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Who was Sir William Berkeley?

Updated on December 2, 2016

Sir William Berkeley was an American colonial governor. He was born at Bruton, Somersetshire, England in 1606. His father and brother were both interested in colonial settlements. Graduating from Oxford in 1629, he traveled on the continent for a year, and returned to a career as courtier, playwright, and merchant capitalist. In 1632 he was given a commission empowering him to trade with Canada (then claimed by England), and he seems to have invested in voyages there.

He was knighted in 1639. In 1641, Berkeley was appointed governor of Virginia, where he arrived the following year. The governor soon made himself popular. He sought to advance the economic welfare of the colony by introducing the cultivation of a variety of new products, especially silk, which he hoped would displace the exclusive reliance of the colony on tobacco growing. After the Indian massacre of 1644, he led the settlers in an Indian war that ended in the capture of the chieftain Opechancano and subdued Indian power in Virginia for 30 years. In relations with England he sought greater freedom of trade for the colony.

After the execution of Charles I in 1649, Berkeley led the Virginians in defying Parliament but capitulated when a parliamentary commission, sent in 1652 to subdue the colony, offered favorable terms. In 1659, with the Restoration imminent, the Virginians asked Berkeley to resume the government. He did so provisionally. The next year Charles II recommissioned him as royal governor, and he remained in office until 1677.

Berkeley's second administration saw the development of the "Greenspring Faction", a group of favorites named after the governor's plantation near Jamestown. Berkeley's favors to this group in the way of land grants and political offices helped to develop hostility against him. Since tobacco prices were low in the 1660's and 1670's, most Virginians were suffering economic distress. This situation heightened their resentment against governmental officers and specifically against the members of the governor's council, who were exempt by law from taxation.

Grievances against the faction might have found a means of redress through the colony's representative assembly, the House of Burgesses. But Berkeley kept the same burgesses in office from 1661 to 1676 by failing to hold a new election. The burgesses became subservient to the faction and ceased to be truly representative.

When a new outbreak of Indian attacks occurred in 1676, Berkeley proposed to erect a series of forts. The people, disgusted with the taxes that these forts would require, undertook a quicker and cheaper method of dealing with the Indians. Under the leadership of a young newcomer, Nathaniel Bacon, a group of settlers undertook a punitive expedition without authorization of the government. Bacon, returning, demanded that the governor commission him to carry on further expeditions.

Berkeley's response was to declare Bacon a rebel. At the same time he issued writs for a new election of burgesses. When the election was held, Bacon won a seat from Henrico County and appeared at Jamestown in June 1676 with 600 of his followers. Berkeley pardoned him, and in the face of this show of force gave him the commission he asked for.

A month later, after Bacon had departed, Berkeley again denounced him as a rebel. But when the rebel turned his attention from the Indians to the governor, Berkeley was obliged to flee. Fortunately for Berkeley, Bacon died of a fever on October 26, 1676. In the ensuing months Berkeley gradually regained control. By the time an investigating commission arrived from England early in 1677, the rebellion was over.

Berkeley exacted a harsh revenge. In spite of a royal proclamation of amnesty and in spite of orders to return to England, he remained in Virginia until May 5, 1677 and secured the execution of a total of 23 rebel leaders. Within a few weeks of his arrival in England, Berkeley died at Twickenham, Middlesex, on June 9, 1677.

Although Berkeley's reputation has suffered from his vindictiveness in crushing Bacon's Rebellion, the investigating commission found no serious complaints against his conduct of the government before the rebellion began.

Berkeley was the author of a play, The Lost Lady (1638), and of A Discourse and View of Virginia (1663).


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