Berkeley was born in 1605 at Hanworth Manor, the home of his maternal grandparents, in Middlesex County, England, the fourth of five sons and sixth of seven children of Sir Maurice Berkeley and Elizabeth Killigrew Berkeley. His father owned large properties near his home in Bruton, Somersetshire, as well as in Gloucestershire and London, and sat in Parliament on several occasions before his death in 1617. William Berkeley rose to maturity secure in every benefit of his privileged station. On February 14, 1623, he enrolled at Oxford University, where he earned an AB in 1624 and an AM in 1629 and was elected a fellow of Merton College. He completed his schooling with two or three years of legal studies at the Middle Temple and a two-year European tour.
When he returned to England, Berkeley sought a career at the court of Charles I. His elder brother, Sir Charles Berkeley, and his first cousin Henry Jermyn secured his appointment in 1632 as a gentleman of the king’s privy chamber. The position afforded entrée to royal service, proximity to the monarch, and chances to forge useful relationships. Berkeley joined a circle of poets and playwrights surrounding Queen Henrietta Maria and wrote at least five plays, including The Lost Lady, which was performed for the king and queen.
Berkeley gravitated politically toward the moderate royalists. Charles I bestowed rewards on him, including a monopoly on the sale of ice and snow, a reversion of the post of treasurer of the Court of Common Pleas, and several pensions. Secretary of State Sir John Coke sent Berkeley to the Netherlands to persuade the queen’s mother, Marie de Medici, not to visit England for fear that her presence would aggravate the king’s mounting political difficulties. Berkeley also took part in the Bishops’ Wars (1639–1640), for which he received his knighthood at Berwick-upon-Tweed on July 12, 1639.
With England drifting into civil war, Berkeley found his situation in the spring of 1641 unpromising. His relative Sir Thomas Roe suggested a diplomatic posting to Constantinople. About to leave for Turkey, Berkeley seized another opportunity, the Virginia governorship. He somehow induced Sir Francis Wyatt to sell his office and entreated the king to appoint him in Wyatt’s place. Charles complied and on August 9, 1641, named Berkeley governor and captain general of the colony.
Like many other immigrants who prospered, Berkeley had a competitive edge when he arrived in 1642: a labor supply and ready access to land. He shipped a contingent of servants with him, and his office entitled him to lease a large plot in James City County known as the Governor’s Land, where he raised his first crop of tobacco. Berkeley quickly began accumulating acreage, including a tract known as Green Spring, three miles northwest of Jamestown. After he acquired Green Spring as a country retreat in 1643, he conducted numerous agricultural trials there searching for substitutes for tobacco. His experiments yielded swift returns. Within five years Berkeley was exporting rice, spirits, fruit, silk, flax, and potash through an extensive network of English, Dutch, West Indian, and colonial merchants. In 1650 he married, but the identity of his wife has never been determined.
Berkeley immersed himself in real estate development and the Indian trade, which led to an interest in developing Jamestown and exploring land beyond Virginia’s frontiers. The king ordered him to build Jamestown into a thriving city, which he attempted with only modest results. He achieved more success by encouraging Edward Bland to scout what is now western North Carolina, and he himself explored the Albemarle Sound region. As governor he could have monopolized the Indian trade, but he preferred to bolster the activities of experienced traders and share in their profits at little expense to himself.
Berkeley inherited a troubled colony in troubled times. His survival depended on his ability to navigate between rival factions of Virginians and at the same time carry out the king’s commands. He plotted his course during his first years in office with a deftness that belied his inexperience, and he succeeded in following his instructions from the Crown while keeping it at arm’s length and not unduly agitating the Puritans. Sizing up colonial politics, Berkeley determined to win the allegiance of leading planters by making common cause with them in opposition to proposals to revive the . He favored planters with offices and ample lands, even those with Puritan leanings or those who challenged his leadership. His willingness to share power enabled the General Assembly to grow into a miniature parliament, abetted a decentralization of authority from province to county, and all but guaranteed the emerging elite an unlimited right of local rule.
On two occasions Berkeley could have moved from Virginia but chose to stay. He returned to England in June 1644 to buy arms to prosecute the colony’s war against the Indians. Like his brother Sir John Berkeley he could have pressed Charles for a field command, but instead he hurried back to America. A second opportunity arose in 1652, when he gave Virginia up to the Parliamentarians. Berkeley staunchly avowed Virginia’s loyalty to the Stuarts after Charles I perished on the block. He put on a bold show when Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth sent a fleet to subdue the colony, but drew back at the prospect of spilling blood and negotiated a conciliatory agreement in the spring of 1652 that left Virginia’s social and political establishment intact and largely free of outside meddling. The treaty of surrender called for Berkeley to dispose of his property and leave the colony, but he connived with his Puritan successors, convincing them to ignore the agreement and let him live in retirement at Green Spring.
During the next eight years Berkeley enlarged his house, continued his crop trials, and strengthened his commercial ties abroad. All the while, he remained on good terms with Puritan Virginians while maintaining contact with the exiled Charles II and hoping for the king’s restoration. The sudden death of Governor Samuel Mathews in January 1660 opened the door to Berkeley’s restoration to the governor’s office in March. Berkeley went back to England in 1661 to mount his campaign for royal support. His brothers and friends assured him of a ready hearing at court, as did his seat on the newly created Council for Foreign Plantations. Berkeley lobbied publicly and privately for almost a year, and he wrote and published Discourse and View of Virginia, which put forth his prescriptions for improving Virginia. He achieved something less than he intended. The king affirmed the concept of diversification but refused to offer any financial support. Charles also warmed to the possibility of limiting the role of tobacco in Virginia’s economy and encouraged the building of towns throughout the colony.
In September 1662 Berkeley returned to Virginia steadfastly determined to implement the king’s commandments, though in his own way. In the first of a series of misjudgments and misfortunes that eventually destroyed him, his program of diversification failed. Few Virginians matched Berkeley’s wealth, his technical competence, or his depth of commitment, and he could not convince the dubious to follow him. Their doubts intensified as they bore the expense of the increased taxes that underwrote the effort. Diversification was largely abandoned late in the 1660s, although Berkeley held to his convictions. He negotiated a so-called “stint” on tobacco cultivation, but Lord Baltimore vetoed it, and the Crown eventually withdrew its tentative endorsement of the proposal.
Berkeley neither accepted nor acceded to Stuart imperialism, choosing instead to ignore it as much as possible. He appreciated none of the underpinnings of Restoration colonial policy. Meanwhile, his friends at court lost their influence with the king. By the 1670s their departure left him few defenders at Whitehall. Charles II and his younger advisers owed him nothing and thought of him as something of a nuisance, if they thought of him at all. Nevertheless, they chose not to remove him until Bacon’s Rebellion gave them a reason.
Events overtook Berkeley. The governor had not foreseen the loss of the Dutch trade, war with the Netherlands, the deterioration of peace with the Indians, or the revival of the Northern Neck proprietary. The loss of foreign markets affected tobacco prices, whereas the Second and Third Anglo-Dutch Wars (1665–1667; 1672–1674) jeopardized the welfare of Virginia in ways Berkeley was unable to forestall. He could slow, but not stop, the frontier skirmishes that at last broke into open warfare in 1675. The renewed grant to the Arlington-Culpeper interests threw Northern Neck land titles into question and caused Berkeley to mount an expensive effort to buy out the proprietors.
Always a haughty man, Berkeley became more peevish as he aged and as the burdens of government weighed more heavily on him. Poor health dulled his faculties, making him rely on a diminishing circle of intimates, especially his second wife,, whom he married sometime between May 19 and June 21, 1670. His method of governance failed to assure political harmony, his favorites did not form a cohesive group, and he was slow to punish their misrule. Virginians who stood outside the reach of his bounty or who experienced his wrath increasingly questioned his leadership, though none dared cross him until disagreements over Indian policy drove young Nathaniel Bacon into rebellion.
The road to rebellion started in July 1675, when a party of Doeg Indians attacked an outlying plantation in Stafford County. The incursion appeared little different from similar incidents that had been part of frontier existence since the conclusion of the Anglo-Powhatan War of 1644–1646. A quick show of force had quelled past troubles, but in 1675 the retaliation set off a series of strokes and counterstrokes that fanned the fears of frontier colonists. Berkeley failed to discern the gravity of the situation and let control slip from his fingers.
In April 1676 Bacon took command of an illegally assembled force of volunteer Indian fighters and ignored the governor’s admonition that leading the volunteers constituted mutiny. Angered by Bacon’s indifference to his warning, Berkeley took a force of men and tried to head off Bacon’s rebels, but they gave him the slip and the governor returned to Jamestown in a fury. He tried to reclaim his authority, first by proclaiming Bacon a rebel and suspending him from the Council, then by dissolving the General Assembly and calling for the first general election of burgesses in fourteen years. Berkeley also circulated a remonstrance explaining his reasons for his dealings with Bacon and vowing to redress whatever grievances the voters had. Two days before the new assembly convened, he asked his superiors in London to replace him with a “more Vigorous Governor.”
The General Assembly opened on June 5, 1676, amid the prospect of civil insurrection, rumors of an Indian attack, and fears of what would happen next between Bacon and Berkeley. Voters in Henrico County sent Bacon as one of their burgesses, although the outlaw’s right to take his seat was uncertain. Those doubts were resolved following Bacon’s capture, pardon, and subsequent return to his plantation upriver from Jamestown. Bacon was absent for the bulk of the session, during which the burgesses and councillors laid plans for taking the fight to the natives and addressed a variety of grievances. As they were completing their business, Bacon marched into the capital at the head of about 500 armed men, extorted a general’s commission from the terrified legislators, and marched off to battle the Indians.
Berkeley sent his wife to London to defend his administration, while he engaged in a contest with Bacon that became a duel to the death over who would control Virginia. With Bacon occupied in the search for someone to fight, Berkeley again proclaimed his enemy a rebel and tried to catch him. The governor got little support and fled to the Eastern Shore when Bacon doubled back on him and tried to establish his own command of the colony. He issued several public pronouncements denouncing Berkeley and playing for popular support. More pointedly, he sent a small fleet across Chesapeake Bay to dislodge Berkeley from his stronghold, while he again went off in search of Indians.
Berkeley captured the men Bacon sent against him and returned to regain control over much of lower Tidewater Virginia, including the capital. Bacon then drove Berkeley from Jamestown and burned the city. The rebellion quickly fell apart after Bacon’s sudden death on October 26, 1676. By the first weeks of 1677 Berkeley had suppressed the last of the insurrectionaries. He prosecuted and hanged several of the rebellion’s leaders.
News of the revolt did not sit well with Berkeley’s superiors in London. The Crown dispatched more than a thousand soldiers, a fleet of ships, and a three-member commission to put down Bacon and to investigate the causes of the disturbance. One of those commissioners, Herbert Jeffreys, carried orders to supplant Berkeley as governor, ending the second of two terms collectively totaling twenty-seven years, still a record for the governance of Virginia. The rebellion ended before the troops arrived, and the commissioners and the governor clashed. Berkeley gave way only when it began to appear likely that Jeffreys would forcibly pack him off to England. In May 1677 he sailed across the ocean for the last time to plead his case with the king.
Sick, and weakened by the crossing, six weeks later Berkeley landed in London a broken man. Gone were his allies at court. The old governor’s one desire was to clear himself with the king. There was no opportunity. Berkeley died at Berkeley House in London on July 9, 1677, and was buried four days later at Twickenham, Middlesex.
- The Lost Lady (1638)
- Discourse and View of Virginia (1663)