Date of this Version
Documentary Editing, Volume 24, Number 2, June 2002.
ISSN 2476-1796 (electronic); ISSN 2167-1451 (print)
Sir William Berkeley (1605-1677), long-time governor of Virginia is known to history mainly for his part in Bacon's Rebellion, an episode that forever stained an otherwise noteworthy reputation. Of a West Country family, he took degrees at the University of Oxford before making a tour of the Continent and finding a place at the court of Charles I. He remained a courtier until lack of advancement led him to seek a fresh start somewhere else, and he used his connections to win appointment as governor of Virginia in 1641. Save for the eight years of the Interregnum (1652-1660), he was Virginia's leading politician and planter throughout the three decades he lived in the colony. Foremost among his landholdings was Green Spring plantation, the site of his private residence. Eventually he turned the house into the largest of early Anglo-American stately mansions, whereas he used the acreage to conduct numerous agricultural trials as he searched for marketable substitutes for tobacco. Twice married, his second wife was the redoubtable Frances Culpeper Stephens Berkeley (1635-1695?), who dominated his last years as governor. Disagreements between the aging Berkeley and Nathaniel Bacon, his cousin by marriage, over Indian policy ripened into Bacon's Rebellion in 1676, which ruined him politically. He returned to England in 1677 to defend himself and died in disgrace far from the place he called home. More Virginian than cavalier, his like as governor would not be seen in the Old Dominion ever again.
A gifted man, deeply inclined to the betterment of his adopted homeland, Berkeley devoted much of his life there to diversifying its economy. He successfully produced various exotic staples-silk, potash, wine, rice, flax, dye stuffs, citrus fruits-as substitutes for tobacco, and he pushed his fellow Virginians to emulate him. Likewise, he sought the backing of the crown, and at the behest of the General Assembly, he returned to England in 1661 to lobby for his schemes. While in London, he wrote A Discourse and View of Virginia, which is one of his few surviving printed works.