Sandys was born on December 9, 1561, in Worcestershire, England, the second son of Edwin Sandys, the future Archbishop of York (1576–1588), and his second wife, Cecily Wilford. After entering Merchant Taylor’s School at the age of nine, young Edwin enrolled six years later at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. He earned his B.A. in 1579 and his M.A. in 1583. Though he remained at Oxford, he earned no other degrees, and in 1589, after his first wife died in childbirth, he moved to London, where he joined the Middle Temple—one of the four Inns of Court that controlled access to the legal profession. He was elected to Parliament in 1589, and again in 1593, when, for the first time, there is a record of his making a minor contribution to the debates.
In 1596 Sandys was sent on a brief diplomatic mission to Germany, and for the next three years he traveled on the continent, gathering material for a book that he completed on his return: A Relation of the State of Religion. This was a survey of the various faiths he had encountered on the continent, focusing mainly on the strengths and weaknesses of Catholicism. The conclusion was probably the first comprehensive justification for peaceful coexistence in Reformation Europe. Though the book was suppressed by the Court of High Commission when it was published in 1605, over the next eighty years it went through fourteen editions and was translated into Italian, French, and Dutch.
In May 1603, Sandys was knighted by the new king, James I, and the following year he returned to Parliament. There, over more than two decades, he established himself as the most influential member of the House of Commons. His speeches were the main cause for the failure of the king’s proposal to unite the English and Scottish crowns, and again and again his interventions caused his fellow members to question royal policies. In 1621 he was arrested and briefly confined to his home for his efforts, but he remained a major force as the quintessential “Commons-man” even thereafter.
During these years Sandys began to develop another interest. In Parliament, he was one of the leading advocates of free trade, and essential to that issue was the promotion of overseas colonization, in which—as he pointed out—the English lagged far behind their enemy, the Spanish. The East India Company had been founded in 1600, and in 1606 the Virginia Company was established to raise funds for colonization in North America. Sandys joined both ventures, and in 1607 he was named to the Council of the Virginia Company; it is likely that he helped draw up the company’s second charter in 1609, transferring control of the colony from the king to a governor appointed by the council. In 1612 he became one of the founders of the Somers Island Company, which was settling Bermuda, and over the next decade he emerged as a major contributor to overseas enterprise.
In 1616 Sandys was elected an assistant (essentially a director) of the Virginia Company, and in 1618 he expanded his investment in Virginia, arranging for 310 settlers to join a shrinking population of only 400. He regarded emigrants as the key to success overseas, and in 1617 he led the negotiations with the Leyden Puritans that resulted in the journey of the Mayflower and the Pilgrim Fathers in 1620. Because Sandys was so worried that the “great action” of the Virginia colony might “fall to nothing,” he devoted new energies to that enterprise, including preparation of a reform of Virginia Company procedures, the so-called Great Charter of 1618, which created a representative “general assembly” in Virginia. Finally, in 1619, Sandys took over as treasurer (essentially chairman) of the Virginia Company.
Among his policies, his plan to diversify the colony’s economy failed, but his transportation of settlers over the next five years was probably the single most important reason that England’s foothold at Jamestown survived. For although he shipped about 4,000 people across the Atlantic Ocean in these years, attrition was so intense that the colony was only a few hundred people larger in 1624 than it had been in 1618. Without the emigration, the Indian attack of 1622 might well have destroyed the young settlement.
At home, however, Sandys’s policies antagonized many investors, and in 1620 the king forbade his re-election: “choose the Devil if you will, but not Sir Edwin Sandys,” he is reputed to have said. Friends of Sandys took over in his place, and he basically remained in control of the Virginia Company. Yet the chronic lack of funds meant that his troubles mounted. In 1622 he negotiated a contract with the Lord Treasurer, Lionel Cranfield, that gave the Virginia Company a monopoly over tobacco imports, but this very achievement triggered a confrontation that eventually destroyed Sandys’s regime.
When the terms of the contract were announced, it appeared that Sandys and his allies would receive handsome salaries for their work. For a company in financial straits, this seemed entirely inappropriate, and over the next few months, accusations of financial impropriety and mismanagement intensified. In 1623 the tobacco contract was dissolved, and in May the Privy Council launched an inquiry into Sandys’s administration. It soon discovered that conditions in Virginia were dreadful, and that the truth had been withheld from the London investors. In July the king demanded that the charter be revoked and ten months later the company was dissolved. Sandys did secure the tobacco monopoly for Virginia in the 1624 Parliament—a gift that was to be crucial to the colony’s future—but his own role in the effort was at an end.
His last years were a time of failing powers, but Sandys likely took consolation from a large family. He had lost three wives, and a number of children, but his fourth wife, who outlived him, gave birth twelve times, and more than half of her children survived to adulthood. Sandys himself died in October 1629, and was buried in the parish church near his home at Northbourne in Kent.
- A Relation of the State of Religion (1605)