Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Sir John Harvey Royal Governor of Virginia, 1628-1639

Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Sir John Harvey Royal Governor of Virginia, 1628-1639

Article excerpt

On 28 April 1635, members of the Council of State arrested Governor Sir John Harvey in his house in Jamestown and expelled him from office and from Virginia. It was a dramatic and unique event. Among other things, the episode showed that in the still-small political world of the Virginia colony, personalities-Harvey's was notoriously volatile-were more than ordinarily important. Seen in the larger context of the early evolution of colonial government in the emerging and expanding English empire, it illuminates the halting development of King Charles Is attempt to devise institutions and practices to govern overseas colonies and also the precarious nature of royal government in Virginia at that time. It also highlights an important difference between Virginia and most of the other English colonies. Virginia had no formal charter that specified how its institutions of government were to function or exactly what the relationships were to be between the king and the colony and its residents.

King Charles I appointed Sir John Harvey royal governor of Virginia in March 1628. Harvey served in Virginia from March 1630 to late in April 1635 and again from mid-January 1637 to November 1639.1 Of seventeenth-century governors, only Sir William Berkeley actually resided in and personally administered the government of the colony longer. Very little is known about Harvey's personal life. He stated in May 1636 that he was then fifty-four years old, indicating he was born about 1581 or 1582.2 The names of his parents and the place and date of his birth are not known for certain, nor is it known whether as a young man he married or had children. He may have been a member of the prominent Harvey family of the Dorsetshire town of Lyme Regis on the south coast of England.3 Silk mercer Richard Harvey of that family moved to London and became a successful merchant adventurer. John Harvey's brother also resided in London for most of his adult life.4 It is not known for certain whether the brothers John and Simon Harvey were related to the silk mercer, but Simon Harvey has been referred to as the son of a tradesman, which suggests that the brothers were from a commercial family like Richard Harveys and not from the landed gentry or aristocracy. Simon Harvey became a successful man of affairs accustomed to dealing in large sums of money. He was well known at court as principal procurer of food and wines for the household of King James I and in 1621 became the first supervisor of the royal provisioning accounts with the title remembrancer of the green cloth. The king knighted him in 1623 and later awarded him a lucrative tax collectorship, even though the remembrancer had committed some major errors in the green cloth accounts.5

From references to John Harvey in the 1620s and 1630s it is evident that he had a long career as a captain of commercial ships and also perhaps of ships of war before becoming involved in Virginia government, but very little else is well documented. Since publication of a biographical footnote in 1871, historians have cited or quoted a contemporary's description of Captain Harvey as a decent enough gentleman who unfortunately had a "choleric and impatient" temperament. The quoted phrase actually referred to a different ship captain, Edward Harvey, whose relationship to John Harvey, if any, is not documented, but the words correctly described John Harvey, too.6

Harvey had at least a decade of experience in Virginia affairs before he became governor. In 1622 the Virginia Company granted him a tract of land for having transported a large number of people to the colony during the previous years. At some time during the 1620s he invested substantially in a plan to produce potash there.7 Harvey was prominent enough and with powerful enough political connections that in the autumn of 1623, when James I was trying to decide what to do about the unprofitable Virginia Company and its struggling colony following the Powhatan Attack of 1622, the king appointed Harvey chair of a royal commission to investigate and report on conditions in the colony. …

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