Cole was born in 1638 or 1639, probably in Warwick River County (after 1643 Warwick County). He was most likely the son of William Cole, who arrived in Virginia from Essex County, England, in 1618 and in 1629 represented Nutmegg Quarter in the General Assembly. The name of his mother is uncertain, but she may have been the Francis (or Frances) Cole who came to the colony aboard the Susan in 1616. Nothing is known about Cole’s early life or education, but he studied law and was representing clients before the General Court by October 1670. By the spring of 1672 he was a lieutenant colonel in the county militia. In April 1671 Cole purchased from Frances Culpeper Stephens Berkeley and her second husband, Governor Sir William Berkeley, 1,350 acres of land in Warwick County, an estate later known as Boldrup or Bolthrope. Cole eventually acquired more than 2,400 additional acres in Elizabeth City, Warwick, and York counties.
On March 3, 1675, the governor appointed Cole and three other men, including Nathaniel Bacon, to the governor’s Council. Cole took the oath of office three days later. When Bacon’s Rebellion began in the summer of 1676, he criticized Bacon’s treatment of the Indians but acted as an intermediary between the governor and the rebel in June. The next month Cole joined the governor when he withdrew to the Eastern Shore, and Bacon subsequently enumerated Cole on his list of “wicked, and pernitious Councollors, aiders, and Assisters against the Commonalty.” The royal commissioners sent to suppress the rebellion and investigate its causes confirmed Cole’s loyalty and his position on the Council. In March 1677 Cole was one of six witnesses to Berkeley’s will.
On May 4, 1683, Cole and other Council members signed a letter recommending that the Lords Committee for Trade and Plantations improve the governance of the colony by restricting trade with the Indians to a few persons to be designated by the governor, accurately defining Virginia’s borders to cut off encroachments by Maryland and North Carolina, providing a sixty-man garrison for security, redirecting certain quitrents to the colonial government’s use, limiting tobacco production, and permitting a tobacco levy. Twice in the 1680s Cole assisted in the suppression of piracy. In June 1682 the Council ordered him to impress a vessel and collect a crew to pursue a pirate ship that had been raiding along the York River. Cole took testimony in June 1688 from Edward Davis and three other men for trial before the General Court in the last recorded piracy case before the formation of a court of vice-admiralty in the colony.
Cole augmented his income with the lucrative post of customs collector for the upper district of the James River, which he held until the summer of 1686, when the governor transferred him to the lower district. Three marriages also advanced his status and bound him more firmly into the tangled kinship networks of the colonial elite. With his first wife, whose name is unknown but to whom he was married by 1674, he had at least one daughter, who married Dudley Digges (d. 1711), a member of the Council and brother of Cole’s second wife. Sometime after the death of his first wife, Cole married Ann Digges, daughter of Edward Digges, who was governor in 1655 and 1656. They had at least two sons before her death on November 22, 1686. By mid-1689 Cole had married Martha Lear, daughter of the Council member John Lear. They had at least two daughters and two sons. After Cole’s death, his widow married Lewis Burwell, a Gloucester County planter.
On October 18, 1689, the president of the Council appointed Cole to the vacant office of secretary of the colony, an important and profitable post responsible for maintaining the official correspondence of the governor and Council, drawing up and recording all public documents, reporting the General Assembly’s proceedings, keeping the seal of the colony, and naming the county clerks. The king and queen granted him the office on January 17, 1690. Cole was one of four councillors appointed in May 1691 to a committee to accept a royal charter for a college in the colony. The second man named in the charter of February 8, 1693, establishing the College of William and Mary, Cole was a founding visitor, or trustee, of the institution.
By that time, however, Cole had blundered and toppled from power. Without the knowledge of the other councillors, in April 1691 he sent an indiscreet letter to Governor Francis Howard, baron Howard of Effingham, then in England, in which he “very highly taxed and abused his Honor the Lieut Govr,” Francis Nicholson. On June 23, 1692, Nicholson produced a copy of the letter during a Council meeting and confronted Cole, who immediately submitted his resignation as councillor, secretary, and customs collector. In an effort to save face, he cited not his embarrassment but rather his rapidly declining health, “as he is lately much decayed in his body & Strength, and by reason of a deepe Melancholly that hath Seized him.” Cole died on March 4, 1694, and was buried at his Boldrup plantation in Warwick County.