Sir William Berkeley (1605–1677)


Sir William Berkeley was the longest-serving governor of Virginia (1641–1652, 1660–1677), a playwright, and author of Discourse and View of Virginia (1663), which argued for a more diversified colonial economy. After being educated at Oxford and after a brief study of the law, Berkeley gained access to the royal circle surrounding King Charles I, and one of his plays, The Lost Lady (1638), was performed for the king and queen. In 1641, he was named governor and captain general of Virginia, where he raised tobacco but also, at Green Spring, experimented with more diverse crops. His first stint as governor, marked by his willingness to share power and by the rise in stature of the General Assembly in Jamestown, ended with the king’s execution. Berkeley’s restoration coincided with King Charles II’s, but his second governorship was much less successful. He failed to diversify the tobacco-based economy or to convince many settlers that the colony was adequately protecting them from Indian attacks. In 1676, Nathaniel Bacon challenged Berkeley directly, even laying siege to and then burning Jamestown. Although Bacon’s Rebellion (1676–1677) was suppressed, Berkeley’s authority had been undermined, and he was replaced by Herbert Jeffreys in 1677. In May of that year Berkeley sailed to England to plead his case, but before he could meet the king, he died on July 9.

Early Years

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.

First Governorship

Map Showing Green Spring Plantation

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 Virginia Company. 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.

Second Governorship

Silk-making Efforts in Colonial Virginia

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.

1675 Petition by an Indentured Servant

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, Frances Culpeper Stephens Berkeley, 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.

Bacon’s 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.

Arrest of Nathaniel Bacon

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.

Herbert Jeffreys

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.

Letter from Lady Berkeley

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.

Major Works

  • The Lost Lady (1638)
  • Discourse and View of Virginia (1663)
William Berkeley is born at Hanworth Manor, home of his maternal grandparents, in Middlesex County England.
Sir Maurice Berkeley, father of William Berkeley, a large property owner and periodic member of Parliament, dies.
February 14, 1623
William Berkeley enrolls at Oxford University.
William Berkeley earns an AB from Oxford University.
William Berkeley studies law for two or three years at the Middle Temple and takes a two-year European tour.
William Berkeley earns an AM from Oxford University and is elected a fellow of Merton College.
William Berkeley's elder brother, Sir Charles Berkeley, and his first cousin Henry Jermyn secure his appointment as a gentleman of the king's privy chamber. The position affords entrée to royal service, proximity to King Charles I, and chances to forge useful relationships.
One of at least five plays written by William Berkeley, The Lost Lady is performed for King Charles I and his queen, Henrietta Maria.
July 12, 1639
William Berkeley is knighted at Berwick-upon-Tweed for his part in the Bishops' Wars.
August 9, 1641
Having won a diplomatic posting to Turkey, Sir William Berkeley convinces King Charles I to instead appoint him governor and captain general of Virginia.
Sir William Berkeley arrives in Virginia as the new governor and captain general of the colony.
Governor Sir William Berkeley acquires Green Spring, a tract of land five miles west of Jamestown, as a country retreat. He conducts numerous agricultural trials there searching for substitutes for tobacco.
June 1644
Governor Sir William Berkeley returns to England to buy arms to prosecute the colony's war against the Indians. Richard Kemp serves as acting governor in Berkeley's absence.
By this year, Governor Sir William Berkeley has succeeded in finding substitutes for tobacco and is exporting rice, spirits, fruit, silk, flax, and potash through an extensive network of English, Dutch, West Indian, and colonial merchants.
Governor Sir William Berkeley marries.
Following Oliver Cromwell's victory in the English Civil War, Governor Sir William Berkeley, an ally of deposed King Charles II, negotiates a conciliatory agreement with Cromwell's forces that leaves Virginia's social and political establishment intact and largely free of outside meddling.
No longer governor, Sir William Berkeley remains in Virginia, enlarging his house, continuing his crop trials, and strengthening his commercial ties abroad. He remains on good terms with Puritan Virginias while still maintaining contact with the exiled Charles II.
January 1660
Governor Samuel Mathews dies suddenly.
March 1660
Former Virginia governor Sir William Berkeley is restored to power after the sudden death of his predecessor, Samuel Mathews.
Governor Sir William Berkeley returns to England to mount a campaign for support from the newly restored King Charles II.
September 1662
Governor Sir William Berkeley returns to Virginia with a royally backed program of economic diversification. The program fails.
Discourse and View of Virginia, which puts forth Governor Sir William Berkeley's prescriptions for improving the English colony, is published in London. Berkeley describes tobacco as a "vicious ruinous plant" and calls for a diversification of the economy.
May 19-June 21, 1670
Sometime between these dates, Governor Sir William Berkeley marries his second wife, the young and wealthy Frances Culpeper Stephens Berkeley, whose first husband, Samuel Stephens, governor of Albemarle, has just died.
July 1675
Skirmishes between frontier settlers and Doeg and Susquehannock Indians in the Potomac River valley stimulate widespread fear of organized Indian raids, fears heightened when Virginians learn of the outbreak in New England of what comes to be called King Philip's War.
September 1675
Nathaniel Bacon seizes some friendly Appamattuck Indians whom he accuses of stealing corn. Governor Sir William Berkeley rebukes him for "rash heady action."
March 1676
The General Assembly meets in Jamestown to prepare for defending the colony. The assembly enacts laws to erect forts along the fall line to try to keep friendly Indians at peace with the colonists and to cut off the Indian trade temporarily to reduce contacts that might flare into conflicts.
May 1676
Governor Sir William Berkeley expels Nathaniel Bacon from the Council and brands him a rebel. Bacon is the leader of militiamen in the upper reaches of the James River valley and is preparing, against the governor's instructions, to attack friendly Indians.
June 5, 1676
The House of Burgesses gathers in Jamestown. Among the participants is Nathaniel Bacon of Henrico County who, with James Crewes, is engaged in a rebellion against Governor Sir William Berkeley in part over Bacon's intentions to attack Virginia Indians.
June 6, 1676
Nathaniel Bacon and a company of armed men arrive in Jamestown, where Bacon is seized by armed agents and taken before Governor Sir William Berkeley and the General Assembly. Bacon apologizes on bended knee for his rebellion. Berkeley pardons Bacon but then changes his mind.
June 23, 1676
Nathaniel Bacon returns to Jamestown with 500 men and demands Governor Sir William Berkeley commission him as a general to lead the colony against the Indians. After a standoff, the governor yields to Bacon's demands.
July 1676
Governor Sir William Berkeley reverses course and again declares Nathaniel Bacon a rebel and travels to Gloucester County to recruit men to fight him. Bacon and his men march to Middle Plantation, the site of present-day Williamsburg.
July 30, 1676
On about this day, Nathaniel Bacon issues the first of a series of declarations of grievance and complaint against Governor Sir William Berkeley, together with justifications of his rebellious actions, which he signs as "General, by the consent of the people."
August 3, 1676
Nathaniel Bacon, in rebellion against the Virginia governor, obtains the endorsement of seventy leading Virginia men to his leadership against the Indians.
August 4, 1676
Thirty additional Virginia men endorse a more radical declaration of grievance from Nathaniel Bacon, who demands a new assembly be chosen under his authority rather than recalling the one that met in June. Bacon then marches to the lower Rappahannock River and attacks the friendly Pamunkey Indians.
September 1676
Governor Sir William Berkeley returns to Jamestown with a small force and issues another proclamation against Nathaniel Bacon.
September 18, 1676
Governor Sir William Berkeley abandons Jamestown, which is under siege by forces under Nathaniel Bacon. Bacon's men occupy and burn the capital the next morning.
October 26, 1676
Nathaniel Bacon, in the midst of leading a rebellion against the governor of Virginia, dies of dysentery at the house of Thomas Pate in Gloucester County. Joseph Ingram takes command of the rebel troops.
October 27, 1676
King Charles II of England signs a proclamation for putting down the rebellion in Virginia led by "Nathaniel Bacon the Younger." The king does not know that Bacon died the day before.
By the first weeks of the year, Governor Sir William Berkeley has suppressed the last of Bacon's Rebellion. He prosecutes and hangs several of the rebel leaders. Berkeley is replaced as governor by Herbert Jeffreys.
May 1677
Following Bacon's Rebellion, Sir William Berkeley sails to England to plead his case with King Charles II.
July 9, 1677
Before he can gain an audience with King Charles II, Sir William Berkeley dies at Berkeley House in London.
July 13, 1677
Sir William Berkeley is buried at Twickenham, Middlesex, England.
  • Billings, Warren M. “Berkeley, Sir William.” In The Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 1, edited by John T. Kneebone, J. Jefferson Looney, Brent Tarter, and Sandra Gioia Treadway, 454–458. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 1998.
  • Billings, Warren M. Sir William Berkeley and the Forging of Colonial Virginia. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004.
  • Billings, Warren M. and John E. Selby and Thad W. Tate. Colonial Virginia: A History. White Plains, N.Y.: KTO Press, 1986.
  • Kukla, Jon. Political Institutions in Virginia, 1619–1660. New York: Garland, 1989.
  • Webb, Stephen Saunders. The Governors-General: The English Army and the Definition of the Empire, 1569–1681. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979.
  • Webb, Stephen Saunders. 1676: The End of American Independence. New York: Knopf, 1984.
  • Wertenbaker, Thomas Jefferson. Torchbearer of the Revolution: The Story of Bacon’s Rebellion and Its Leader. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1940.
APA Citation:
Billings, Warren & Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Sir William Berkeley (1605–1677). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/berkeley-sir-william-1605-1677.
MLA Citation:
Billings, Warren, and Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Sir William Berkeley (1605–1677)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 23 May. 2024
Last updated: 2023, May 30
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