Virginia Cavaliers (historical)

"For the sports teams, see" Virginia Cavaliers.

Virginia Cavaliers were royalist supporters in the royal colony of at various times during the colonial period of the United States.

Historical background

In 1624, the Virginia Company, after a severe struggle with the Crown, was deprived of its charter. The chief cause of this was that the Puritan element, which formed the backbone of the opposition in Parliament, had also gained the ascendency in the Virginia Company. Nor did James I like the action of the company a few years before in extending representative government to the colonists. The result was the loss of the charter.

Virginia became a royal colony and so it continued to the war of the Revolution. But the change had little effect on the colony, for Charles I, who soon came to the throne, was so occupied with troubles at home that he gave less attention to the government of Virginia than the company had done, and popular government continued to flourish. Of the six thousand people who had come from England before 1625 only one fifth now remained alive, but this number was rapidly augmented by immigration. Governor Yeardley died in 1627, and John Harvey, a man of little ability or character, became governor. Harvey kept the Virginians in turmoil for some years, but the colony was now so firmly established that his evil influence did not greatly affect its prosperity.

Sir William Berkeley

The longest rule of one man in its colonial history was that of Sir William Berkeley, who became governor of Virginia in 1642 and continued to hold the office until 1677, with the exception of a few years under the commonwealth. Berkeley was a rough, outspoken man with much common sense, but with a hot temper and a narrow mind (14). He was a Cavalier of the extreme type, and during the first period of his governorship he spent much of his energy in persecuting the Puritans, many of whom found refuge in Maryland.

Civil war

About the time Berkeley assumed the office, a fierce religious war broke out in England between the Cavaliers and the Roundheads, or Puritans. The latter, led by Oliver Cromwell, one of the strongest personalities in British history, eventually triumphed over the Cavaliers and, in 1649, Charles I was beheaded by his own subjects.

Berkeley, with most of the Virginians, was loyal to the Crown, and he invited the young son of the executed monarch to come to America and become king of Virginia. But Parliament would suffer no opposition from the colony, and it sent a commission with a fleet to reduce the colony to allegiance. The Virginians were only mildly royalist and they yielded without a struggle; but they lost nothing by yielding, for the Commonwealth granted them greater freedom in self-government than they had ever before enjoyed.

In two ways the brief period of the commonwealth in England had a marked effect on the history of Virginia. For the first and only time during the colonial period, Virginia enjoyed absolute self-government. Not only the assembly, but the governor and council were elective for the time, and the people never forgot this taste of practical independence.

The other respect in which the triumph of the Roundheads in England affected Virginia was that it caused an exodus of Cavaliers from England to the colony, similar to the great Puritan migration to Massachusetts, caused by the triumph of the opposite party twenty years before.

Anonymous pamphlet

An anonymous pamphlet published in London in 1649 gives a glowing account of Virginia, describing it as a land where "there is nothing wanting," a land of 15,000 English and 300 negro slaves, 20,000 cattle, many kinds of wild animals, "above thirty sorts" of fish, farm products, fruits, and vegetables in great quantities, and the like. If this was intended to induce home seekers to migrate to Virginia, it had the desired effect. The Cavaliers went in large numbers; and they were of a far better class than were those who had first settled the colony. Among them were the ancestors of George Washington, James Madison, James Monroe, John Marshall, and of many others of the "First Families of Virginia." By the year 1670 the population of the colony had increased to 38,000, 6,000 of whom were indentured servants, while the African slaves had increased to 2,000 (15).

Restoration of 1660

The Restoration of 1660 brought the exiled Stuart to the British throne as Charles II, and Berkeley again became governor of Virginia. Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector of England, had died in 1658, and Richard, his son and successor, too weak to hold the reins of government, laid aside the heavy burden the next year and Charles soon afterward became king. Charles was not a religious enthusiast, as his father had been. He is noted for his pursuit of pleasure, which many subjects applauded after the dry years of the Protectorate.

The new sovereign was utterly without gratitude to the people of Virginia for their former loyalty, and indeed, it may be said that his accession marks the beginning of a long period of turmoil, discontent, and political strife in Virginia. Charles immediately began to appoint to the offices of the colony a swarm of worthless place hunters, and some years later he gave away to his court favorites, the Earl of Arlington and Lord Culpeper, nearly all the soil of Virginia, a large portion of which was well settled and under cultivation. The Navigation Acts, enacted ten years before, was now, at the beginning of Charles' reign, reenacted with amendments and put in force. By this the colonists were forbidden to export goods in other than English vessels, or elsewhere than to England.

Imports also were to be brought from England only. The prices, therefore, of both exports and imports, were set in London, and the arrangement enabled the English merchants to grow rich at the expense of the colonists. The result was a depreciation in the price of tobacco, the circulating medium, to such a degree as to impoverish many planters and almost to bring about insurrection. And now to add to the multiplying distresses of Virginia, Governor Berkeley, who had been fairly popular during his former ten-year governship, seems to have changed decidedly for the worse. He Royalist to the core, and appeared to have lost whatever sympathy with the people he ever had. He was accused of conniving with custom-house officials in schemes of extortion and blackmail, and even of profiting by their maladministration. Popular government now suffered a long eclipse in Virginia. In 1661 Berkeley secured the election of a House of Burgesses to his liking, and he kept them in power for fifteen years, refusing to order another election.

But the people, who had been long imbibing the spirit of liberty in their forest home, at last rose in rebellion against the tyranny of their cynical old governor. The uprising is known as Bacon's Rebellion. The general causes of this rebellion were political and economic tyranny, the immediate occasion was Berkeley's Indian policy. The Indians became hostile in 1675, and for many months the massacre of men, women, and children in the outlying settlements was of almost daily occurrence. But Berkeley persistently refused to call out the militia, for the reason, it was believed, that he did not wish to disturb the fur trade, from which he was receiving a good income. In March, 1676, the assembly raised a force of five hundred men, but when they were ready to begin a campaign, Berkeley suddenly disbanded them. The people were now exasperated and ready for rebellion.


Nathaniel Bacon was a young lawyer of noble English birth, a collateral descendant of the great author and jurist of the same name; he was rich eloquent, and popular. In defiance of the governor he raised a band of men and marched against the Native Americans, inflicting on them a stinging defeat. Berkeley, greatly incensed at the young man's insubordination, started after him with a troop of horse; but scarcely had he left Jamestown when word reached him that the whole lower peninsula had risen against him. Hastening back, he found that must do something to placate the people, and he dissolved the long assembly and ordered a new election. This was duly held, and Bacon was elected to the burgesses. This assembly passed a series of reform laws known as "Bacon's Laws". The old governor, deeply offended at this, dissolved the assembly and proclaimed Bacon, who had again marched against the Indians, a traitor; whereupon Bacon, at the head of several hundred men, marched upon Jamestown and burned it to the ground. Berkeley fled before the armed invaders and took refuge on the eastern side of the Chesapeake. Bacon had now full control of Virginia's affairs, and he even contemplated resistance to the king's troops, that were said to be on their way to the colony, when a deadlier foe than armed men -- the swamp fever -- ended his short, brilliant career, and Virginia was destined to spend another hundred years as a royal colony.

Bacon was the life and soul of the insurrection, and after his death his followers scattered like frightened quail and Berkeley was soon again in possession. The vindictive old governor now wreaked his vengeance on the followers of Bacon until he had hanged more than a score, including William Drummond, a Scottish Presbyterian and one of the leading men in the colony.16 But the king was displeased with Berkeley's rancor. "The old fool has taken more lives in that naked country than I have taken for the murder of my father," said Charles. Berkeley was recalled. He sailed for England in the spring of 1677, leaving his family, evidently expecting to be reinstated. But the king refused to see him, and he died broken hearted a few months later.

The Bacon Rebellion

The Bacon Rebellion, occurring at the same time with King Philip's War in New England, and exactly a century before that greater rebellion, so vastly different in its results was one of the most important episodes in Virginia's colonial history. Bacon was a true reformer, talented in a high degree, but somewhat wanting in judgment. His intention no doubt, in case the king's forces came, was to hold them at bay until the grievances of the colonists, including the oppression of the Navigation Laws, should have been redressed. But in this he doubtless would have failed and would have paid the penalty of resistance with his life. His death was therefore opportune, and his influence on the future of the colony was probably greater than if his life had been prolonged.

Downfall of Berkeley

The speedy downfall of Berkeley, however, had little effect in rescuing Virginia from the grasp of the Royalists. One of the court favorites to whom the soil of Virginia had been granted, Lord Culpeper, came out as governor, and a rapacious tyrant he was. In 1684, he was succeeded by Lord Howard of Effingham. Among the later governors were Nicholson, who had a notable career in New York, and Sir Edmund Andros, who had a more notable career in New England. In each of these, the colonists found a great improvement over Lords Culpeper and Effingham. But they fell short when compared with Alexander Spotswood, one of the ablest governors of colonial Virginia. The habit of governing through lieutenants, the governor residing in England, became prevalent early in the eighteenth century. One man, Douglas, was nominal governor for forty years, drawing a large salary, though he never crossed the Atlantic Ocean.(17)


In spite of the many drawbacks of the unworthy governors and their frequent quarrels with the assembly and people, Virginia continued to prosper, and by the end of the seventeenth century the population numbered a hundred thousand. The people up to this time were almost wholly English, but in 1700 several hundred Huguenots made their home in the colony. About 1730, the Scots-Irish began to settle in large numbers in the Shenandoah Valley, and soon after these came the Germans. The frontier was moved gradually westward from the tide-water counties until it had crossed the summit of the Alleghanies. The coming of these peoples infused new modes of life, new religious customs, new democratic ideas into Virginian society; and in the course of the next half century many vital changes were brought about, as the abolition of primogeniture and entail, the separation of Church and State, and religious toleration.18 Thus the various nationalities, blending slowly into one people, spent the remainder of the colonial period hewing away the forests and laying the foundations of a great state.(19)


*In 1602 Bartholomew Dosnold, one of Raleigh's captains, sailed to Cape Cod and Buzzards Bay, intending to found a colony, but failed to do so. In 1603 Martin Pring made a voyage to New England; a son of Humphrey Gilbert sailed to Chesapeake Bay and was killed by the Indians. In 1605 Captain Weymouth made a voyage to the Kennebec River and returned with five Indians.
*An additional motive for the English to colonize was rivalry with the French. The French king had, in 1603, made an extensive grant in America to De Monts, and colonists had gone out in 1604. The French grant was from forty degrees to sixty degrees north latitude; the English from thirty-four to forth-five degrees. These claims greatly overlapped, and thus were sown the seeds of future strife between the two nations.
*So called because the men composing the former were London merchants, the latter, Plymouth merchants. The two companies were really but subdivisions of one great company.
*See Poore's "Charters and Constitutions," Part II, p. 1888 sq. The Plymouth Company made an effort to found a colony the same year on the coast of Maine, but it was not successful.
*Henry, the elder and heir to the throne, died in his boyhood, and his brother became King Charles I of England. [return]
*Fiske makes a strong argument in favor of the truth of the story.
*See the case of Juan Ortiz, above, p. 44.
*H.L. Osgood, in Political Science Quarterly, Vol. XI, p. 274.
*See Morey's "Genesis of a Written Constitution," Annals of American Academy, Vol. I p. 529 sq.The name of this chief was Wahunsunakok. The name of the tribe was Powhatan and the English called the chief also by this name.
*The tobacco sent to England in one year, 1704, exceeded 18,000,000 poounds. By 1750 the yearly exports of Virginia and Maryland reached 85,000,000 pounds. Beer, "Commercial Policy of England," p. 51.
*A Dutch vessel brought twenty negroes and sold them to the colonists. Thus began a traffic in slaves that continued till after the Revolution. [return]
*He was killed while in captivity by one of his own race, so some authorities claim.Doyle, Vol I, p. 207.
*For indentured servants see post, p. 199.
*The king afterward granted aid to Mrs. Drummon, declaring that her husband had been put to death contrary to the laws of the kingdom.
*Spottswood and many other real governors were called "lieutenant governors", the "governor" residing in England.
*See Fiske's "Old Virginia," Vol. II, p. 396.
*The limits of this volume will not admit a full history of the several colonies. This must be sought in the various state histories and in such works as those of Doyle and Fiske. A short account of the domestic and political institutions of the thirteen colonies will be given in a later chapter.


*Elson, Henry William; "History of the United States of America", The MacMillan Company, New York, 1904. Chapter IV pp. 60-73.

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