On January 30, 1649, Parliament, victorious in the English Civil Wars, executed King Charles I for high treason, and later established a Commonwealth government to replace the monarchy. Once this news crossed the Atlantic, four English colonies—Virginia, Barbados, Bermuda, and Antigua—responded by declaring their allegiance to the Stuarts, proclaiming Charles II king and denying the authority of the newly established government. (Maryland’s acting governor, Thomas Greene, also proclaimed Charles II, but his declaration was not considered the colony’s official position.) Virginia and Barbados, the oldest English colonies in the Atlantic, were the only two to offer sustained opposition to the new regime.
In October 1649, during the first legislative session since Charles I’s death, theenacted laws punishing those who publicly supported the regicide or refused to acknowledge Charles II as king. Virginia’s motivations for opposing the Commonwealth were manifold: first, longtime governor Sir William Berkeley was an aggressive supporter of Charles I. Berkeley’s loyalty ran so deep that he had continued to enforce the king’s views on religious conformity even as Charles I awaited trial (and even when Berkeley’s policies contradicted those dictated by Parliament). Another factor was free trade: Virginia planters enjoyed a robust commercial relationship with the Dutch, and considered free trade to be critical to their economic survival; under the Commonwealth government, the colony would be allowed to trade only with ships from England and its colonies. Finally, the Virginia elite, influenced by Berkeley, feared that Parliament would challenge existing land grants. In essence, Virginia’s declaration of loyalty to Charles II was also an attempt to preserve the prosperity and security that the colony had enjoyed under his father’s rule.
The Commonwealth government retaliated in August 1650 by placing an embargo on trade with the rebelling colonies and calling in their royal charters. In the autumn of 1651, the Commonwealth responded with force, sending one fleet of thirteen ships to Barbados under Sir George Ayscue and another fleet of fifteen ships to Virginia under Captain Robert Denis. Ayscue sailed first, and the Virginia fleet—or the four ships that survived shipwreck on the stormy voyage—did not arrive until December and early January, about the time that the Barbadians were relinquishing the king’s cause.
The commissioners dispatched to negotiate the colony’s surrender sent a summons to Berkeley and his council on January 19; according to the commissioners’ report, Virginia authorities disbanded 1,000 to 1,200 soldiers in arms in James City before they convened to consider a treaty. The internal dynamics of Virginia’s decision to surrender are unknown, as records are sparse and much of the information that survives was written with a polemical purpose. Certainly Berkeley, his council, and the House of Burgesses considered Charles II’s recent defeat at Worcester, which eliminated any hope of his conquering England, and Barbados’s recent surrender, which left Virginia as the sole royalist holdout.
The surrender was agreed upon March 12, 1652. The Virginians negotiated excellent terms: indemnity (forgiveness for any past action) and recognition of all existing land grants and boundaries; free trade (in direct violation of Parliament’s new policy, the Navigation Act of 1651); and permission to keep in use the otherwise outlawed Book of Common Prayer for one year.
The commissioners also granted Berkeley or his agent permission to travel to the court of the exile Charles II—to be referred to now as Charles Stuart—to explain the capitulation. The commissioners were flexible on the terms of the surrender. The fact that no blood had been shed in the conflict likely played a part in their leniency, but so too did the commissioners’ overriding goal: to integrate Virginia into the new Commonwealth government.
Two of the three commissioners—and —were from Virginia, where they remained to oversee the colony’s transition. Berkeley was asked to step down as governor and leave the colony, but his exile was never enforced and he retired to his Green Spring estate nearby. The General Assembly chose Bennett as Berkeley’s replacement, and later elected Claiborne senior member of the governor’s Council and secretary of the colony. Berkeley would return to the office in March 1660, just two months before England restored Charles II to the throne.