Virginia Governor Defies Cromwell’s House of Commons

Dateline: Virginia, March 1651: The Governor is Sir William Berkeley. King Charles I was beheaded in 1649, and Oliver Cromwell took over and declared England a Republic. Did the Governor and the Grand Assembly approve of the beheading and the new government back in England? Look for the word bloody.

The Grand assembly is the meeting of the Governor and his Council and the Burgesses—a plenary session. They want their free trade, and no new ordinance from the new English Commons will stop them.

Gov. Sir William Berkeley speaks (in a modern transcription):

Gentlemen, you perceive by the Declaration that the men of Westminster have set out, which I believe you have all seen, how they mean to deal with you hereafter, who in the time of their wooing and courting you propound such hard conditions to be performed on your parts and on their own nothing but a benign acceptance of your duties to them.

Indeed me thinks they might have proposed something to us which might have strengthened us to bear those heavy chains they are making ready for us, though it were but on assurance that we shall eat the bread for which our own oxen plow and with our own sweat we reap. But this assurance (it seems) were a franchise beyond the condition they have resolved on the question we ought to be in.

For the reason why they talk so magnificently to us in this: we are forsooth [in truth] their worships’ slaves, bought with their money and by consequence ought not to buy or sell but with those they shall authorize with a few trifles to cozen [deceive] us of [out of] all for which we toil and labour.

If the whole current of their reasoning were not as ridiculous as their actions have been tyrannical and bloody, we might wonder with what brows they could sustain such impertinent assertion.

For if you look into it, the strength of their argument runs only thus: we have laid violent hands on your Landlord [King Charles], possessed his Manor House where you used to pay your rents; therefore now tender your respects to the same house you once reverenced.

I call my conscience to witness, I lie not, I cannot in all their Declaration perceive a stronger argument for what they would impose on us than this which I have now told you. They talk indeed of money laid out on this country [of Virginia] in its infancy; I will not say how little, nor how centuply [hundred times] repaid, but will only ask—was it theirs?

They who in the beginning of this war [with Holland] were so poor and indigent that the wealth and rapines of three Kingdoms and their Churches too cannot yet make rich but are fain [happy or willing] to seek out new territories and impositions to sustain their luxury amongst themselves.

Surely, Gentlemen, we are more slaves by nature than their power can make us if we suffer [allow] ourselves to be shaken with these paper bullets and those on my life are the heaviest they either can or will send us.

‘Tis [It is] true with us they have long threatened the Barbados, yet not s ship goes thither [there] but to beg trade; now will they do to us, if we dare honourably resist their imperious ordinance.

Assuredly, Gentlemen, you have heard under what heavy burdens the afflicted English nation now groans and calls to heaven for relief. How new and formerly unheard of impositions make the wives pray for barrenness and their husband’s deafness to exclude the cries of their succorless [helpless], starving children.

And I am confident you do believe none would long endure this slavery, if the sword at their throats did not compel them to languish under the misery they hourly suffer. Look on their suffering with the eyes of understanding and that will prevent all your tears, but those of compassion.

Consider with what prisons and axes they have paid those that have served them to the hazard of their fouls.

Consider yourselves how happy you are and have been: How the gates of wealth and honour are shut on no man and that there is not here an arbitrary hand that dares to touch the substance of either poor or rich.

But that which I would have chiefly consider with thankfulness is: That God hath separated you from the guilt of the crying blood of our pious Sovereign of ever blessed memory.

But mistake not, Gentlemen, part of it [the blood] will yet stain your garment if you willingly submit to those murderers’ hands that shed. I tremble to think how the oaths they will impose will make those guilty of it that have long abhorred the traitorousness of the act.

But I will confess, having had so frequent testimonies of your truths and courages [sic], I cannot have a reasonable suspicion of any cowardly falling off from the former resolutions and have only mentioned this last as part of my duty and care for you, not of my real doubts and fears. Or if with untried men we were to argue on this subject, what is it can be hoped for in a change, which we have not already?

Is it liberty? The sun looks not on a people more free than we are from all oppression.

Is it wealth? Hundreds of examples show us that industry and thrift in a short time may bring us to as high a degree of it as the country [of Virginia] and our conditions are yet capable of.

Is it security to enjoy this wealth when gotten? Without blushing I will speak it: I am confident there lives not that person can accuse me of attempting the least act against any man’s property?

Is it peace? The Indians, God be blessed, round about us are subdued.

We can only fear Londoners who would fain [be happy and willing] bring us to the same poverty wherein the Dutch found and relieved us would take away the liberty of our consciences and tongues and our right of giving and selling our good to whom we please.

But, Gentlemen, by the grace of God we will not so tamely part with our King and all those blessings we enjoy under him. And if they oppose us, do but follow me. I will either lead you to victory or lose a life which I cannot more gloriously sacrifice than for my loyalty and your security.

Vera Copia [True Copy] John Corker, Clerk Dom. Commons

Transcription ends.

The rest of the passage, not posted here, covers the Grand Assembly (Governor, his Council, and Burgesses) who resists the English Commons’ restriction of their right to free trade.

Does Sir William Berkeley use the King’s beheading as an excuse to disobey the Commons and to trade with whomever the Virginians will? Or is his denunciation of the bloody act sincere? At the end of his speech, he is willing to lay down his life for the fundamental liberty of prosperity.

Soon after, they did surrender to the Republican Parliament, and the Parliament allowed the Virginians their free trade.


The Virginia Colony surrenders to Cromwell’s Commonwealth


Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, 1619-1658/59, ed. H. R. McIlwaine (Richmond: 1915).

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