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Portrait of Sir William Berkeley


Materials in the Library of Virginia’s collections contain historical terms, phrases, and images that are offensive to modern readers. These include demeaning and dehumanizing references to race, ethnicity, and nationality; enslaved or free status; physical and mental ability; and gender and sexual orientation. 


William Berkeley (1605–1677) was the longest-serving royal governor of Virginia. He served as a Crown governor (an appointee of the King) between 1642 until 1652 and again from 1660 until his death in 1677. In his late twenties, Berkeley was a part of an exclusive literary circle that orbited the royal family, writing several plays and receiving rich rewards from the monarchy, including a knighthood. 

After being appointed Virginia's governor by King Charles in 1642, Berkeley advocated economic diversification and promoted trade between the colonists and Virginia's Indigenous people. He enabled the General Assembly to develop into a mature parliamentary body that legislated in the interests of the plantation owning families who dominated Virginia politics. Berkeley promoted expanding the boundaries of English settlement beyond the colony's frontiers and even did some exploring himself.

Berkeley’s initial governorship ended in 1652, when England’s monarchy fell and was briefly replaced by a republic. He regained the office in 1660 with the restoration of the Stuart monarchy under King Charles II, although the term was marked with disaster. Attempts to diversify the economy had failed, which resulted in higher taxes, and he faced decreasing support from the Crown. Relations with Virginia tribes were strained and attacks on the colony were not uncommon. Berkeley’s haughty demeanor led many colonists to doubt his ability to lead.

Tensions came to a head in July 1675 with Bacon’s Rebellion. Although the rebellion lost traction after Nathaniel Bacon died in October 1676, Berkley’s superiors in England were unimpressed and in 1677 a commission was sent to Virginia to remove him from office. Initially reluctant to relinquish his position, he eventually agreed to return to England, hoping that he could persuade King Charles II to reconsider. Berkeley grew ill during the crossing, however, and died on July 9, 1677.

Citation: Montague, Harriotte Lee Taliaferro, 1871-1947. (n.d.) Sir William Berkeley. Special Collections Department, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.

Learn more about Sir William Berkeley in his Dictionary of Virginia Biography entry online at Encyclopedia Virginia.


VS.3, USI.4, USI.5, VUS.2, VUS.3

Suggested Questions

Preview Activity

Look at It: Look at the painting of William Berkeley. What does his clothing and posture tell you about him? 

Post Activities

Analyze: What kind of impact did Governor William Berkeley have on Virginia?

Artistic Exploration: Create your own image/interpretation of William Berkeley as a modern day figure. Keep in mind the original intent of the portrait was to impress people.

Social Media Spin: Create a social media post describing Berkeley and at least one event in which he was involved.