Beverley was the eldest of four sons and four daughters of Peter Beverley and Susannah Hollis (or Hollice) Beverley of Hull, Yorkshire, England. He was christened in Hull on January 3, 1635, in the parish of Saint Mary Lowgate. Nothing is known about his youth, but he was reasonably well educated, eventually learned something about the law, acquired the rudiments of surveying, and became well acquainted with commerce. Sometime before 1662 he married a woman named Elizabeth, whose maiden name is not known. Their only known child, Peter Beverley, was christened in Saint Mary Lowgate on May 7, 1663, two days before the burial of Elizabeth Beverley.
Robert Beverley moved to Virginia within a few months to start a new life. He settled in that portion of Lancaster County south of the Rappahannock River that in 1669 became Middlesex County. In March 1666 he married Mary Keeble, widow of a local planter, and he began accumulating land, eventually owning about twenty-eight thousand acres in four counties. He became surveyor of Middlesex County, and during the next twenty years he held other local offices, including justice of the peace, vestryman of Christ Church, and major in the militia. During the General Court session in March 1676 he was acting attorney general of the colony. His annual income from his public offices in 1683 was reportedly about £425.
Beverley’s main source of income in the early years was commerce. He exported large quantities of his own and his neighbors’ tobacco (more than thirty-five thousand pounds during the 1671–1672 season) and imported soap, nails, wrought iron, shoes, haberdashery, cloth, saddles, and other merchandise. He became one of the wealthiest men in that part of Virginia. After his death his personal property alone was worth £1,591, and the debts due to him were valued at about £2,200.
Beverley has often been referred to as Major Robert Beverley or as Robert Beverley the immigrant, to distinguish him from other Robert Beverleys of later generations. He and Mary Keeble Beverley had from four to six sons, of whom three survived childhood, and one daughter. Mary Keeble Beverley died in June 1678, and he married Katherine Hone on March 28, 1679. They had three sons and one daughter. Beverley sent his sons to England to be educated, and the three eldest among those who lived to adulthood, Peter Beverley, Robert Beverley (often referred to as Robert Beverley the historian), and Harry Beverley, made use of their educations and the advantages conferred by a wealthy and influential father to become important in their own right. They and their children made the Beverley family one of the most prominent in Virginia by the early years of the eighteenth century.
Beverley befriended Governor Sir William Berkeley, who probably assisted him in obtaining many of his large and valuable land grants. When Bacon’s Rebellion broke out in 1676, Beverley unhesitatingly supported the governor and commanded one of the mounted units that the governor raised in his attempt to crush the rebellion. The royal commissioners later described Beverley as “a person very active & Serviceable in surprizinge & beatinge up of Quarters & Small guards about the Country.” Beverley may have suffered damage to his own property as he claimed, but the commissioners also reported that he was “the only person that gott by those unhappy troubles, in Plunderinge (without distinction of honest mens Estates from others).”
For several years Beverley was a leader of the so-called Green Spring faction, political supporters of Berkeley who took their name from Berkeley’s James City County residence. In February 1677 the House of Burgesses elected Beverley clerk of the House. That April, when Berkeley’s successor Herbert Jeffreys demanded that Beverley turn over to him the legislative journals in his care, Beverley refused to do so without House authorization. The royal commissioners who had been sent to Virginia to quell the rebellion and inquire into its causes forcibly seized the records, and the Privy Council later barred Beverley from office for his attempt to obstruct the commissioners. Beverley nevertheless continued to serve as clerk of the House of Burgesses, even after Governor Thomas Culpeper arrived in Virginia with explicit instructions to displace him.
In May 1682 Beverley was charged with taking a prominent part in the plant-cutting riots in Middlesex and surrounding counties. The plant cutters destroyed portions of their own and their neighbors’ tobacco crops in an attempt to create a shortage and raise prices. As a result of legislation he had authored the previous year ordering the creation of a town in each county from which tobacco had to be shipped on penalty of seizure, Beverley had acquired large amounts of tobacco and thus had a strong interest in limiting the amount of tobacco exported. He was arrested and confined until 1684, when he was tried before the General Court and found guilty of “high Misdemeanors” but not of treason. He received a pardon after he supplicated the bench “on his bended Knees.” Beverley won election to the House of Burgesses the following year and on November 3, 1685, by a vote of nineteen to seventeen won reelection to the office of clerk.
Beverley and Governor Francis Howard, baron Howard of Effingham, became embroiled in another controversy over the clerkship, and Beverley was charged with altering a bill that had passed the House. On August 1, 1686, James II issued a command again barring Beverley from all civil offices and granting the governor the power of appointing the clerk of the House of Burgesses. Before another trial could be held on the new charges against him, Robert Beverley died at his home on March 15, 1687. He was buried four days later, on the same day that his last son was christened.