Edmund Jenings was born in 1659 at Ripon in the West Riding of Yorkshire, England, the third son of Sir Edmund Jenings and Margaret Barkham. The Jenings family had risen to prominence in the sixteenth century by serving as stewards to the earls of Cumberland at Silsden in Yorkshire; young Edmund’s father and grandfather both trained as barristers, and Jenings’s father—who was among Yorkshire’s sitting members of Parliament at the time of his son’s birth—was knighted when Edmund was a year old.
Jenings was likely educated at the University of Cambridge, as were his father and grandfather; records confirm his matriculation at the Middle Temple of the Inns of Court in April 1674. Jenings’s governmental career began in October 1676, when he served as undersheriff of Yorkshire for his father, who was then the county’s sheriff and a sitting justice. This experience and his legal training would stand him in good stead in Virginia.
Jenings first traveled to Virginia in 1680. He was preceded by his probable relative Peter Jenings, who served in the House of Burgesses (1659–1660), on the governor’s Council (1670), and as attorney general (1670). Edmund Jenings arrived with a royal appointment to the post of attorney general and recommendations to then-governor Thomas Culpeper, second baron Culpeper of Thoresway, from his father and from James, duke of York (the future King James II). These introductions, signs of his father’s prominent status in England, allowed Jenings to rise quickly in Virginia government. Within months he was appointed sheriff of James City County, in which capacity he attended the governor’s Council at Jamestown when it sat as the General Court. He also served, from 1681 until 1692, as clerk of York County, where he simultaneously practiced as an attorney, and was later made county lieutenant in charge of the local militia.
During the 1680s, Jenings became an associate of a powerful political group centered around Ralph Wormeley II and Richard Lee II. Cousins by marriage, Wormeley and Lee were staunch supporters of the colony’s royal governors, as had been Wormeley’s uncle and Lee’s father-in-law, Henry Corbin, who was a longtime associate and advisor of Governor Sir William Berkeley. Jenings cemented the alliance about 1688 by marrying Frances Corbin, youngest daughter of Henry Corbin and Alice Eltonhead. They would have a number of children, including Edmund II, Frances, and Elizabeth. In 1691, Governor Francis Nicholson appointed Jenings to the governor’s Council, and in 1696 Jenings became deputy secretary of state, working closely with his wife’s cousin Ralph Wormeley, who served for many years as the colony’s secretary. When Wormeley died in 1701, Jenings was appointed secretary of state, taking the oath on June 23, 1702.
On December 26, 1700, Jenings was appointed to chair a committee tasked to revise the colony’s laws, work that was completed on April 9, 1703. At this time, Jenings was instructed to “prepare a Transcript of all the Laws now in force,” and on October 20, 1703, received a stipend of £100 to sail to England on that business. He left shortly thereafter. In his absence, a coalition of councillors made a concerted effort to have Governor Nicholson removed from office. These men, who included James Blair, Robert “King” Carter, and Benjamin Harrison II, were put off by Nicholson’s attempt to assert the royal prerogative in Virginia by, among other things, seeking money for the defense of New York. Over the years, personal conflict only deepened these political differences. The temperamental and often profane governor had offended the minister Blair and had unsuccessfully courted Lucy Burwell, the daughter of Lewis Burwell, even making reference to the affair in a speech to the House of Burgesses in 1701.
In 1703, Blair and his cohorts sent Queen Anne a letter complaining of Nicholson’s “unusuall insolent and Arbitrary methods of Government as well as wicked and Scandalous examples of life.” While in England, Jenings emerged as Nicholson’s primary defender, but it was to no avail. Jenings arrived back in Virginia in August 1705, probably on the same ship as the colony’s new governor, Edward Nott.
Nott died in office on August 23, 1706, and his intended successor, Robert Hunter, was captured by the French on his way to Virginia and never served in the colony. As president, or senior member of the Council, Jenings served as acting governor beginning on August 27. The Board of Trade authorized Jenings to wield the same authority, and to receive the same salary, as a lieutenant governor. In practice, however, he did not have the same power, especially with a Council still unhappy with his previous support for Nicholson. During his four years as president, Jenings showed little initiative and, in many ways, bent to the will of the Council in order to maintain peace. Councillors unsuccessfully attempted to reduce his salary and perquisites as secretary and managed to delay authorization of his salary as acting governor. They also successfully advised him against calling a session of the House of Burgesses.
The new lieutenant governor, Alexander Spotswood, arrived in Virginia in June 1710, and Jenings immediately offended him by offering “some schemes of politick” concerning management of the Council. Jenings’s fellow councillors, meanwhile, moved to undermine his influence with the new governor. On December 22, 1711, a royal warrant granted Jenings leave to return to England again, this time on personal business; William Cocke, Spotswood’s personal physician, was appointed secretary in his place.
Jenings’s wife, Frances, died in London in 1713 and was likely buried at St. Clement Dane’s. Jenings returned to Virginia in the spring of 1715, but only because councillors were conspiring to have him removed from the Council for his long absence. By now, Jenings’s political and financial affairs were in disarray. In England, he had obtained from Lady Catherine Fairfax the position of land agent for the Northern Neck Proprietary. In so doing, he had made an enemy of the former land agent, Robert Carter. Jenings left the agency in the hands of his nephew Thomas Lee while he was away; Lee collected the rents, which Jenings then borrowed from the agency to pay his own personal debts. Jenings had apparently expected to inherit a large sum from an elder brother whose estate he was settling while in England, but the fortune did not materialize. He returned to Virginia unpopular, indebted, and bitterly disliked by Carter and his associates. When Lady Fairfax died, in May 1719, Carter was quickly appointed the Northern Neck’s new agent.
Jenings never obtained the favor with Spotswood that he had enjoyed with earlier governors, although he was briefly in his good graces when the governor again appointed him to serve as the colony’s secretary, from 1720 to 1722. Jenings continued to attend the Council until about 1724, when his health suddenly deteriorated. Early in June 1726, with Governor Hugh Drysdale mortally ill and Jenings, as senior member of the council, still in place to serve as acting governor, the Council launched an inquiry into Jenings’s health and activities. Sir John Randolph concluded that Jenings suffered from “a palsy,” perhaps the equivalent of a disabling stroke or Parkinson’s disease. Randolph found Jenings barely able to speak or write and reported that his hands trembled constantly and that he had difficulty composing and expressing his thoughts.
When, on June 24, 1726, the Council’s clerk, William Robertson, informed Jenings at his Ripon Hall home that he had been found incompetent, Jenings “fell to crying” and resisted the decision. The Council met the next day and concluded, finally, that Jenings was, “by reason of the insanity of his mind and memory a person altogether incapable of administering the Government.” Governor Drysdale officially suspended him from the Council, making Carter the senior member. Drysdale died the following summer, and Carter served as acting governor for just over a year.
Jenings lost the Northern Neck Proprietary to Carter, then the presidency of the governor’s Council. He also lost to Carter most of his lands, his slaves, and his estate, Ripon Hall. On October 2, 1722, John Carter wrote to the Fairfax family’s representative that his father, Robert Carter, had convinced Jenings to mortgage his land in order to meet his debts. A letter from Robert Carter, dated July 9, 1724, mentioned that all of Jenings’s land and slaves were mortgaged. By September 12, 1728, with a change in his will, Carter claimed even Jenings’s Ripon Hall mansion.
Edmund Jenings died on July 5, 1727, and was buried at Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg.