Born about 1605 to Sir Maurice Berkeley and Elizabeth Killigrew Berkeley, favorites of James I, Sir William Berkeley grew up in a family that had invested heavily in the Virginia Company. He studied at St. Edmund Hall and earned a master of arts degree from Merton College, Oxford. Berkeley won the attention of Charles I through his literary works, including several plays performed at court.
Horrified by his experiences in the early stages of the English Civil War, Berkeley parlayed his knighthood, which he was awarded for valor, as well as his personal wealth, into a royal appointment as governor of Virginia in August 1641. Berkeley quickly became enamored of Virginia. He was popular with the colony's elite planters, whom he emulated by establishing his own plantation, Green Spring, and promoting agricultural improvements, colonial self-sufficiency in products such as flax and rice, and trade with England.
Berkeley was applauded for sharing authority with the House of Burgesses and for using his contacts in London to supply weapons when the colony went to war with Native Americans under Opechancanough in the Third Anglo-Indian War (1644 1646). Despite this war, he was strongly in favor of a policy encouraging friendly relations with the neighboring Native American tribes, with whom he and other elite families had a substantial and lucrative trade in furs, and he arranged a generous peace treaty with the Powhatan Confederacy. In 1650, Berkeley married, but the name and family background of his first wife are unknown.
The Great Civil War in England spilled over into Virginia with the 1652 arrival of Cromwellian troops, who accepted Berkeley's surrender in exchange for Virginia retaining most of its self-government and a generally amicable relationship between royalists and supporters of Oliver Cromwell. Berkeley spent the years 1652 1661 in quiet retirement at Green Spring until recalled by the Stuart Restoration of Charles II in 1661. Unfortunately, Berkeley was out of step with both the Stuart continuation of commonwealth policies such the Navigation Acts and the influx of new settlers, many of them former supporters of Cromwell.
Tensions built as the old elite planters, suffering from a downturn in the tobacco market, were challenged by a new generation of settlers, who pushed the frontiers of Virginia and established themselves on lands claimed by Native American tribes with treaty and economic connections to Berkeley and his circle of friends. Under the influence of his second wife, Frances Culpeper (sister of the Virginia governor Thomas Culpeper), whom he married in 1670, Berkeley's governing style became more dictatorial, and he clashed repeatedly with the leader of the new settlers' faction, Nathaniel Bacon. After an attack by Doeg Indians, Bacon's followers waged a campaign against all neighboring tribes.
This campaign also was fueled by the settlers' jealousy of Berkeley's protection of the natives in the interest of his trade investments and by fierce competition for frontier land. When Bacon assembled a militia in the spring of 1676, Berkeley declared him outlawed. Berkeley eventually pardoned Bacon and sent him home, hoping to deescalate the situation, but Bacon returned from Henrico County with a band of more than 500 men and extorted a general's commission from the House of Burgesses.
Again outlawed, Bacon led a terror campaign against the peaceful Pamunkey tribe before coming back, capturing Jamestown, burning most of the capital to the ground, taking hostages, and outlawing Berkeley's supporters in the process. The reign of terror might have continued, but Bacon died a month later. Berkeley had retired to Green Spring on Virginia's Eastern Shore after sending to London for help.
It arrived in the form of regular English soldiers and naval support, months after the rebellion fizzled out with Bacon's death. Displeased by the incident and by Berkeley's hanging of twenty-three rebel leaders, Charles II ordered the commander of the military expedition, Colonel Herbert Jeffreys, to replace Berkeley. Berkeley returned to England to beg the king to reinstate him.
Shortly after landing in England and before reaching the king to plead his case, Berkeley died on June 9, 1677. He is the longest-serving governor in Virginia's history. Margaret Sankey See also: Bacon, Nathaniel; Bacon's Rebellion; Chesapeake; House of Burgesses; Virginia; Virginia (Chronology); Document: Governor William Berkeley on Bacon's Rebellion (1676).
Bibliography Middlekauff, Robert. Bacon's Rebellion. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1964.
Washburn, Wilcomb E.The Governor and the Rebel. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1957.
Webb, Steven Saunders. 1676: The End of American Independence. New York: Alfred A.
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