Richard Kemp (ca. 1600–ca. 1650)


Richard Kemp (also spelled Kempe) served as the secretary of the colony and as a member of the governor’s Council from 1634 to 1649. He also served as acting governor of Virginia in Sir William Berkeley‘s stead from 1644 to 1645, assuming leadership of the colony just after the Third Anglo-Powhatan War (1644–1646). A close ally of Sir John Harvey, the first royally appointed governor of Virginia (1630–1639), Kemp supported Harvey throughout a series of disputes between Harvey and members of the Council. Harvey was ultimately removed from power, but Kemp regained his position as secretary after he stowed away on a ship bound for England and pled his case to King Charles I. Kemp lived in urban Jamestown, where he built the first all-brick house in the colony, before relocating to Rich Neck, a 1,200-acre plantation he had bought in 1636 from George Menefie.

Kemp was born in Gissing, Norfolk, England, in or about 1600. He was the third of Robert and Dorothy Kemp’s seven sons. In August 1634, Charles I named Richard Kemp secretary of the Virginia colony, replacing William Claiborne. As secretary, Kemp would oversee all official correspondence with the king, issue permits, grant passes to leave Virginia, and handle all of the colony’s legal paperwork. The secretary collected fees for performing his duties and also received land and servants as further compensation.

Almost immediately after Kemp arrived in Virginia, however, he became entangled in a bitter struggle between the royal governor, Sir John Harvey, and the governor’s Council. Harvey wished to curtail land settlement and expansion, fearing retaliation from the Indians in the vein of the 1622 attack that had launched the Second Anglo-Powhatan War (1622–1632), while most councilors were eager to patent former Indian lands; Harvey had also helped Cecil Calvert, second Lord Baltimore, to settle Maryland, a colony established in what many Virginians considered their territory. Harvey was also simply unpopular, seen by many as a despot. The Council impeached Harvey in 1635 (though not before he knocked out the teeth of one of the councilors) and replaced him with John West. The king restored Harvey’s gubernatorial appointment in 1636.

Kemp had sided with Harvey in these disputes, even helping Harvey punish his opponents. When Harvey was again deposed in 1639, Kemp assumed a low profile and eventually escaped from the colony by stowing away on a ship bound for England. There he pleaded his case to Charles I and convinced the king to allow him to resume his role as the secretary of the colony. He returned to Virginia in 1642 with the colony’s new governor, Sir William Berkeley. By virtue of his position as senior member of the Council, Kemp served as acting governor from June 1644 to June 1645, when Berkeley traveled to England to buy arms to defend the colony against Indian attacks. Soon after that, Kemp’s health began to decline, and he left office in 1649.

Kemp’s personal life was less fraught than his political one. Kemp may have been married when he arrived in Virginia, but if he was, his wife died shortly after her arrival in the colony. Kemp then married Elizabeth Wormeley, the daughter of Christopher Wormeley, a county justice. The couple had one daughter, Elizabeth. In Jamestown in 1638 and 1639, Kemp built what was probably the first all-brick house in Virginia, which Harvey described as “the fairest ever known in this country for substance and uniformity.” According to excavations of the house performed in 1934 by National Park Service archaeologists and in 1995 by Audrey Horning of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, it had a lobby entrance hall and parlor measuring twenty-five by thirty-four feet; the foundation’s bottom course was made up of unmortared broken bricks in no discernible pattern. The house at one time featured a ceramic tile roof.

In 1641, Kemp, hoping to escape the political infighting in the colonial capital, sold the house to then-governor Sir Francis Wyatt and moved to Rich Neck, a plantation located a few miles outside Jamestown, which Kemp had purchased from George Menefie in 1636. Kemp was credited with almost one hundred headrights in return for paying for laborers’ passages to Virginia, and was one of the first planters to use an enslaved workforce. At Rich Neck, Kemp constructed multiple structures, including a brick house almost identical to his Jamestown house and a large brick outbuilding that served as the plantation’s kitchen, servants’ quarters, and storage facility. In his will, which he wrote on January 4, 1649, he ordered his wife to sell Rich Neck and return to England. She did neither: though the exact date of Kemp’s death is unknown, it was sometime prior to October 24, 1650, when Elizabeth Wormeley Kemp married Sir Thomas Lunsford, who had come to Virginia as a Royalist refugee from the English Civil Wars (1642–1648). Some sources cite the date of Richard Kemp’s death as December 6, 1656, the day his will reached authorities in England.

ca. 1600
Richard Kemp is born in Norfolk, England. He is the third son of Robert and Dorothy Kemp of Gissing.
August 1634
King Charles I appoints Richard Kemp as secretary of the colony of Virginia. Kemp travels to Virginia.
Richard Kemp purchases Rich Neck, a plantation located a few miles from Jamestown, from George Menefie.
Construction begins on Richard Kemp's house in Jamestown. It is the first all-brick house in Virginia.
William Claiborne obtains royal permission and consent of the governor's Council to found a signet office for the purpose of validating public records. The new office reduces the power of Claiborne's rival, Richard Kemp, secretary of the colony.
Richard Kemp, hoping to escape the constant political tension in the city of Jamestown, moves his family to Rich Neck, a plantation located a few miles from the colonial capital.
June 1644
Governor Sir William Berkeley returns to England to buy arms to prosecute the colony's war against the Indians. Richard Kemp serves as acting governor in Berkeley's absence.
Richard Kemp leaves his positions as secretary of the colony and member of the Council of Virginia.
January 4, 1649
A "sick and weak" Richard Kemp writes his will, in which he orders his wife Elizabeth Wormeley Kemp to sell his plantation and return to England.
October 24, 1650
Elizabeth Wormeley Kemp marries Sir Thomas Lunsford, indicating that Kemp's first husband, Richard Kemp, died prior to this date.
December 6, 1656
Richard Kemp's will reaches authorities in England.
July 1688
Sir Thomas Culpeper, second baron Culpeper of Thoresway, petitions King James II for a renewal of his Northern Neck land grant.
  • Billings, Warren M., ed. Old Dominion in the Seventeenth Century: A Documentary History of Virginia, 1606–1689. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975.
  • McCartney, Martha W. Virginia Immigrants and Adventurers, 1607–1635: A Biographical Dictionary. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2007.
  • McFaden, Leslie, Philip Levy, David Muraca, and Jennifer Jones. Interim Report: The Archaeology of Rich Neck Plantation. Williamsburg, Virginia: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1999.
  • Muraca, David, Philip Levy, and Leslie McFaden. The Archaeology of Rich Neck Plantation (44WB52): Description of the Features. Williamsburg, Virginia: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2003.
APA Citation:
Muraca, David. Richard Kemp (ca. 1600–ca. 1650). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/kemp-richard-ca-1600-ca-1650.
MLA Citation:
Muraca, David. "Richard Kemp (ca. 1600–ca. 1650)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 14 Apr. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
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