Governor Berkeley Laments the Rebellion
September 20, 2011
Nathaniel Bacon's rebellion was over. Virginia's capital lay in smoldering ruins. And a thousand of the King's soldiers were about to land in the colony to dispense justice. But to whom?
It was at that dramatic moment that visitors to Historic Jamestowne saw the colony's royal governor, Sir William Berkeley. He spoke to them September 17 in a day of programs to mark the anniversary of a 1676 revolt against his rule.
"He destroyed all, and very quickly," Berkeley told the crowd. "Bacon went wild!"
Berkeley was a favorite of King Charles I and was appointed Virginia's governor in 1641. He became popular with the Virginia colonists and survived the turmoil of England's civil war. In 1675 Berkeley appointed the newly-arrived Bacon, his wife's nephew, to Virginian high office.
Some isolated Indian attacks sparked disagreements over Indian policy, and soon Bacon led an illegal troop of Indian fighters and disregarded the governor's warning against leading the frontiersmen against Indians.
"He massacred all: men, women, and children. It made no difference to him. The whole frontier was afire -- that which would have been peaceful without his efforts," Berkeley said about Bacon.
Bacon unexpectedly led 500 armed men into Jamestown. They pointed their guns at the second-story windows where frightened legislators met and demanded official permission to fight Indians. Bacon got it, but this turned a dispute over Indian policy into a duel to the death over who would control Virginia -- Bacon or Berkeley.
"Only the king can grant a commission!!" Berkeley roared, drawing himself taller as he warmed to the story of the conflict. His words rang through the 1907 Memorial Church at Historic Jamestowne.
Bacon chased Berkeley away to Gloucester County and then to the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Berkeley's men repelled an attack on them there, then went on the attack looking for Bacon. The 71-year-old Berkeley was in the saddle for months but did not capture Bacon before the rebel took ill and died, buried in a hidden location.
Berkeley retook control of the colony and hanged more than 20 of Bacon's followers.
"Many were captured. Many were pardoned. Many were hanged," Berkeley told the modern audience. "It put an end to treason, to rebellion, to the ruination of this colony."
The governor remained defiant while waiting for the King’s troops to land at any moment.
"If they try to replace me, they will find the old lion still has teeth to bite with! My wish is to rest here in Virginia," he said.
Berkeley was replaced. The troops landed in January 1677, and Berkeley was relieved of the governorship and returned to England to answer for the rebellion. He died in London a few months later and was buried there.
More than 100 people attended the two audiences with Berkeley, played by longtime Colonial Williamsburg actor John Hamant. Hamant has portrayed dozens of historical figures during his three decades in Williamsburg. He has also portrayed Berkeley for events at Historic Green Spring, a portion of Berkeley's original 2,090-acre estate, administered by the Colonial National Historic Park with the assistance of the Friends of the National Park Service for Green Spring.
Hamant completed college degrees in theater before coming to work for Colonial Williamsburg as an archaeologist at the exploration of the 17th century Wolstenholme Town site on the James River.
"I was offended to be on the other side of the plexiglass at a museum," he said between his performances as Berkeley. "I wanted to touch what they touched, stand where they stood. I wanted that connection to the people of the past, rather than to names and dates, because we are no different than people were then. People haven't changed in a thousand years: we still laugh, we cry, we love."
Historic Jamestowne is jointly administered by the National Park Service and The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (on behalf of Preservation Virginia) and preserves the original site of the first permanent English settlement in the New World.