the issues of faith and politics.

Puritans and Quakers found it best to leave Virginia, many of them moving to Maryland instead. Papists did best in keeping their religious beliefs private, and any priest not belonging to the Anglican Church who was found proselyting in Virginia risked severe punishment.

William was also something of an elitist. He was against public education, as this would only lead to the children of lesser men being educated well above their standing in society. No, in William’s book equality was great – as long as it was restricted to the landed gentry and above.

One of William’s more interesting quirks was his strong opposition to printing presses. They were forbidden in Virginia, and printers did best not to attempt to circumvent the prohibition, as it might result in them being hounded out of the state. Given William’s love of books and literature, this seems rather strange, but to William the presses were dangerous implements that could be used to produce inflammatory pamphlets, and such he most definitely did not want circulated in “his” colony. Still, for a man so focused on progress, his opposition to education and printing is strange.

Like most of us, William was a fascinating, walking contradiction, combining a modern approach to such concepts as governance, trade and agriculture with less attractive biases when it came to religion and class. Not all that surprising as William was a product of his times, living in a society where certain barriers such as class, gender and religious beliefs were difficult – impossible at times – to breach.

William ended his days under a cloud. With advancing age, he became more authoritarian and his brutal reprisals in the wake of Bacon’s rebellion caused the king to replace him. In January of 1677 William left Virginia, bound for London where he aimed to clear his name. In July of the same year he died in his brother’s house in London. I dare say his soul lies restless under his tombstone in Twickenham. William Berkeley may have been born an Englishman, but he died a Virginian, and had he been allowed to choose, that is where he’d have wanted to be buried.

Daffodils in West Virginia (
Today, William Berkeley's beloved Green Spring is a ruin. In spring, the ground is covered by flowering daffodils, a sea of transplanted yellow flowers (daffodils are not natural to the American flora) that can be seen as a commemoration of the Englishman who became an American. I think William would have been pleased – even if he’d grumble a bit about the land lying unproductive.


Anna Belfrage is the author of A Rip in the Veil  and Like Chaff in the Wind. The Third book in The Graham Saga, The Prodigal Son, has just been released as an e-book and will be available as a paperback from July 1st, 2013. Set in seventeenth century Scotland and Virginia, the books tell the story of Matthew and Alex, two people who should never have met – not when she was born three hundred years after him.


  1. Sometimes odd characters from history really do flick a switch. It can set a persons interest along all sorts of paths. I did not realise that American colonies faced the same sort of class and religious discrimination that happened in Britain. I've never before thought, how the English civil war would affect the Americas - yet it must of done. This is a very interesting blog. I'm sure Sir William would not have made his journey back to Britain if he could for see that he would not return to Virginia.

  2. Anna, I found it most interesting that Sir William actually "purchased" the governorship of Virginia - and then later had to resign it! Does this mean that the purchase was a sort of limited time contract? I understand that any man who undertook to govern in such a way was of necessity an approved man of means with what we would today refer to as "a business plan" to develop the area economically...but once that individual arrived and began to govern (obviously investing good money in the process)he could lose the governorship to another? Thank you for the education!

  3. I would hazard that the purchasing was essentially some sort of "administrative surcharge" - the king needed money and Virginia was a nice, juicy plum. Out went the king, in came the Commonwealth, and guess what? They needed money too! (Plus they definitely did not want a confirmed royalist such as Sir William sitting in rich Virginia)

  4. Lovely blog, Anna!
    Sir William's wife was Frances Culpepper Stephens. She was my aunt - sister of my 16th great grandfather Walter Culpepper. The Culpeppers, male and female alike, had a tradition of acquiring fortune through marriage. Another example was the daughter of my aunt Joyce Culpepper and her spouse Lord Edmund Howard - a young lady by the name of Catherine Howard who married well above her station. Haha. :)


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.