Edward Maria Wingfield (1550–1631)


Edward Maria Wingfield was a founding member of the Virginia Company of London and the first president of the Council of Virginia, a group of Jamestown settlers appointed by the company to make local decisions for the colony. Born into a political and military family, Wingfield followed his uncle Jaques Wingfield to Ireland and spent many years fighting there during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. He studied law briefly, fought the Spanish in the Low Countries, returned to Ireland, and served in Parliament before retiring from military service in 1600. From then on he focused on colonization, helping his cousin Bartholomew Gosnold recruit members for the proposed colony in Virginia. Unlike most of the original investors named in the First Charter, Wingfield actually traveled to Virginia and served as the colony’s first president. Wingfield was unable to keep the peace among the settlement’s leaders—he and Captain John Smith clashed repeatedly—and he was deposed as president and sent back to England. There he wrote his Discourse on Virginia, defending himself against attacks and providing a valuable description of the colony’s origins. He died in 1631, having remained active in the Virginia Company’s efforts.

Early Years

Wingfield was born in 1550 at Stoneley Priory, near Kimbolton, Cambridgeshire, England, the son of Thomas Maria Wingfield and his wife Margaret Kay. Thomas Wingfield, a member of Parliament who belonged to a well-established political and military family, died in 1557, and in 1562 Margaret Wingfield married James Creuse (also spelled Cruwys and Crewes), who became the adolescent Edward’s guardian. Wingfield was raised as a Protestant; the “Maria” in Edward’s and Thomas’s names honored their godmother, King Henry VIII’s sister Mary Tudor.

Sir Humphrey Gilbert

As he came to manhood, Wingfield was the protégé of his father’s brother Jaques Wingfield (d. 1587), who was heavily involved in the Elizabethan conquest of Ireland, serving as Master of Ordnance in Ireland, as Constable of Dublin Castle, and as a member of the Irish Privy Council. In 1569 Wingfield accompanied his uncle to Ireland in order to assist him in the plantation of the province of Munster. In this capacity, he likely encountered Sir Humphrey Gilbert and Sir John Popham, who would later become major figures in the early English attempts at colonization in North America.

Wingfield appears to have remained in Ireland until 1576, when he went to London and was admitted to the legal training program at Lincoln’s Inn. He left the Inn, however, before completing his studies there, and, in company with his brother Thomas Wingfield, served as a captain of foot in the Low Countries, fighting in support of the Protestant Dutch Republic against Spanish Catholic forces. In 1588 he, along with Sir Ferdinando Gorges, a future settler of New England, was taken prisoner by the Spanish at Bergen-op-Zoom, and was held first at Ghent and then at Lille until he and Gorges gained their release through a prisoner-of-war exchange in June 1589.

Anglorum in Virginiam aduentus (The arrival of the Englishemen [sic] in Virginia)

Wingfield briefly returned to England in 1593, when his friend and neighbor Anthony Mildmay secured him a seat in Parliament, representing Chippenham, Wiltshire, but he played little role in the House of Commons. In the 1590s Wingfield also returned to military service in Ireland, although scholars disagree about which years he was there. He spent several years in the English garrison at Drogheda, where the muster-master was Sir Ralph Lane, who a few years earlier had played an important role in the Roanoke colonies sponsored by Sir Walter Raleigh. He also served at the garrison at Dundalk. In 1600 he took up an appointment as a feoffee, or governor, of Kimbolton School, near Stoneley Priory.

The Virginia Company of London

Otley Hall

By this time, Wingfield was well into middle age, but healthy and energetic. As a man with many years of military experience, accustomed to life outside England, he was an attractive recruit when his second cousin Bartholomew Gosnold sought investment in the newly organized Virginia Company of London. Wingfield, then retired from active military service, threw himself wholeheartedly into raising funds for an expedition to North America, and, because of his extensive network of wealthy friends and family members, achieved considerable success. In partnership with Gosnold, he recruited about forty of the men and boys who would make up the voyage’s personnel, drawing them largely from the ranks of younger sons of the gentry. On April 10, 1606, Wingfield, along with Richard Hakluyt (the younger), Sir Thomas Gates, and Sir George Somers, became a patentee of the Virginia Company of London. Of these men, Wingfield was the only one to immediately make the voyage to Virginia himself, making him both an “adventurer” who raised funds and a “venturer” who went to sea. On December 20, 1606, Wingfield joined the convoy of three small ships, the Susan Constant, the Discovery, and the Godspeed, under the overall command of Captain Christopher Newport, and set sail from London’s Blackwall Dock.

Gaining and Losing Power

Aerial View of Jamestown

Although Newport was in command of the voyage, the Virginia Company had decreed in an order dated November 20, 1606, that once the ships reached Virginia Newport was to open a small box, which contained a list of settlers to be members of the settlement’s governing council. This was accomplished on April 26, 1607, following landfall, and Wingfield, Newport, Gosnold, John Smith, John Martin, John Ratcliffe, and George Kendall were all appointed to the Council. The Virginia Company had further stipulated that the councillors forebear selecting a president until they had decided on a site of settlement. On May 12, Wingfield designated a site approximately fifty miles upriver as the locus of settlement, and named it Jamestown in honor of King James I. The following day, the councillors elected Wingfield as their president, in what has been referred to as the first democratic election held in British America. Although Wingfield had clashed with Smith in the course of the voyage, and at the age of fifty-seven was significantly older than his fellow councillors, he was in many ways the obvious choice for this position, because of his important role in the establishment of the Virginia Company and his extensive experience not only in military matters, but also in plantation ventures in Ireland.

The Portraictuer of Captayne John Smith

Although Wingfield had initially been a popular, even an obvious, choice for the leadership of the settlement, he soon aroused controversy among his fellow settlers. He and Smith (who had been denied his seat on the Council, largely because of Newport’s and Wingfield’s mistrust of him) continued to clash, both in terms of personality and on issues of military strategy against the Virginia Indians of Tsenacomoco. Wingfield’s fellow colonizers were impressed when his leadership was instrumental in repelling a fierce Indian attack against the newly erected Jamestown Fort on May 26, but as the summer went on the settlers, many of whom were unaccustomed to hard labor, became increasingly unhappy with the diminishing food supplies, ongoing Indian attacks, oppressively hot weather, and Wingfield’s harsh disciplinary regimen.

On September 10, the surviving settlers deposed Wingfield from the presidency of the Council, charging him with a number of offenses, including hoarding food, having secret sympathies with Spain’s imperial ambitions in North America, and being an atheist. The former president was imprisoned in the Discovery, where he remained until January 1608, when Newport returned to Jamestown from a voyage to England. Newport ordered that Wingfield then be moved inside the fort, in company with Smith, who had been sentenced to hang after losing two settlers to the Indians. Newport released both men, but he did not move to reinstate Wingfield as president, as the charge of atheism was sufficiently serious that it was necessary that Wingfield return to England to face trial. On April 10, 1608, Wingfield returned to England with Newport, and never returned to the Virginia colony.

Later Years

A Discourse of Virginia.

After his return to England, Wingfield wrote a long response to the various charges against him and, in particular, convinced the Crown that the charge of atheism was a groundless one concocted by disaffected Jamestown settlers; he was set free. Despite the traumatic nature of his departure from Virginia, Wingfield spent much of the rest of his life involved in the colony’s affairs, including raising funds and sending supplies for the Jamestown venture. He died at Kimbolton in 1631, and on April 13 was buried there at Saint Andrew’s parish church. In the nineteenth century scholars rediscovered his manuscript detailing his experiences in Virginia, which was first published in 1859 as A Discourse of Virginia.

For many years, Wingfield was viewed quite unfavorably in terms of his conduct as Jamestown, not only because of his removal from the presidency, but also because John Smith described him in such negative terms in his extensive and widely circulated commentaries on the early years of the Virginia colony. In retrospect, Wingfield was probably too old to provide effective leadership to a group of boys and men who were mostly in their teens and twenties, and while his severity as a disciplinarian may have been effective among soldiers, it aroused significant hostility among the settlers.

Many of the problems that Jamestown endured in its first months, however, such as Indian hostility, exceptionally hot and dry weather, and a scarcity of food, were neither Wingfield’s fault nor within his control. Moreover, his choice of an easily defensible site for the first settlement and his knowledge of effective processes of fort-building contributed to the colony’s ability to survive its difficult early years. Wingfield’s Discourse of Virginia, although insistent in its justifications of his actions, provides a crucial eyewitness account of the first year of the Jamestown settlement, supplementing John Smith’s better-known narrative.

Edward Maria Wingfield is born at Stoneley Priory, near Kimbolton, Cambridgeshire, England, to Thomas Maria Wingfield and his wife Margaret Kay.
Thomas Maria Wingfield, father of Edward Maria Wingfield, dies.
March 1562
Wardship of Edward Maria Wingfield is granted to James Cruse (or Cruwys, or Crewes), second husband of Margaret Wingfield.
Edward Maria Wingfield accompanies his uncle Jaques Wingfield to Ireland.
Edward Maria Wingfield returns to England from Ireland and briefly studies law at Lincoln's Inn, London. He leaves before completing his studies.
September 22, 1586
Edward Maria Wingfield fights in the Low Countries against the Spanish at the Battle of Zutphen.
Edward Maria Wingfield is taken as a Spanish prisoner of war at Bergen-op-Zoom, and transported first to Ghent and then to Lille.
June 1589
Edward Maria Wingfield is released by the Spanish as part of a prisoner-of-war exchange.
Edward Maria Wingfield serves in the English garrisons at Drogheda and Dundalk, Ireland.
Edward Maria Wingfield is elected a member of Parliament for Chippenham, Wiltshire.
Edward Maria Wingfield becomes a governor of Kimbolton School, near Stoneley Priory.
Edward Maria Wingfield and his cousin Bartholomew Gosnold recruit approximately forty boys and men as participants in the planned expedition to Virginia.
April 10, 1606
King James I grants the Virginia Company a royal charter dividing the North American coast between two companies, the Virginia Company of London and the Virginia Company of Plymouth, overseen by the "Counsell of Virginia," whose thirteen members are appointed by the king.
December 20, 1606
Three ships carrying 104 settlers sail from London bound for Virginia. Christopher Newport captains the Susan Constant, Bartholomew Gosnold the Godspeed, and John Ratcliffe the Discovery.
April 26, 1607
Jamestown colonists first drop anchor in the Chesapeake Bay, and after a brief skirmish with local Indians, begin to explore the James River.
May 13, 1607
The Jamestown colonists select a marshy peninsula fifty miles up the James River on which to establish their settlement.
May 26, 1607
While Christopher Newport and a party of colonists explore the James River, an alliance of five Algonquian-speaking Indian groups—the Quiyoughcohannocks, the Weyanocks, the Appamattucks, the Paspaheghs, and the Chiskiacks—attacks Jamestown, wounding ten and killing two.
September 10, 1607
Council members John Ratcliffe, John Smith, and John Martin oust Edward Maria Wingfield as president, replacing him with Ratcliffe. By the end of the month, half of Jamestown's 104 men and boys are dead, mostly from sickness.
April 10, 1608
Aboard the John and Francis, Christopher Newport leaves Jamestown for England. Among those with him are Gabriel Archer, Edward Maria Wingfield, and the Indian Namontack.
April 13, 1631
Edward Maria Wingfield is buried at Saint Andrew's parish church in Cambridgeshire, England.
Edward Maria Wingfield's narrative of his experiences in Virginia is published as A Discourse of Virginia.
  • Billings, Warren M, et al. Colonial Virginia: A History. White Plains, New York: KTO Press, 1986.
  • Bridenbaugh, Carl. Jamestown, 1544–1699. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.
  • Haile, Edward Wright: Jamestown Narratives: Eyewitness Accounts of the Virginia Colony. Champlain, Virginia: RoundHouse, 1998.
  • Hume, Ivor Noel. The Virginia Adventure. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.
  • Wingfield, Edward Maria. A Discourse of Virginia. Edited by Charles Deane. Boston [Worcester, Massachusetts]: American Antiquarian Society, 1860.
  • Wingfield, Jocelyn R. Virginia’s True Founder: Edward Maria Wingfield and His Times, 1550–c. 1614. Athens, Georgia: Wingfield Family Society, 1993.
APA Citation:
Zacek, Natalie. Edward Maria Wingfield (1550–1631). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/wingfield-edward-maria-1550-1631.
MLA Citation:
Zacek, Natalie. "Edward Maria Wingfield (1550–1631)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 17 May. 2024
Last updated: 2024, May 03
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