William Berkeley was born in Bruton, Somersetshire, England, to a celebrated family. He graduated from Oxford in 1629 and had some artistic success as a playwright; his play The Lost Lady was performed in 1638.
Berkeley went to the Virginia colony as its new royal governor in 1642. He introduced the cultivation of silk, cotton, and rice in an attempt to diversify the colony’s economy. In 1644, Berkeley faced an Indian rebellion led by Chief Opecancanough (see no. 12). Berkeley led a small troop of cavalry in the campaign that defeated Opechancanough, and he gained considerable popularity in Virginia as a result of his military efforts.
In 1649, King Charles I was beheaded on the order of the English Parliament. Berkeley declared his undying loyalty to the Stuart dynasty, the royal family to which Charles I belonged, and defied the new Commonwealth government. It took a naval force from England to make Berkeley submit in 1652. He lost his position as governor but regained it in 1660, when Charles Stuart ascended the throne as King Charles II.
Berkeley’s long second term as governor (1660-1677) was less successful than his first. In 1675, Berkeley lost the approval of many colonists when he refused to authorize a campaign against Native American tribes that menaced the western frontier.
Nathaniel Bacon (see no. 56) mobilized a militia force and attacked the Indians without Berkeley’s permission. The governor denounced Bacon as a rebel. Thus began “Bacon’s Rebellion,” one of the most serious civil disturbances in American colonial history.
To Berkeley’s surprise, Bacon won a seat in the new elections for the House of Burgesses. Bacon went to Jamestown with 600 followers, demanding a proper commission to fight the Indians. To Berkeley’s dismay, he was forced to grant Bacon the commission and named him “commander-in-chief” of the militia.
However, as soon as Bacon departed for the frontier to do battle with the Indians, Berkeley denounced him once again as a rebel and mobilized forces to oppose him.When Bacon approached with another army, Berkeley fled Jamestown and sailed across Chesapeake Bay for the Eastern Shore.
The rebels took over the government and burned Jamestown to the ground. Berkeley and his small group of loyalists began to carry out raids against the rebels on the mainland when Bacon suddenly died of influenza. After his death, support for the rebellion soon faded.
Berkeley pursued the former rebels with vengeance. Twenty-three rebels were hanged or shot. Recalled to England to defend his actions, Berkeley died soon after his arrival in the mother country, and the issue never came to a hearing.