In England and Virginia
Born in Henrico County on March 28, 1674, Byrd was the son of William Byrd I, who had come to Virginia before 1670 at the invitation of an uncle and then inherited the uncle's estate, and Mary Horsmanden, the daughter of a royalist émigré. At the age of seven Byrd was sent to England for his education and did not return to Virginia for fifteen years. He attended the Felsted Grammar School in Essex, noted for its classical education, but instead of continuing his education there, Byrd was sent to his father's London business agents to learn the global commerce in Indian trade and tobacco. Thereafter he studied law at the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple in London and was admitted to the bar.
During his years in England (1697–1704, 1715–1720, 1721–1726), Byrd attempted to establish himself as an English gentleman, while also conducting his father's and his colony's business. Byrd came under the mentorship of Sir Robert Southwell, secretary of the state of Ireland and, briefly, president of the Royal Society, into which Byrd was inducted. On three separate occasions Byrd served long terms as Virginia's official agent in London. He frequently opposed the increasing power of royal governors, foreshadowing the conflicts that would lead to the American Revolution.
Although his social and political aspirations in England were, to some degree, dashed, Byrd was not given to sullenness, and his ultimate return to Virginia was marked by an ambitious program for advancing his family fortune as well as the prospects of the colony. When he was only twenty-two, Byrd was elected to the House of Burgesses, and in 1709 he was appointed to Virginia's Council of State, on which he remained for the rest of his life. He commanded the militias of Charles City County and Henrico County. Byrd led surveying expeditions of the boundary between Carolina and Virginia and of the Northern Neck.
Man of Letters
Several anonymously or pseudonymously published works are attributed to Byrd. He probably collaborated with William Burnaby, a colleague in the Middle Temple, on a translation of Petronius's Satyricon (London, 1694). Frequenting the English spa of Tunbridge Wells, Kent, England, in 1719, Byrd published several poems under the name of "Mr. Burrard" in Tunbrigalia: or, Tunbridge Miscellanies (London, 1719). Byrd and other dilettante "Water Poets" (as Sir Richard Steele, 1672–1729, named them) wrote verses describing the denizens of English resorts like Tunbridge Wells, Bath, and Epsom. An early advocate of inoculation against smallpox (which had taken the life of Byrd's first wife, Lucy), Byrd anonymously published A Discourse Concerning the Plague in 1721 in London. In this work he offered an account of historical plagues in classical literature and the Bible and suggested remedies derived from medical writers whom he had read, providing a naturalist's history of epidemic disease.
Much of Byrd's writing exists only in manuscripts, which likely circulated among friends and acquaintances in a form of self-publication that would represent a gentleman's authorial career (as opposed to publishing in print for pay). These writings typically demonstrate Byrd's study of natural history and his promotion of the interests of the Virginia colony. Byrd owned extensive properties to the west of the James River and laid out the future cities of Petersburg and Richmond on its banks. His account of that territory, A Journey to the Land of Eden, was apparently intended as a promotional text in the hopes of bringing German-speaking Swiss immigrants as settlers. Traveling to Fredericksburg in 1732, he visited an old political rival, Alexander Spotswood, who had pioneered iron-mining and milling ventures. The resulting A Progress to the Mines is a more personal and mature piece, written by a man who has come to accept the limitations of his career and to terms with past animosities.
Byrd is well known as a diarist who, while not rivaling the Englishman Samuel Pepys in style or incidents (the Virginian's social circle was more provincial), nonetheless documented the routines he employed in gentlemanly self-fashioning. His coded personal diaries show a man struggling to balance his appetites and passions, particularly his unruly sexual appetites, while daily managing an extensive estate and improving his mind. In addition to writing the diaries, Byrd kept a gentleman's commonplace book, a record of his reading and conversations during eight years between his first and second marriages. His reading ranged widely, from the classics to Christian Patristic writers to treatises on medical lore and nature.
The notations in the commonplace book are derived in part from his vast library,
the largest and perhaps most varied personal library in colonial America with more
than three thousand volumes. It
Byrd twice married. His first marriage (1706–1716) to Lucy Parke, with whom he had two sons who died in infancy and two daughters, was tempestuous and ended when she died of smallpox soon after joining him in London. His second marriage, to Maria Taylor, which began in 1724 and lasted until his death, brought him three daughters and a son, all of whom survived and had children. His land holdings included estates throughout southern Virginia amounting to nearly 180,000 acres, the most famous of which was Westover Plantation, one of the James River plantations, whose classic Georgian house still stands.
- An Essay Upon The Government of the English Plantations on the Continent of America: An Anonymous Virginian's Proposals For Liberty Under the British Crown, with Two Memoranda by William Byrd (1701)
- A Discourse Concerning the Plague (1721)
- The Westover Manuscripts: Containing the History of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina; A Journey to the Land of Eden, A.D. 1733; and A Progress to the Mines; Written from 1728 to 1736, and Now First Published (1841)
- The Secret Diary of William Byrd of Westover, 1709–1712 (1941)
- Another Secret Diary of William Byrd of Westover, 1739–1741, with Letters & Literary Exercises, 1696 (1942)
- The London Diary, 1717–1728 and other Writings (1958)
- The Prose Works of William Byrd of Westover: Narratives of a Colonial Virginian (1966)
- The Commonplace Book of William Byrd II of Westover (2001)
March 28, 1674 - William Byrd II is born in Henrico County.
1701 - William Byrd II's An Essay Upon the Government of the English Plantation on the Continent of America is published.
May 4, 1706 - William Byrd II marries Lucy Parke, who would later die of smallpox.
September 12, 1709 - William Byrd II is appointed to Virginia's Council of State after being elected to the House of Burgesses.
May 9, 1724 - William Byrd II marries Maria Taylor, his second wife.
August 26, 1744 - William Byrd II dies at Westover and is buried there.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Long, T. L. William Byrd (1674–1744). (2012, December 6). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Byrd_William_1674-1744.
- MLA Citation:
Long, Thomas L. "William Byrd (1674–1744)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 6 Dec. 2012. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: April 13, 2009 | Last modified: December 6, 2012
Contributed by Thomas L. Long, a professor of English at Thomas Nelson Community College in Hampton, Virginia.