Most people will probably agree that Francis Nicholson (1655-1728), by the time of his second go-round as Virginia’s resident governor in the early 1700s, was, to put it mildly, a complete basket case and in the midst of the crisis of his life in the winter of 1702-1703. In the language of the 18th century, he became “undone.” And that’s saying quite something for the 47-year-old former army officer whom had served in the abandoned English garrison at Tangier and then been booted out of the short-lived Dominion of New England in 1689. The cause? His, by all accounts, uncontrollable passion for 19-year-old Lucy Burwell of Fairfield Plantation, in Gloucester County, the daughter of Lewis Burwell, a major Virginia planter and member of the Governor’s Council. Nicholson’s conduct in the case, which included begging Lucy and threatening almost everyone else, was so offensive to the sensible nature of Virginians at the time that it reached the coffeehouses of London, where friends overheard the gossip and pleaded with Nicholson to just calm down and forget about her.
I find the episode of endless interest because of what it says about the dynamic social character of the British Atlantic world at the time, when Augustan sense–meaning politeness and moderation–was just beginning to dominate the broader culture, setting the parameters for acceptable discourse. Nicholson was, however, oblivious to those expectations when it came to Lucy. The subject is worth a much longer piece that considers it in a different context than most historians have placed it, as the episode, in the end, cost Nicholson his job.
But it also is a fascinating reflection on the social perceptions of the Virginians, whom were as culturally English as if they lived in the Home Counties. The correspondence that flew back and forth between Nicholson and Lucy Burwell and both of her parents is extraordinary for the social and cultural assumptions that are packed into them. Nicholson, for his part, appears to have honestly assumed that Lucy had no choice in the matter of a husband, that it was entirely up to her father whom she married. And it followed, at least to Nicholson, that Lewis Burwell must have some personal reason for not bestowing his daughter’s hand on the governor, especially after Nicholson, according to Philip Ludwell, Jr., who was quite close to situation, had sent Lucy, her parents, and friends presents worth 500 pounds in order to sway them all to his way of thinking. Ludwell, however, knew that Nicholson was stretching the truth a bit: “All the things that she had received were 3½ yards of dirty point lace and a purse containing 8 stone rings and a small seal, which he put into her hand wrapt up in her handkerchef, and rid away.” According to Ludwell, “She sent them back.” But that didn’t stop Nicholson, whom returned the gifts to Lucy, which caused Ludwell to personally take them back to Nicholson’s house, “whereat the Governor violently abused me.”
Lewis Burwell behaved rather differently and seems to have been guided by the hardening rules of politeness, deference, and reason that became so familiar later in the century to influence, if not determine, the relationships between people of different sorts. But everyone has her or his limits. After a particularly virulent epistolary tirade from Nicholson in December 1702, Burwell had just about had enough. On the day after Christmas, he complained to the governor about his treatment, but their social standing being so different, between that of a royal governor and a mere private gentleman, Burwell’s options were limited. Nicholson charged Burwell with thoughts and behavior that Burwell did not deserve and “which I could easily clear my self of were our circumstances alike, but since they are so different that I cannot answer for my self in such words as I think I aut to do were we on even grounds.” Therefore, it must suffice for Burwell to say that he is “a loyal subject, an honest man, and one that hath always endeavoured to do my duty to the utmost of my power.” Nicholson did not respond in kind. He pleaded with Burwell, “for God sake Sir,” choose him for Lucy and “doe it before it be too late.” Nicholson continued to heap invective on Burwell for months thereafter, bringing the business of the colony almost to a halt and alienating every planter who disagreed with him, but Burwell would not budge, mainly because Lucy’s hand was not, in fact, his to give. As Burwell wrote to Philip Ludwell, Sr., in London, “I am daily alarmed with threatening messages of ruine, for what I know not, unless it be because I will not force my daughter to marry utterly against her will, which is a thing no Christian body can do.”
The curious affair continued for several months and the correspondence it generated is, frankly, some of the most entertaining of the period to read. As I stated, it eventually led to Nicholson’s replacement in 1705 by the utterly reasonable, but unfortunately short-lived, Edward Nott, as even Nicholson’s friends could no longer save him from the rumors that reached London that Nicholson could no longer govern his own passions, and so could not be trusted to govern a colony. At least not until he remembered himself. But he did recover and was later appointed royal governor of South Carolina.
As for Lucy, her story does not have a happy ending. She chose to marry 37-year-old Edmund Berkeley in 1703, a neighbor in Gloucester County. They had 13 years and five children together before she died during a measles epidemic in 1716, at the age of 33. In March 1717, Philip Ludwell, Jr., wrote to Nicholson, then back in England, that the “measles hath been epidemicall amongst us this winter, it hath run quick thro my family tho I thank God I have lost none…but poor Mrs. Berkeley dyed of it.” One can only imagine Nicholson’s thoughts and feelings on reading those final words about the woman he had once so desperately wanted–and whom generated a passion in Nicholson that cost him so much. As for the historical record, the affair is one of those that make the 18th century of such endless fascination as men and women attempted, with widely varying degrees of success, to come to terms with a rapidly changing world. And it also reminds us that history is almost always better–and stranger–than fiction.