Sir William Berkeley

views updated May 17 2018

Sir William Berkeley

Sir William Berkeley (1606-1677), English royal governor of the colony of Virginia, was a leading protagonist in Bacon's Rebellion. He made substantial contributions to the colony but was almost fanatically loyal to England.

William Berkeley was the son of Maurice Berkeley of Bruton, Somerset, and brother of Lord John Berkeley, a proprietor of Carolina. William was educated at Oxford, where he received a bachelor of arts degree in 1624 and a master of arts in 1629. Because of his family's influence at court, Berkeley won a place in the Privy Chamber and became a leading courtier. He exhibited literary skill; one of his plays, The Lost Lady, was published in 1639 and was later produced on the London stage. Berkeley was knighted by Charles I in July 1639.

Colonial Service

Berkeley's first chance for service in America came in 1632, when he was made one of England's commissioners for Canada. In 1641 Charles I appointed Berkeley governor of Virginia. The problems facing him in Virginia were formidable. He mollified disgruntled planters by granting them an important role in the government and rectifying abuses of previous administrations. Berkeley's vigorous prosecution of the Native American wars was crucial in winning the Virginians' confidence. He pressed the campaign on the frontiers, personally taking the field to command, and captured the aged Native American chief Opechancanough, thereby gaining a period of relative peace. His resolute action unified the colonists behind his leadership.

The unity which Berkeley engendered was exemplified during the Puritan Revolution in England. The governor's prestige ensured that Virginia would remain loyal to the Stuart cause. After Charles I was beheaded in 1649, Berkeley denounced Cromwell and proclaimed Charles II king of England. Eventually, in 1652, when Virginia was forced to submit to Cromwell's authority, Berkeley resigned his office and retired to his plantation at Green Spring, Va. Just prior to the Restoration (1660), the Virginia Assembly chose Berkeley to serve as governor until Charles II's wishes were known—a token of the high regard in which Berkeley was held.

The Restoration

Upon Charles II's assumption of the throne in 1660, Berkeley was reappointed governor. Visiting England in 1661, he demonstrated the dual loyalty to the Stuarts and Virginia that characterized his career. He had returned to England both to pay homage to the new ruler and to support Virginia's complaints against new mercantile legislation. Evidence of Charles II's satisfaction with Berkeley was the designation of Virginia as the King's "Old Dominion." Moreover, Berkeley was included among the eight proprietors of Carolina. But Berkeley was less successful in his work for the colony of Virginia. He could do nothing to relax the mercantile requirement that Virginia's tobacco be shipped to England. In a pamphlet (1662) he noted that thousands of Virginians were thereby "impoverished to enrich little more than forty [English] merchants." He returned to the colony with little to show for his efforts.

Bacon's Rebellion

The uprising known as Bacon's Rebellion (1675-1676) reflected Berkeley's failure during his last years as governor. Within a short period, the governor, who had been called "the Darling of the People," became a party to the struggle that has marred his reputation ever since.

There were several causes of Bacon's Rebellion: economic depression (resulting in part from English mercantile legislation), fears regarding the territorial integrity of Virginia, heavy taxation, inequities in the tax burden, and lingering complaints about local government. These afforded the fuel for rebellion; what provided the spark was renewed conflict with the bordering Native Americans. Because Berkeley reacted slowly to the Native American danger, vigilante forces were organized to protect the frontiers. Some colonists charged that Berkeley's lack of action was a result of his personal involvement in the Native American trade. Berkeley misjudged the situation. Nearing 70 years old in 1675, stubborn and irascible, he felt action by frontiersmen would make the situation worse. After a young planter, Nathaniel Bacon, demanded a commission to fight the Native Americans and then went into battle without the governor's consent, Berkeley proclaimed Bacon a rebel and removed him from the council. A state of civil war resulted, with Bacon holding the stronger hand.

Berkeley's Ignominy

The fury of Bacon's Rebellion was directed primarily against the Native Americans. The confrontation with Berkeley had always been uncertain, because he still retained the post of governor. After Bacon died in October 1676, the rebellion began to wane. Berkeley unwisely took vengeance by executing 23 rebel leaders and confiscating their property. He continued the executions over the objections of the King's commissioners, who were sent to replace Berkeley and report on conditions in Virginia. Instead of peace, a strained situation resulted, with Berkeley defying the King's commissioners. Finally, his health broken, Berkeley sailed unhappily for England. "The King is not a little surprised to find a person, who has been so loyal, fall into such errors," Berkeley was informed. He soon died, never having an opportunity to defend himself before the King he revered.

Further Reading

A biographical account of Berkeley may be found in Philip Alexander Bruce, The Virginia Plutarch (2 vols., 1929). Two conflicting estimates of Berkeley's career and role in Bacon's Rebellion are offered in Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker, Torchbearer of the Revolution: The Story of Bacon's Rebellion and Its Leader (1940), and in Wilcomb E. Washburn, The Governor and the Rebel: A History of Bacon's Rebellion in Virginia (1957). An excellent summary of the evidence is in Wesley Frank Craven, The Colonies in Transition: 1660-1713 (1967). Readers interested in the first years of the Southern colonies can rely on Craven's The Southern Colonies in the Seventeenth Century: 1607-1689 (1949). Authoritative also is Richard L. Morton, Colonial Virginia (2 vols., 1960). □