William Cocke (1672–1720)


William Cocke served Virginia as the secretary of the colony and a member of the governor’s Council. Cocke arrived in Virginia in 1710 as Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood‘s personal physician. The doctor established a successful medical practice and later became a major landholder. Spotswood began his quest to give Cocke a high-level position in the government within a year of their arrival in the colony, and succeeded in placing him on the Council in 1713. Cocke supported Spotswood, who had a tumultuous relationship with most councilors, but remained friendly with political opponent William Byrd.

Cocke was born in 1672 in Sudbury, Suffolk County, England, and probably was the son of William Cocke and Susan Cocke, whose maiden name is not known. He attended Felsted School near London and in March 1688 entered Queens’ College, University of Cambridge, from which he received a medical degree in 1693. Before November 1700 he married Elizabeth Catesby, also of Sudbury, without her father’s consent. They had two sons and at least three daughters.

Mark Catesby’s Illustrations

In the spring of 1710 Cocke traveled to Virginia as personal physician to Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood. They arrived in June of that year, and within a few days Cocke chanced to meet William Byrd (1674–1744), with whom he had attended Felsted School. Byrd’s diaries record that Cocke was a frequent visitor at Westover and that Byrd regularly met Cocke in Williamsburg. Conflicting political loyalties during the tumultuous early years of Spotswood’s administration might have strained their friendship, but they evidently remained on good terms until Cocke died. Cocke resided in or near Williamsburg, perhaps as a member of Spotswood’s household, until his wife, two of their children, and his wife’s younger brother, the naturalist Mark Catesby, arrived in April 1712. Cocke purchased eight lots and a house in the capital, and Catesby lived with them for about seven years while beginning his botanical and zoological collecting trips in Virginia and the West Indies.

Alexander Spotswood

Perhaps one of the few university-trained doctors in Virginia, Cocke practiced medicine with some success. Without any known administrative or political experience, he also moved rapidly into the upper ranks of Virginia officialdom. In April 1711 Spotswood unsuccessfully tried to arrange his election to the board of visitors of the College of William and Mary, but the following year he engineered a deal whereby Cocke replaced Edmund Jenings (d. 1727), who was temporarily returning to England, as secretary of the colony. Cocke took the oaths of office at the Capitol in Williamsburg on June 10, 1712. On the recommendation of Spotswood and Governor George Hamilton, earl of Orkney, the Privy Council in August 1713 approved Cocke’s appointment to a vacant seat on the governor’s Council. Cocke was one of three Council members who in November 1714 with members of the House of Burgesses drafted the colony’s address to George I congratulating him on assuming the throne. Spotswood appointed Cocke county lieutenant, or commander of the militia, of Elizabeth City and Warwick counties in 1715.

Except when he was in England from the summer of 1716 to the spring of 1718, Cocke regularly attended meetings of the Council, which was also the upper house of the General Assembly and the General Court, the colony’s highest court, which met twice a year. Few records exist to characterize what effect he had on the secretary’s office, but in 1716 Spotswood reported that Cocke “applyed himself to the reforming sundry abuses” in the office. Because Cocke continued to practice medicine both in and out of Williamsburg, it is possible that he left the day-to-day business of issuing writs, managing land office records, and commissioning county clerks to a skilled deputy, who collected and kept a portion of the many lucrative fees to which the secretary was entitled.

Report by the Board of Trade

Whether Cocke’s two-year absence from Virginia was occasioned by personal or official business in England is not known, but Spotswood provided him with a letter of introduction praising his dedication and skill and employed him to deliver official documents to the Board of Trade and to explain the need for a new colonial seal. At that time, Spotswood and most members of the Council were at loggerheads over proposed changes in the collection of quitrents and whether the lieutenant governor could appoint anyone other than a Council member to the semiannual courts of oyer and terminer. On November 15, 1717, both Byrd, an opponent of Spotswood, and Cocke, who remained loyal to the lieutenant governor, appeared before the Board of Trade, which was considering the complaints that Council members and Spotswood had filed against one another. While in London, Cocke was authorized to oversee the printing of a new compilation of Virginia statutes in force and also advised the Board of Trade that a Virginia law concerning debts and another preventing the assembly of Quakers were both contrary to the laws of England. He warned that the latter might banish “numbers of Industrious Inhabitants” from Virginia.

Cocke and his family appear to have lived comfortably in Virginia. In addition to his town lots, house, and other buildings in Williamsburg, he owned forty acres of land in James City County and with several partners patented tracts of 6,000 and 4,000 acres in Essex County. He entertained friends, regularly engaged in games of chance, owned a coach, had servants, and may have owned slaves. Cocke never came close to the imprisonment for debt that his skeptical father-in-law had predicted at the time of his marriage, but there is evidence that he lived beyond his means. His medical practice brought in a respectable £200 annually and the secretary’s office even more, although he had to share that income with Jenings and had to pay his deputies. Cocke was noted for his generosity to friends and his reluctance to accept payment from them for his medical services. He eventually mortgaged his Williamsburg home and his land in James City County, which were sold to satisfy the debt they secured. After his death, his widow was left with few resources, and she was forced to come to an arrangement with her eldest son and married daughter to provide for the other children.

On October 22, 1720, while attending a session of the General Court, William Cocke “was struck with a fit of an apoplexy and died immediately,” collapsing onto William Byrd. The lieutenant governor, Council members, and other dignitaries attended Cocke’s funeral two days later. He was buried under the floor near the altar in Bruton Parish Church, in Williamsburg. In 1724 Cocke’s widow married John Holloway, Speaker of the House of Burgesses. About thirty years later, Cocke’s son ordered for the church an inscribed tablet that recorded Cocke’s birth, public services, and death.

William Cocke is born in Sudbury, Suffolk County, England, probably the son of William Cocke and Susan Cocke.
March 1688
William Cocke enters Queen's College, University of Cambridge.
William Cocke receives a medical degree from Queen's College, University of Cambridge.
November 1700
Before this time, William Cocke marries Elizabeth Catesby without her father's consent. They will have two sons and at least three daughters.
Spring 1710
William Cocke travels to Virginia as personal physician to Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood.
April 1711
William Cocke tries unsuccessfully to arrange his election to the board of visitors of the College of William and Mary.
April 1712
William Cocke's wife, Elizabeth Catesby Cocke, and two of their children arrive in Virginia.
June 10, 1712
William Cocke takes the oaths of office in Williamsburg after arranging with Edmund Jenings to replace him as secretary of the colony while Jenings returns to England temporarily.
August 1713
William Cocke is appointed to a vacant seat on the governor's Council.
Alexander Spotswood appoints William Cocke county lieutenant, or commander of the militia, of Elizabeth City and Warwick Counties.
October 22, 1720
While attending a session of the General Court, William Cocke is "struck with a fit of an apoplexy" and dies immediately, collapsing onto William Byrd. His funeral is two days later. He is buried in Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg.
  • Havighurst, Walter. Alexander Spotswood: Portrait of a Governor. Williamsburg, Virginia: Colonial Williamsburg, 1967.
  • Lenman, Bruce P. “Alexander Spotswood and the Business of Empire.” Colonial Williamsburg 13, no. 1 (1990): 44–55.
  • Rowe, Linda H. “Cocke, William.” In the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 3, edited by Sara B. Bearss et al., 339–341. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2006.
  • Williams, David Alan. Political Alignments in Colonial Virginia Politics, 1698–1750. New York: Garland, 1989.
APA Citation:
Rowe, Linda & Dictionary of Virginia Biography. William Cocke (1672–1720). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/cocke-william-1672-1720.
MLA Citation:
Rowe, Linda, and Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "William Cocke (1672–1720)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 19 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
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