Sir William Berkeley, Colonial Governor of Virginia

Is your surname Berkeley?

Research the Berkeley family

Sir William Berkeley, Colonial Governor of Virginia's Geni Profile

Share your family tree and photos with the people you know and love

  • Build your family tree online
  • Share photos and videos
  • Smart Matching™ technology
  • Free!


William Berkeley, Kt.

Birthplace: Hanworth Manor, Middlesex, England
Death: Died in City of London, Middlesex, England
Place of Burial: Richmond Borough, Greater London, England, United Kingdom
Immediate Family:

Son of Sir Maurice Berkeley, Kt., MP and Elizabeth Berkeley
Husband of First Wife of William Berkeley and Frances Berkeley
Brother of Charles Berkeley, 2nd Viscount Fitzhardinge; John Berkeley, 1st Baron Berkeley of Stratton; Maurice Berkeley; Henry Berkeley; Margaret Berkeley and 1 other

Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About Sir William Berkeley, Colonial Governor of Virginia

Sir William Berkeley (pronounced "bark-lee") (Hanworth Manor, Middlesex 1605–Berkeley House, Mayfair, London 9 July 1677) was a governor of Virginia, appointed by King Charles I, of whom he was a favourite.

He was governor from 1641-1652 and 1660-1677. As proprietor of Green Spring Plantation in James City County, he experimented with activities such as growing silkworms as part of his efforts to expand the tobacco-based economy of the colony of Virginia.

Berkeley enacted friendly policies toward the Native Americans that led to the revolt by some of the planters in 1676 which became known as Bacon's Rebellion. In the aftermath, King Charles II was angered by the retribution exacted against the rebels by Governor Berkeley and recalled him to England.

Soldiering in the First and Second Bishops' Wars (1639-1640) gained Berkeley a knighthood.

Early life and schooling

The Berkeley lineage was thought to descend from Norse corsairs that scourged the British Isles during the Viking Age.

Berkeley was born in 1605 to Sir Maurice and Elizabeth Killigrew Berkeley, both of whom held stock in the Virginia Company of London. Referred to as “Will” by his family and friends, was born in the winter of 1605 into landed gentry. His father died when he was twelve and, though indebted, left Berkeley land in Somerset.

Young Berkeley showed signs of a quick wit and broad learning. His informal education consisted of observing his elders; from them he learned “the mores that governed the larger English society and his privileged place in it.” Also, as part of the English country gentry, he was aware of agricultural practices, knowledge which would influence his actions as governor of Virginia.

Though his father died in debt, Berkeley secured a proper education. He entered grammar school at about six or seven years old where he became literate in Latin and English. At eighteen, like the other Berkeley men, he entered Oxford. He began his studies at Queen’s College in the footsteps of his forebears, but quickly transferred to St. Edmund Hall, a “throwback to medieval times”. He received, though not necessarily completed, a B.A. in fifteen months of his arrival at the Hall.

All undergraduates at St. Edmund Hall received a personal tutor. While the identity of Berkeley’s tutor is unsure, his effect upon the boy showed through William’s “disciplined intellect and steady appetite for knowledge”.


In 1632, he gained a place in the household of Charles I. That position gave him entré into a court literary circle know as "The Wits" .

Berkeley wrote several plays, one of which—The Lost Lady: A Tragy Comedy—was performed for Charles I and Henrietta Maria and was published in 1638. It is also included in the first and fourth editions of Dodsley's "Old Plays," and "A Description of Virginia" (1663).

The Lost Lady

Taking place at an unknown point in Ancient Greece, the plot is introduced via a dialogue between the courier Agenor and Phygitian, a servant of Prince Lysicles. We learn that the Prince has been in a state of anguish ever since the death of his mistress Milesia, so miserable in fact, that “his whole frame is of such making, as if despair had been the architect.” Phygitian then recounts the story of a war between Thessaly and Sparta. After Lysicles’s father leads Thessaly to a victory over the Duke of Argos and his Spartan forces, the Duke sets in motion an elaborate revenge plot, “the obscurest path that ever time revealed”. Libelled, disgraced, and hunted by both friend and foe alike, the Duke seeks refuge in the royal court of Lysicles. Using his cunning and eloquence, he gains the trust of Prince Lysicles to the point where he gains access to valuable military secrets, at which point he quickly flees and shares his information with the Spartan king. However, before he leaves he discovers that his niece and travelling companion Milesia has begun an affair with Prince Lysicles, his sworn enemy. In a fit of rage, he kills her and takes her head to Sparta as a trophy. Now Lysicles is a hollow shell of a man, resolving to live only after a botched suicide attempt, and even then only allowing his thirst for revenge to give himself life.

“What furies governe man?” asks Agenor in the play's opening scene. Indeed, in its darker moments, Berkeley chooses to have his characters display some of the worst states of human misery. Suicide and murder are recurring throughout, and more than one character is inflicted with seemingly incurable melancholy and depression. And yet, the play is able to blend the serious drama of Lysicles’s revenge plot with the light-hearted courtship comedy that centers around the character of Hermione and her hyperbolic suitor Ergasto. Pursued by Prince Lysicles and still wishing to be reunited with her banished love Eugenio, she is forced to tread lightly while still trying to appease her strict, opportunistic and abusive father, who “loves no virtue but what shines through wealth”. Though Lysicles’s vengeance nearly does him in, the play ends in typical comedic fashion: Lysicles is reunited with his lost lover, Eugenio returns from banishment, and even the comedic Ergasto falls in love with the shrew-like Irene, giving a happy ending to a rather dark comedy.

Key Themes

Fate and the Dangers of Self-Pity

Taking several cues from classical Greek drama, the characters of “The Lost Lady” frequently resort to the language of fate and destiny to describe their feelings of helplessness as events beyond their power continue to unfold around them. However, there are numerous warnings about lapsing into a state of hopeless self-pity, provided chiefly by the characters of Hermione and Prince Lysicles. Both feel so overwhelmed by the situations that they lapse into themselves, constantly lamenting their own fate rather than attempting to figure a way out of their respective dilemmas. Lysicles hinges his entire hopes for future happiness upon his thoughts and revenge and longing for Hermione, while Hermione is so paralyzed by misery she must be forced by Milesia, disguised as Acanthe the Moor, to put a plan into action. Ironically, the words of wisdom are placed in the mouth of the Moor, typically the villainous and demonized character of medieval theatre, as Acanthe the fortune-teller states “All I know is but conjectured, for our stars encline, not force us in our actions”.


“Revenge doth master all our passions, that are not servants to her rage” says the servant of Prince Lsycicles. Using the common revenge-plot to set the narrative for Prince Lysicles, his thirst for vengeance is very nearly his downfall. However, the typical revenge scheme, in which the avenger loses himself and his values in his relentless pursuit, is somewhat turned upon his head. Instead, Lysicles nearly ends up killing Milesia who has disguised herself as Acanthe the Moor, almost destroying a chance to be reunited with his lost love, a chance he did not even know he had.


As members of the cast struggle to cope with their dark emotions, the thought of suicide crosses their mind numerous times. Prince Lysicles himself attempted to end himself after hearing of the death of Milesia and continues to ponder trying again once his revenge is fulfilled, while even Hermione entertains the thought when she learns she must be wed to Ergasto. Once Lysicles realizes his error in nearly killing Milesia in his attempt to avenge her, he asks, “If life be given as a blessing to us, what law compels us to preserve it longer, than we can face a possibility of being happy in it”. As king who else would be injured if he decided to end his own life, his old friend Eugenio provides the answer as he returns from banishment. When Lysicles asks Eugenio to take his life, Eugenio requests that Lysicles end his life in return. Lysicles is shocked by the notion of losing a close friend, and is brought face-to-face with his own hypocrisy.


Berkeley replaced Sir Francis Wyatt as Governor of Virginia in 1641.

Contributions as a planter

Berkeley’s main initiative when he first became governor was to encourage diversification of Virginia’s agricultural products. He accomplished this through passing laws and by setting himself up as an example for planters.

Arriving at Jamestown in 1642, Berkeley erected Green Spring House on a tract of land west of the capital, where he experimented with alternatives to tobacco. It was at Green Spring that he planted such diverse crops as “corn, wheat, barley, rye, rape, tobacco, oranges, lemons, grapes, sugar and silk. Berkeley devoted much of his time as a planter to experimenting with alternatives to tobacco; although he always produced the crop, he “despised” it.

Berkeley produced flax, fruits, potash, rice, silk, and spirits which he exported through a commercial network that joined Green Spring to markets in North America, the West Indies, Great Britain, and Holland.

As a planter, with Virginia in mind, Berkeley constantly attempted to determine the best crops for the state through trial and error.

Political thought

For Berkeley, the path towards Virginia’s prosperity was fourfold: a diverse economy; free trade; a close-knit colonial society; and autonomy from London. He proceeded to turn this thought into action in various ways. In order to support a diversified economy and free trade, for instance, he used his own plantation as an example. Virginia’s autonomy from London was supported in the General Assembly’s role in the colony’s governance. The Assembly was, in effect, a “miniature Parliament.” The colony’s autonomy from London was also advocated by Berkeley in his efforts against the revival of the Virginia Company of London.

Berkeley was “bitterly hostile” to Virginia’s Puritans and Quakers. In an attempt to oppress them, Berkeley helped enact a law to “preserve the Established Church’s [The Church of England] Unity and purity of doctrine.” It punished any minister who preached outside the teachings and doctrine of this church, thus oppressing Puritans, Quakers, and any other religious minority.

Berkeley strongly opposed public education. Though he was unable to foresee the eventual establishment of such schools, he held that they would bring “disobedience, heresy, and sects into the world,” and were for such reasons destructive to society. He also held printing at the same level as public education.


Berkeley’s downfall came with the advent of his second term. He returned from retirement in 1660 due to the early death of Governor Samuel Mathews. At his return, Berkeley appealed to England for financial support of Virginia’s economy. Charles II denied Berkeley’s appeal “in favour of free trade.”

In 1675, Berkeley appointed Nathaniel Bacon, his wife's nephew, to Virginian high office.This was uncharacteristic of Berkeley, and may have shown signs of withering competence as governor.

Slow to act to Indian attacks, Berkeley was viewed as incompetent, making his authority easy to undermine. Disagreements over Indian policy led Bacon to rebel against Berkeley. Bacon accepted command of an illegal troop of Indian fighters and disregarded the governor's warning against leading the volunteers. “He declared Bacon a rebel, dissolved the General Assembly, and promised to remedy any complaints the voters had with him.”

Bacon unexpectedly led five hundred armed men into Jamestown and compelled the frightened legislators to appoint him general before he marched away in search of the Indians. His extortion of a general's commission turned a dispute over Indian policy into a duel to the death over who would control Virginia-Bacon or Berkeley.

“Berkeley defeated Bacon's invaders, which enabled him to return to the western shore and to retake his capital. Once reports of the revolt reached London, the crown sent 1,000 redcoats, ships, and a commission to crush Bacon. There was nothing for the troops to do because Berkeley had regained the upper hand. The rebellion ended before they arrived in January 1677. The Treaty of Middle Plantation, the formal peace treaty between the Indians and the colonists, was signed on 29 May 1677, after Berkeley returned to England.”

Berkeley died on 9 July 1677, and he was “buried half a world away from the place that had become his home.”

view all

Sir William Berkeley, Colonial Governor of Virginia's Timeline

Hanworth Manor, Middlesex, England
July 9, 1677
Age 72
City of London, Middlesex, England
July 13, 1677
Age 72
Richmond Borough, Greater London, England, United Kingdom