Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
The Papers of Sir William Berkeley, 1605–1677 • Edited by Warren M. Billings with assistance of Maria Kimberly • Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2007 • l, 1,682 pp. • $59.95
Reviewed by Michael Leroy Oberg, professor of history at SUNY-Geneseo. He is the author of The Head in Edward Nugent's Hand: Roanoke's Forgotten Indians (2007).
It is difficult to imagine a historian better suited to compile and edit the papers of Sir William Berkeley than Warren Billings. One of the finest historians studying seventeenth-century Virginia, Billings published a well-received biography of Berkeley in 2004. The present volume, "among the largest caches of documents relating to a seventeenth-century English royal governor-general ever to appear in print," is based on documents collected from archives in England, Scotland, and in several of the United States (p. xxxiii). It is a worthy achievement, providing historians of Virginia and the early English Atlantic World with an extraordinary view of the governor of one of England's most important imperial outposts.
Roughly two dozen of the documents cover Berkeley's career before Charles I appointed him Virginia's governor-general in 1642. Another two dozen documents cover Berkeley's career in Virginia during the period from 1652—when the success of Cromwell's allies in the colony forced the governor to beg the exiled king's pardon "for delivering up your Majesties Colony into the hands of" his enemies—until 1660, when the assembly recalled Berkeley from his retreat at Green Spring (p. 106). Appendices treat his first wife, about whom little is known, and his strong-willed and immensely interesting second wife, Frances Culpeper Stephens Berkeley.
The remaining mass of documents covers Berkeley's long career as the king's governor-general during much of the 1640s and, again, from 1660 until his recall to England in 1677. We can see in these documents Berkeley's efforts to manage the king's Old Dominion as well as the governor's unease as the colony the crown had charged him with governing inched closer to rebellion. The pride Berkeley felt for the colony he governed and hoped to develop is readily apparent, but the documents testify to the magnitude of the challenges he faced and reveal his own shortcomings as an imperial executive. Bacon's Rebellion destroyed Berkeley's reputation in the eyes of the king, and the governor's rocky relationship with the Royal Commissioners appointed to investigate the cause of the colony's troubles led to his recall in 1677. Berkeley petitioned Charles II upon his return to England, declaring that he had "spent some 35 yeares in the service of the Crowne as Governor of Virginia and recovered and settled that Country when it was almost quite ruyned by the Indians . . . and hath so behaved himselfe therein, as to make it a Flourishing Country," but was never able to "cleare his Innocency before" his death in July of 1677 (p. 613).
Some of the documents in this collection have appeared elsewhere, but without question, Billings has performed an important service in assembling all of Berkeley's correspondence in one place. Billings is an economical editor. His notations are brief, to-the-point, and relatively less numerous than in other edited collections of important individuals' papers. The index—always important in a collection such as this—is extremely strong when it comes to personal names, but it might have been strengthened by a more-detailed listing of the subjects addressed in Berkeley's correspondence. The introductory material is brief as well, describing Billings's editorial methods. Billings includes a chronology to provide readers with background on Berkeley's life, but those in need of additional information to make sense of the collection are referred to Billings's biography of Sir William. But these are small points of criticism, extremely minor when set beside the enormous accomplishment that this volume represents. Warren Billings has assembled an extremely valuable compilation of papers from an important colonial governor, and the Library of Virginia is to be commended for producing a handsome book. All students of the history of colonial Virginia will benefit from this work by a talented historian and dedicated editor.