Between 1638 and 1648, a series of conflicts pitted King Charles I and his supporters (called Cavaliers) against groups who opposed his rule—the Covenanters in Scotland and the Parliamentarians (or Roundheads) in England. Charles I’s armies were defeated by Parliamentarian troops in 1645 and again in 1648. The king was taken prisoner in 1648 and in January 1649 stood trial before a court established by the Rump Parliament. (The Rump, as it is often called, consisted of those members of the Long Parliament, assembled in 1640, who remained after troops under Colonel Thomas Pride purged that legislative body of men who supported signing a peace treaty with the king.) After being found guilty of high treason, Charles I was executed on January 30, 1649.
The English government was reorganized as a republic, without a monarch or House of Lords. Under this new government, called the Commonwealth, Parliament acted as both executive and legislative branch. The Commonwealth oversaw the conquest of Ireland and Scotland; it also forced the colonies such as Virginia that opposed regicide and republicanism to accept its authority. This government endured until 1653, when Oliver Cromwell, the Puritan statesman who had led the Parliamentarians to victory, forcibly dissolved a conflicted Parliament. Cromwell helped assemble another legal body called the Barebones Parliament (so named for one of its members, lay preacher Praise-God Barebone), composed of his political allies who were often his fellow religious radicals. But when the Barebones Parliament was unable to govern effectively, Cromwell was made Lord Protector of England. After Cromwell died in September 1658, his son Richard Cromwell succeeded him, but stepped down just nine months later. The republic resumed, but infighting among members of Parliament created an opening for forces under George Monck, the English governor of Scotland, to march to London and restore the Long Parliament. In May 1660, Charles II, son of the executed monarch, was recognized by Parliament as the King of England.
War’s Impact on Virginia
From the outbreak of civil war in 1642 until the regicide in 1649, the political upheaval in England affected Virginia trade and raised questions of allegiance. The war had stymied English shipping: ships that were not diverted to military purposes were seized, along with their cargos, as an act of war, which disrupted Virginia’s tobacco sales to its chief market and its supply of servants and trade goods. As a result, the colony’s economic survival depended on a diverse and vigorous trade. Virginia’s trade with the Dutch, New England, and the West Indies increased dramatically throughout the 1640s. As the only colony run by the Crown and not by a company of investors, Virginia had a particular responsibility for avoiding the king’s enemies, and, in some cases, for punishing them. But Virginia governor Sir William Berkeley declared a policy of neutrality, allowing Virginians to trade with any merchants who came to the colony, regardless of their affiliation. While profitable, neutrality still had its risks: in 1644, two English ships—one Royalist, one Parliamentarian—fired on each other in the James River, killing a planter who was on board one of the vessels.
Berkeley was more inclined to support his king in religious matters, introducing and supporting legislation that targeted religious nonconformists, particularly ministers. The laws were an attempt to avoid the same kind of political unrest that raged in England, where Puritans, religious dissenters who believed that the Anglican church retained too many “popish,” or Catholic, elements, usually sided with and fought for the Parliamentarians. These harsh conformity laws added to the tension that had sprung up between Anglicans and Puritans in Virginia as news of the English Civil Wars trickled overseas; by 1650, mosthad left the colony for Maryland or Massachusetts.
Surrender and a New Colonial Vision
The establishment of England’s new Commonwealth government would have ended Virginia’s status as a royal colony, except that Virginia resisted this change. Rather than remain tied to England under the circumstances, Virginia was one of a number of colonies to proclaim Charles II king in 1649. In part as a response to Virginia’s intransigence, the Commonwealth enacted a set of uniform policies for all colonies with the intention of linking them more closely to England. One such policy was the Navigation Act (1651), which limited colonial trade to English merchants and vessels in the hope that the wealth produced by the colonies would benefit England alone. When Virginians resisted, Parliament blockaded the colony, forcing Governor Berkeley to surrender on March 12, 1652. Still, the General Assembly managed to negotiate free trade as one of its terms, circumventing the Navigation Act. Ironically, the law was later revived under Charles II.
After surrendering 1652, Virginia was ruled directly by the English government until the Restoration of 1660. Though Parliament forced Berkeley to step down as governor after the surrender, the colony was able toits own governor and —officeholders who had previously been appointed by the king. In a lucky if not prescient move, the governor’s Council elected Berkeley to another term as governor in March 1660, just two months before Charles II was restored to the throne. (News of the event likely did not reach the colonies until the summer of 1660.)
English Civil Wars in Virginia’s Memory
Having initially resisted England’s Commonwealth regime, and having reinstalled a former royal governor of its own accord, Virginia was in an excellent position to plead its loyalty to the king after the Restoration. Indeed, the colony even gained a reputation as a Royalist stronghold—a reputation some Virginians cultivated by exaggerating the number of Royalist officers, or Cavaliers, who migrated to the colony after 1648, and claiming that most Virginians were descended from the English aristocracy. While a number of Royalists—including members of the Washington, Randolph, Carter, and Lee families—sought refuge in Virginia, most remained in England or settled in Europe. And most immigrants to Virginia in the seventeenth century were indentured servants, not English gentry. Regardless, the—perpetuated by romantic, nostalgic depictions of Virginia plantation life in literature and historical studies—took hold in Virginia and persisted throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Some scholars view the interpretation of the (1861–1865) as an extension of the Cavalier myth.
In creating this enduring image, Virginia’s complicity with Parliament and the Commonwealth government of England was erased from memory—although colonial Virginians remained happy to acknowledge their desire for free trade, first expressed in opposition to imperial policies during these years.