Jamestown Interpretive Essays

Sir William Berkeley

Warren M. Billings
Historian of the Supreme Court of Louisiana and
Distinguished Professor of History, University of New Orleans

Sir William Berkeley (1605-1677) held office longer than any other governor of Virginia, colonial or modern. He was born in 1605 to Sir Maurice and Elizabeth Killigrew Berkeley, both of whom held stock in the Virginia Company of London. Educated at St. Edmund Hall and Merton College in Oxford, he subsequently studied law at the Middle Temple in London before he toured Europe. In 1632, he gained a place in the household of Charles I. That position gave him entré into a court literary circle know as "The Wits" and led to social ties that stood him well for the remainder of his days. He wrote several plays, one of which-The Lost Lady, A Tragi-Comedy-was performed for Charles I and Henrietta Maria.
Soldiering in the First and Second Bishops' Wars (1639-1640) gained Berkeley a knighthood. Those conflicts disenchanted him, and in the spring of 1641, he decided that he could no longer satisfy his ambitions at court. He flirted with the possibility of taking a diplomatic post in Istanbul, but he abandoned that idea in favor of becoming governor of Virginia. Friends and relatives eased the way for him to buy the office from the occupant, Sir Francis Wyatt, and in August 1641, Charles I commissioned him to replace Wyatt. From that point onward, Berkeley started a metamorphosis akin to that of other British colonists who removed to Virginia to find personal fulfilment.
Arriving at Jamestown in 1642, he quickly inserted himself into the ranks of the colony's planter elite. Berkeley erected Green Spring House on a tract of land west of the capital, where he experimented with alternatives to tobacco. Soon Berkeley produced flax, fruits, potash, rice, silk, and spirits which he exported through a commercial network that joined Green Spring to markets in North America, the West Indies, Great Britain, and Holland. His interest in the Indian trade and land improvement fed his desire to develop Jamestown as an urban center for the colony and to explore land beyond the Virginia frontiers. Although he married in 1650, the name of his first wife and the length of their marriage are unknown.
Berkeley developed a deep affection for Virginia and he tirelessly championed the colony. For him, prosperity was linked to a diversified economy, free trade, a close-knit colonial society, and autonomy from London. Such a colony, to his way of thinking, would advance England and also benefit him personally. This view informed Berkeley's approach to governing.
Sir William assumed office as Britain lurched towards civil war. As he realized, his political survival depended upon his skill at steering between rival factions of Virginians while carrying out the king's commands. Revealing a flair for politics, he allied with leading colonials, whom he showered with offices and land. His most important contributions to the colony's political development came early in his administration. In 1642, the governor spoke out against the possible revival of the Virginia Company of London. The following year, Berkeley's decision to share power with the members of the General Assembly enabled this group to become a miniature Parliament and to gain an unlimited right of local rule. After Opechancanough led a second attack against the colony in April of 1644, Berkeley travelled to England to purchase arms for the colonists to use in the Third Anglo-Indian War (1644-1646). The governor and Necotowance, Opechancanough's successor, drafted and signed the peace treaty that ended the Third Anglo-Indian War in October 1646. That treaty established reservations for the Indians who had been a part of Powhatan's chiefdom and required Necotowance and his successors to pay a yearly tribute to the governor.
After Charles I was beheaded in 1649, Berkeley kept the colony loyal to the Stuarts. He held the Puritans at arms length until Parliament dispatched military forces to subdue Virginia in 1652. After threatening to match arms with arms, Berkeley surrendered, but he won terms that left Virginia's social and political institutions largely intact. He retired to Green Spring, where he remained until January 1660, when the unexpected death of Governor Samuel Mathews Junior led to his recall. Berkeley now resurrected his economic schemes for Virginia, which had been disrupted by the parliamentary takeover. To that end, he went to England in 1661 in search of royal sanction and financial support for his plans. Charles II favored the idea of agricultural diversification and its promise of reducing tobacco production, but he withheld financial support and flatly turned aside Berkeley's arguments in favor of free trade.
Ordered back to his government, Berkeley set sail for Virginia in September 1662, resolutely committed to diversify the colonial economy, but in his own way. That determination was one in a series of missteps that finally ruined him. Diversification was a bust, primarily because few other colonists possessed his assets or his conviction. Ultimately, he failed to persuade the doubtful to emulate him, and their resistance to his leadership mounted in proportion to the increase in taxes that supported the effort. Diversification was a dead issue by the late 1660s. Berkeley succeeded in negotiating a reduction tobacco production with the government of Maryland. However, Lord Baltimore, the proprietor of that province, negated the agreement, and the crown turned against the proposal too.
Berkeley's economic visions failed because he never accepted Stuart colonial policy, especially the navigation system which was designed to regulate trade between England and her colonies, and he chose to ignore as much of it as possible. Royal indifference and the patronage of power friends at court shielded him, but by the 1670s, death or retirement removed most of his supporters. Although Charles II and his younger councillors had no investment in Berkeley, they chose not to remove him until Nathaniel Bacon gave them a reason.
Loss of the Dutch trade, war with the Netherlands, the breakdown of peace with the Indians, and the revival of proprietary land grants compounded Berkeley's troubles. Shutting out the Dutch lessened the value of tobacco, whereas the Second and Third Anglo-Dutch Wars (1664-1667 and 1672-1674) harmed Virginia in ways Berkeley was incapable of preventing. As governor, he could minimize skirmishes between the natives and the colonists, but he could not eliminate them from happening, and they eventually turned into all out warfare in 1675. Renewal of proprietary grants along the Northern Neck threw certain land titles into question and caused Berkeley to launch a hugely expensive attempt to buy out the proprietors.
Old age caught up with Berkeley. Deafness and physical decline blunted his instincts, and he came to depend increasingly on an ever smaller coterie of intimates. Of these, none was more influential than his second wife, Frances Culpeper Stephens Berkeley, whom he wed in 1670. Then too, his style of leadership contributed to political dissonance as he became less inclined to check the misrule of his subordinates. Colonials who were not of his circle chafed, but none rose to contest him until disagreements over Indian policy emboldened Nathaniel Bacon, his wife's cousin, to rebel against him.
The path to the revolt wound back to July 1675, when a party of Doeg Indians attacked an outlying plantation in Stafford County. Seemingly this incident was no different from similar episodes that had sporadically bubbled up for more than thirty years. This one proved the exception because it set loose a pattern of attack and counterattack that threatened all out war. Slow to act, Berkeley completely misread the situation, and by the spring of 1676, his authority was seriously undermined.
An additional threat to his leadership occurred in April of that year. Nathaniel Bacon accepted command of an illegal troop of Indian fighters and disregarded the governor's warning against leading the volunteers. In a fury, Berkeley tried to capture his impulsive kinsman, but Bacon got away. Now Sir William grasped the weakness of his position, and he took steps to regain control. He declared Bacon a rebel, dissolved the General Assembly, and promised to remedy any complaints the voters had with him.
The General Assembly opened on 5 June 1676. Bacon was elected a burgess by the landowners in Henrico County, but when he tried to claim his seat he was captured and hauled before the governor, who pardoned him and allowed him to return to his plantation upriver. Thus, Bacon missed most of the legislative session, during which the members planned to fight to the natives and remedied various voter complaints. As the meeting neared its end, business, Bacon unexpectedly led five hundred armed men into Jamestown and compelled the frightened legislators to appoint him general before he marched away in search of the Indians.
His extortion of a general's commission turned a dispute over Indian policy into a duel to the death over who would control Virginia-Bacon or Berkeley. Berkeley proclaimed his enemy a rebel once more, but few planters flocked to his standard and he was forced to flee to safety across Chesapeake Bay after Bacon doubled back on him. In an effort to consolidate his control over the colony, Bacon publicly denounced Berkeley and played for popular support even as he dispatched a squadron of men and vessels to drive Sir William from his stronghold on the Eastern Shore. Then he and his troops went to engage the Indians; they stumbled on the Pamunkies, a band of defenseless tributaries, whom they effortlessly routed. Meantime, Berkeley defeated Bacon's invaders, which enabled him to return to the western shore and to retake his capital. Flush with his "triumph" against the Indians, Bacon chased Berkeley out of Jamestown and burned the metropolis to the ground. Bacon's triumph was hollow because he died without warning in October 1676, and the rebellion fell apart.
Once reports of the revolt reached London, the crown sent 1,000 redcoats, ships, and a commission to crush Bacon and to inquire into the reasons for the tumult. Colonel Herbert Jeffreys, one of the commissioners, had orders to replace Berkeley. There was nothing for the troops to do because Berkeley had regained the upper hand. The rebellion ended before they arrived in January 1677. Jeffreys and his fellow commissioners soon quarrelled with Berkeley, who refused to give up the government. Finally, on 5 May 1677, he yielded, and he crossed the ocean one last time. The Treaty of Middle Plantation, the formal peace treaty between the Indians and the colonists, was signed on 29 May 1677, after Berkeley returned to England.
Broken in body and spirit, Berkeley reached his destination with but a single desire, to clear his name. He never got the chance. Death claimed him on 9 July 1677, and he was buried half a world away from the place that had become his home.
Suggested Readings:

The most complete bibliography of works by and about Governor Berkeley may be found at the Papers of Sir William Berkeley on the World Wide Web. To go to the site, set your browser on www.uno.edu/~history/berkeley.htm.

Crandall Shifflett© 1999, 2000