The Cavaliers Flee West

King Charles I (1628) by Gerrit von Honthorst

British Heritage Magazine has an interesting article explaining the Cavalier settlement of Virginia, focusing on Sir William Berkeley:

Being a Royalist and a conforming Anglican were synonymous for those followers of the Stuart monarchy and King Charles I. Just as Puritan partisans became known as Roundheads, among other names, so Royalists became known as Cavaliers. And cavalier they were, too. The young bucks of Charles’ hereditary officers corps and the highborn camp followers of the king’s cause had a swagger and moral confidence about themselves and their world. They were men who had grown up with power and wealth, accustomed to receiving deference from their tenant farmers and the rest of the lower class folk who comprised 90 percent of society.

No one of his days was more the Cavalier than Sir William Berkeley. Sir William, and hence the Virginia colony, remained loyal and Royalist. Certainly, holding his commission from the king gave Berkeley a strong motive for his loyalty. Beyond that, however, the Royalist cause defended the only world Sir William knew—a hierarchical society where the accident of birth did legitimately convey both fortune and authority.

Well before King Charles’ own fortunes finally fell with his head in early 1649, the Cavalier cause was lost for many landed lords. As the rump of the New Model Army mopped up the war for the victorious Puritan legislature, England got hotter still for the scions of the Royalist upper class. Throughout these years, Sir William waved the flag for king and colony. He actively recruited a Royalist elite for emigration to Virginia. In a time of great insecurity for Royalist landed gentry, Virginia became a beacon of safety, comradeship, and opportunity.

However, old grievances carried over even into the New World:

At the most fundamental level, the New England Puritans and Virginia Cavaliers were on opposite sides in the English Civil War. Not only did they not share the same vision for the English government at home, but they also did not possess the same ordered view of the world and of society. Beyond that, they came from very different parts of Britain—at a time when regional differences in society were far more culturally significant than in today’s world. While the Puritan colonists made their way to Massachusetts Bay from East Anglia, London and the counties of the East Midlands, Virginia’s settlers came to Jamestown from a southern triangle from Kent to Devon and north to Warwickshire.

But the government crafted by the cavaliers remained cohesive until the end of Virginia’s Royal era:

David Hackett Fischer, whose landmark social history Albion’s Seed is the inspiration for this British Heritage series on the Great Migrations, uncovered just how closely political power was held in colonial Virginia. In 1660 every member of the Royal Council was related by blood or marriage to another member. When that council ended its days in 1775, every councilor was descended from at least one member of the council of 1660. The Cavaliers whom Berkeley actively recruited to Virginia during and after the English Civil War became an effective, closed, and largely despotic hereditary oligarchy.

It was quite a feudal society. Opportunities for upward mobility were restricted. More to the point, it is difficult from the standpoint of our 21st-century American ethos to understand the mindset of 17th-century colonists. Certainly, from our contemporary perspective of human dignity, human rights and freedoms and open society, the hierarchical society guarded by the First Families of colonial Virginia seems, to say the least, unattractive.

A society whose government is based on cultivated relationships would surely be preferable to the despotic bureaucracy under which Virginia presently suffers.

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