Sir William Berkeley


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Berkeley, SIR WILLIAM, colonial governor ; born near London about 1610; was brother of Lord John Berkeley, one of the early English proprietors of New Jersey. Appointed governor of Virginia, he arrived there in February, 1642. Berkeley was a fine specimen of a young English courtier. He was then thirty-two years of age, well educated at Oxford, handsome in person, polished by foreign travel, and possessing exquisite taste in dress. He was one of the most accomplished cavaliers of the day. He adopted some salutary measures in Virginia which made him popular; and at his mansion at Green Spring, not far from Jamestown, he dispensed generous hospitality for many years. Berkeley was a stanch but not a bigoted royalist at first; and during the civil war in England he managed public affairs in Virginia with so much prudence that a greater proportion of the colonists were in sympathy with him.

Persecution of the Puritans

In religious matters there was soon perceived the spirit of persecution in the character of the governor. The Puritans were then not only tolerated in Virginia, but had been invited to settle there. The civil war drew a line of clear demarcation between churchmen and nonconformists. A large majority of the people of Virginia were attached to the Church of England; so was the governor. In England the Puritans were identified with the republicans, and Berkeley thought it to be his duty to suppress them in his colony as enemies to royalty. So he first decreed that no Puritan minister should preach except in conformity to the rules of the Church of England; and, finally, all nonconformists were banished from Virginia. In the war with the Indians in 1644, in which OPECHANCANOUGH led the natives, the governor behaved with promptness and efficiency, and soon crushed the invaders. Then the colonists had peace and prosperity for some years. In 1648 they numbered 20,000. " The cottages were filled with children, as the ports with ships and emigrants." The people were loyal to the King; and when the latter lost his head, and royalty was abolished in England, they opened wide their arms to receive the cavaliers (many of them of the gentry, nobility, and clergy of the realm) who fled in horror from the wrath of republicans. They brought refinement in manners and intellectual culture to Virginia, and strengthened the loyalty of the colonists. When the King was slain they recognized his exiled son as their sovereign, and Berkeley proclaimed him King of Virginia. Sir William administered the government under a commission sent by Charles from his place of exile (Breda, in Flanders).

Berkeley Remains Loyal to the Stuarts

Virginia was the last territory belonging to England that submitted to the government of the republicans on the downfall of monarchy. This persistent attachment to the Stuarts offended the republican Parliament, and they sent Sir George Ayscue with a strong fleet, early in the spring of 1652, to reduce the Virginians to submission. The fleet bore commissioners authorized to use harsh or conciliatory measures to make a compromise, or to declare the freedom of the slaves of the royalists, put arms in their hands, and make war. The commissioners were met with firmness by Berkeley. Astonished by the boldness of the governor and his adherents, they deemed it more prudent to compromise than to attempt coercion. The result was, the political freedom of the colonists was guaranteed. Berkeley regarding those whom the commissioners represented as usurpers, he would make no stipulations with them for himself, and he withdrew from the governorship and lived in retirement on his plantation at Green Spring until the restoration of monarchy in England in 1660, when the loyalty of the Virginians was not forgotten by the new monarch.

Bacon's Rebellion

The people elected Richard Bennett governor; and he was succeeded by two others -Edward Diggs (1655) and Samuel Matthews (1656), the latter appointed by Oliver Cromwell. At his death (1660) the people elected Berkeley, but he refused to serve excepting under a royal commission, and he went to England to congratulate Charles on his restoration to the throne. Charles gave Berkeley a commission, and he returned to Virginia to execute his master's will with vigor. He enforced various oppressive laws, for he was less tolerant than when he was younger and politically weaker, and, with the cavaliers around him, he hated everything that marked the character of the Puritans. These cavaliers despised the "common people" of New England, and opposed the ideas of popular education. Berkeley wrote to his government in 1665, " I thank God there are no free schools nor printing in Virginia, and I hope we shall not have them these hundred years; for learning has brought heresy and disobedience and sects into the world, and printing hath divulged them, and libels against the best government; God keep us from both!" Oppression of the people finally produced civil war in 1676, the events of which soured Berkeley, who had then grown old (see BACON, NATHANIEL); and after it was over, and he was firmly seated in power, he treated the principal abettors of the insurrection with harshness and cruelty. His King had proclaimed Bacon (the leader of the insurrection) a traitor, and sent an armament under Sir John Berry to assist in crushing the rebellion. This was the first time royal troops were sent to America to suppress the aspirations of the people for freedom. Feeling strong, Berkeley pursued the adherents of Bacon with malignant severity until twenty-two of them were hanged. The first martyr was Thomas Hanford, a gallant young native of Virginia. Standing before the governor, he boldly avowed his republicanism; and when sentenced to be hanged, he said, " I ask no favor but that I may be shot like a soldier, and not hanged like a dog." At the gallows he said, "Take notice that I die a loyal subject and a lover of my country." Edmund Cheeseman, when arraigned before the governor, was asked why he engaged in the wicked rebellion, and before he could answer his young wife stepped forward and said, " My provocations made my husband join in the cause for which Bacon contended; but for me, he had never done what he has done. Since what is done," she said, as she knelt before the governor, with her bowed head covered with her hands, " was done by my means, I am most guilty; let me bear the punishment; let me be hanged; let my husband be pardoned." The governor cried out, angrily, " Away with you!" The poor young wife swooned, and her husband was led to the gallows. When the brave Drummond was brought before the governor, Berkeley, with wicked satire, made a low bow and said, " You are very welcome; I am more glad to see you than any man in Virginia; you shall be hanged in half an hour." Drummond replied, with dignity, " I expect no mercy from you. I have followed the lead of my conscience, and done what I might to free my country from oppression." He was condemned at one o'clock and hanged at four ; and his brave wife, Sarah, was denounced as a " traitor " and banished, with her children, to the wilderness, there to subsist on the bounty of friends. When these things were brought to the notice of the profligate monarch, even he was disgusted with Berkeley's cruelties, and said, " The old fool has taken more lives in that naked country than I have taken for the murder of my father ;" and Berkeley was ordered to desist. But he continued to fine and imprison the followers of Bacon until he was recalled in the spring of 1677, and went to England with the returning fleet of Sir John Berry. The colonists fired great guns and lighted bonfires in token of their joy at his departure. In England his cruelties were severely censured, and he died (July 13, 1677) of grief and mortified pride.



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