Chilton was born on March 9, 1658, in Little Wilbraham Parish, Cambridgeshire, England. He was the son of Edward Chilton and Katherine Chilton, whose maiden name is unknown. He entered Trinity College, Dublin, on April 24, 1674, and on January 12, 1676, was admitted to Saint John’s College, University of Cambridge, as a sizar, a student receiving financial aid in return for work. By that time his father had died. If his father was the E. Chilton who had been a clerk in the Principal Probate Registry as late as June 16, 1675, and who was acquainted with persons who had Virginia connections, that might help account for Chilton’s first appointment in Virginia. The date and circumstances under which Chilton moved to Virginia are otherwise unknown.
Public Service in Virginia
Chilton’s name first appeared in Virginia records in April 1682 as clerk of the governor’s Council and concurrently as clerk of the General Assembly. As salary for the latter office he received 10,800 pounds ofin the spring of 1684, about half the annual sum that the governor had recommended. His duties included preparing formal documents for the Council, acting as intermediary in official communications between the two houses of the assembly, recording land patents, and carrying out other clerical responsibilities. Chilton gained an intimate understanding of the workings of the colony’s political and legal systems and how its land laws were administered. On two occasions he helped preserve the public records of Virginia. On November 10, 1682, the assembly voted to pay Chilton 20,000 pounds of tobacco “for his care and paines in settling and alphabetting the Records in the Secretaries office & for Recording many publique letters and papers and Proclamations and all other publique Services to this day.” On October 27, 1686, he presented to the assembly his transcription of two volumes of land patent books. Chilton’s name appeared as clerk for the last time on November 17, 1686.
Chilton acquired a significant amount of land, beginning with two acres in Jamestown in the spring of 1683. During the next two years in partnership with other men he obtained grants for more than a thousand acres of land in New Kent County, and in 1686 he patented more than a thousand acres in Surry County. He also acquired and sold other tracts elsewhere and practiced law. In referring a client to Chilton in January 1691, the planter and lawyer William Fitzhugh (d. 1701) described Chilton as a better lawyer than himself. Chilton also appeared as attorney for the former Speaker of the House of Burgesses and Council member Edward Hill (d. 1700), who by 1693 was his father-in-law. The date on which Chilton married Hannah Hill is not recorded. They acquired 2,717 acres of land from her father and are not known to have had any children.
On October 20, 1691, Chilton took office as attorney general of Virginia, succeeding, who had become a member of the Council on June 4 of that year. In the following April, Council members weighed the possibility that Jenings might resume the office, but they abandoned the idea on the grounds that Chilton’s name had already been forwarded to England for confirmation by the Crown. The loss of the records of the General Court leaves information concerning his service as attorney general scarce. Copies of two of his opinions survive in manuscript. One, issued on October 30, 1691, specified procedures that the Middlesex County justices should follow in a case involving a slave, and the other, dated June 23, 1692, limited the authority of justices of the peace to admit to bail persons charged with major felonies. While he was attorney general, Chilton also served once as clerk of the ‘s Committee for and Privileges and three times as clerk of the Committee for Propositions and Grievances.
With his service in a high office in the government of the colony, a marriage that connected him to its leaders, and possession of a growing landed estate, Chilton appeared well established in Virginia, but on January 8, 1694, he registered a power of attorney authorizing his father-in-law to take charge of his property in Virginia and Maryland. In April the Council swore in William Randolph (d. 1711) as attorney general, “Edward Chilton Esqr late Attorney Genll being gon for England and that place thereby become Vacant.”
The Present State of Virginia
Chilton probably intended to return to Virginia but never did. He gained admission to the Middle Temple on April 13, 1694, soon after returning to England, and was called to the bar on May 22, 1696. Chilton became a successful London barrister and has been identified as the Edward Chilton who edited a fifth edition of Sir Henry Hobart’s Reports (published in 1724) and also as the author of marginal references in a 1697 French edition of Sir Edward Coke’s Reports.
In May 1696, within two years of Chilton’s arrival in England, Parliament established a new regulatory body, the Lords Commissioners of Trade and Plantations, often called the Board of Trade. Its mission was to strengthen control over the colonial governments and regulate their commerce in order to restrict illegal trade. When the board began to investigate affairs in Virginia in the summer of 1696, its members turned to Chilton and Henry Hartwell, an even more recent arrival from Virginia who had also once been clerk of the Council and had served both in the House of Burgesses and on the governor’s Council. Testifying before the commissioners in July and August 1696, Chilton condemned members of the Council for claiming exemption from common law actions. He also reported that members failed to take an oath of office before sitting as judges in the General Court.
In the autumn of 1695 Edward Randolph, surveyor general of royal customs in the colonies, had completed a plan for restricting illegal trade in the colonies by establishing a new system of admiralty courts with their own judges and advocates, or prosecutors, who would be appointed by the English government. For a district that embraced five colonies from West Jersey southward through North Carolina, he nominated Chilton late in the summer of 1696 to serve as advocate as soon as he returned to Virginia.
The Board of Trade resumed its investigation of Virginia in August 1697, spurred by one of its members, the political philosopher John Locke, who had developed a strong interest in the colony. The panel of Virginia experts had acquired a new member with the arrival earlier that summer of James Blair, who was president of the College of William and Mary, commissary of the bishop of London, and a suspended member of the Council. Blair sought support for the college and removal of the incumbent governor, but once in England he quickly established a rapport with Locke and became a willing participant in the effort to reform Virginia. In a flurry of activity in August and September 1697, Blair testified before the board and at Locke’s urging prepared an initial written statement on needed changes in the governance of the colony. Hartwell made written responses to a series of thirty-seven inquiries that Locke prepared, and late in September Chilton appeared before the commissioners and answered questions regarding irregularities in land policy, such as grants of excessively large blocks of land, failure to develop land, and avoidance of the payment of quitrents. Chilton also criticized the functioning of the Virginia courts.
The commissioners asked the three Virginians to submit a full written account of conditions in the colony. By October 20, 1697, they had presented a collaborative report, signed by each and described as a true account of the present state of Virginia. About 18,500 words in length, its twelve sections provided both a comprehensive description of the colony and an agenda for significant reforms. Board members gave the document a brief review and agreed to consider it later but never did. The report disappeared into the board’s archives and was seldom consulted thereafter. One important exception, however, occurred when(d. 1722) examined the manuscript and copied parts of it into his History and Present State of Virginia, In Four Parts, published in 1705. Chilton and his fellow authors did not see their extensive effort produce the reforms they had recommended.
By February 1698 Chilton had been appointed advocate of an admiralty court for Virginia and North Carolina and was expected to return to Virginia, although he did not take his post. Instead, later that year he left England for Barbados and in April 1699 petitioned to be appointed attorney general of that colony. Chilton’s commission required him to reside in Barbados and “to execute the said office in his own person, except in case of sickness or other incapacity.” He took the oath of office on January 16, 1700, and faced a difficult time in the turbulent politics of the island. Late in July 1701 two men assaulted him; he was injured and one of the men killed. Chilton asked for a one-year leave of absence in September 1704 to recover his health and settle his personal business, but even though the Crown approved his request, he apparently remained in Barbados. In 1705, during the political turmoil that characterized the administration of Governor Sir Bevil Granville, the governor suspended Chilton from office, had him tried and found guilty of high misdemeanors, fined, and imprisoned. The governor identified Chilton’s offenses as uttering scandalous words against the governor, suppressing evidence, and advising two defendants to flee. Granville later wrote, “I have found him here a very troublesome fellow, and a very great knave.”
Chilton returned to England in the autumn of 1705 to defend himself against Granville’s accusations. He was still in London in the autumn of the following year when he supported a successful effort of Barbadian merchants to secure disallowance of a paper money bill, although he did not in that instance identify himself as attorney general. On July 7, 1707, Chilton was in Portsmouth, England, probably waiting to board a ship to return to Barbados. Falling sick, he dictated a will, which he was too ill to sign. Edward Chilton died in that city on an unrecorded date between July 20 and 26, 1707. On the latter date the queen appointed a new attorney general of Barbados, “in the roome of Mr. Chilton, deceased.”
Chilton had been dead for two decades when the 1697 report that he had helped prepare appeared in print. A London printer issued it early in 1727 under the title The Present State of Virginia, and the College. Its three authors were named on the title page and the contents little altered except for the inclusion of the 1693 royal charter of the College of William and Mary as an appendix. Almost certainly James Blair, who was in London at the time, was responsible for the work’s appearance. The belated publication of the report made the name of Edward Chilton more famous to students of Virginia’s history than did his service as clerk of the Council and attorney general.
- The Present State of Virginia, and the College (1727)