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News and research on the life, community, and worldview of Colonel Philip Ludwell III.
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Lucy Higginson: A “Matriarcha” of Colonial Virginia and Grandmother of Philip Ludwell III

Portrait of Lucy Higginson - Lucy Higginson Burwell Bernard Ludwell
Lucy Higginson (1626-1675)

Our regular readers will know that Philip Ludwell III was a relation to many prominent and influential colonial Americans of his time. What is especially interesting is that these familial connections were largely rooted in one remarkable woman: his grandmother Lucy Higginson. Professor David Hackett Fisher called Lucy one of the few “Matriarcha” of colonial Virginia and historian Leonard Labaree wrote that “one sixth of all Virginia councillors after 1680 could refer to [this] good lady as ‘Grandmother Lucy.’” While Lucy Higginson’s genealogical legacy is profound, her own history is just as interesting and is worthy of attention. 

Lucy Higginson emigrated from her native England to the colony of Virginia when she was approximately 17 years old, in 1643. At this time, only six of Virginia’s present-day 95 counties had been established, a wooden palisade protected areas of European settlement from lands occupied by Native Americans, and colonial settlement remained rooted close to the rivers in the Tidewater region, where tobacco and other products could easily be shipped to England. Lucy arrived with her parents, Robert and Joanna Tokesay Higginson, who were both natives of Berkswell, England, a quiet village that lies approximately six miles west of Coventry in the West Midlands. 

exterior view, st john baptist church, berkswell, england
St John Baptist Church, Berkswell, England – probable place of Lucy Higginson’s baptism.

Lucy Higginson’s First Seven Years in Virginia: Powhatan War and a “Manner Destitute”

Bercul's Saxon-era well, Berkswell, England
A spring still feeds Bercol’s Saxon-era well in Berkswell.

Considering her first years in the colony, one can only imagine what Lucy thought of her parents’ decision to come to Virginia. While her parents were both from Berkswell, where Robert was born in 1597 and Joanna about 1603, it’s not entirely clear where Lucy was born. Her parents married in about 1625 and Lucy was born in 1626. If she was from Berkswell, like her parents, it is likely that she would have been baptized in the town’s impressive 12th-century Norman St John Baptist Church. 

However, Robert was listed in an old Chancery suit as “a citizen and painter stainer, of London.” [1] It may have been that Robert and Joanna moved to London prior to leaving for Virginia in 1643, since by late 1642 armed conflict in the English Civil War was already occurring in the vicinity of Berkswell. 

After arriving in Virginia in 1643, the family was soon to learn that it had not escaped war. On April 18, 1644, in a last-ditch effort to dislodge the colonists from their settlements, the 92-year-old Powhatan chieftain Opechancanough launched attacks that took the lives of around 400 colonists. While the native Americans were fighting for control of Virginia’s Tidewater lands, for the colonists, the attacks must have stirred memories of the previous Powhatan attack on Good Friday in 1622, when Opechancanough’s surprise attack killed 347 settlers – around one-third of the colony at that time. Now, in 1644, more colonists were killed than in the previous attack, but the casualties represented no more than one-tenth of the colony. 

1600s map of Virginia Peninsula at Middle Plantation
Middle Plantation in the Virginia Peninsula in the 1600s, between the York and James Rivers. Source: Virginia Under Charles I and Cromwell, 1625-1660

In any case, the colonists’ reaction was swift. In the aftermath of the 1622 attack, a wooden palisade had been constructed across the Virginia Peninsula, from the James River on the south to the York River on the north, with a settlement called Middle Plantation midway between the rivers. Lucy’s father Robert was given command of colonists in this area, and Lucy’s gravestone records their memories of this time: “the valliant Captain Robert Higginson. One of the first command’rs that subdued the country of Virginia from the power of the heathen.” 

Jamestown Fort palisade
Reconstructed wooden palisade at Jamestown Fort

Robert Higginson was also given the responsibility to rebuild the palisade in the area of Middle Plantation and was awarded more property in this region. Half a century later, the capital of the colony would be moved from Jamestown to Middle Plantation, which was renamed Williamsburg. [2]

Lucy’s father Robert died in Virginia in August 1649. At the end of this eventful decade, his widow Joanna decided to return to England to claim an inheritance of £280. Because her claim was contested in court by her brother-in-law, the records of this legal action at least provide proof that she had returned to England to seek her inheritance. As Eben Putnam, a noted genealogist and historian of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, explained Joanna’s statements in court: 

[Joanna] states she paid [Robert’s] debts and obtained an order affecting her discharge from the Colony and Council of Virginia, and that she and her daughter [Lucy] were left in a manner destitute, saving for the provision made for them before her marriage. [3]

Lucy Higginson’s First Marriage: Lewis Burwell I

inscription on Burwell graves - Abingdon Episcopal Church, Gloucester Virginia
The Burwell family graves, including Lucy Higginson’s, were removed from their Carter’s Creek property in 1911 and placed in the graveyard of Abingdon Church in nearby Gloucester.

By the 1640s, Lewis Burwell I had settled in Virginia from his native Bedfordshire, England, and by 1650 owned at least 7,000 acres of land in the colony. From her position in a “manner destitute,” Lucy Higginson’s fortunes began to change with her marriage to Burwell in late 1650. Their only son Lewis Burwell II was born in 1651 or 1652, probably in Gloucester County. In November 1652, Burwell died. Although Burwell was a wealthy man when he died at the age of 33, it wasn’t at all clear at the time that the Burwell family name would rise to the prominence it held in future years, given that Lucy and Lewis had had only one son. However, that son, Lewis Burwell II, would build one of the family dynasties of colonial Virginia. As Encyclopedia Virginia puts it: 

A major in the militia and often identified as a gentleman, Burwell evidently never held political office, but his family ties and the prominence of many of his near neighbors guaranteed that he was well known and respected by persons able to advance his fortunes. Marital alliances and the seemingly insatiable desire for land are common themes in the rise of the great families that dominated Virginia during most of the colonial period, and few families more clearly illustrate these themes than the Burwells.

Historical Marker - Fairfield Plantation, Gloucester, Virginia
Fairfield Historical Marker on Route 17, Gloucester. Source: MarkerHistory.com

In fact, Lewis Burwell II would become one of the wealthiest planters in the colony, a major in the militia, a trustee of the College of William and Mary, and a member for one term in the House of Burgesses. He married twice and had over 10 children who intermarried with many other prominent families.

Building on the Carter’s Creek property of his parents at the southern end of Virginia’s Middle Peninsula, he constructed a prominent brick mansion and plantation called Fairfield, in Gloucester County. Numerous other Burwell properties would be built across the state, but Fairfield was the first of them all.

Pre-1897 photograph of Fairfield Plantation mansion
Photo of Fairfield’s North and East Facade Pre-1897. Source: Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery
Map of Middle Peninsula Historic Marker Locations
Map of Virginia’s Middle Peninsula, showing counties and historical markers. Source: Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission

One of the stranger episodes in colonial Virginia history involved the Burwell family, the governor, and specifically Lucy Burwell, a daughter of Lewis Burwell II and one of Lucy Higginson’s many grandchildren. Lt Gov Francis Nicholson was a tempestuous fellow and inexplicably pursued the affections of the teenaged Lucy, embarrassing everyone around him. This may have been one reason why Lucy’s father, Lewis Burwell II, declined an appointment to the Council of State, the pinnacle of government power and service in colonial times. You can learn more about this state of affairs in a previous blog post about Lucy Burwell, who was a first cousin to Philip Ludwell III, despite the fact that she died about two weeks before he was born, in 1716. 

Marriage to William Bernard, Councillor and Planter

While sickness and death were prevalent at that time, losing her husband must have been a devastating event for Lucy Higginson, who must have also been concerned for the welfare of her newborn son, Lewis Burwell II. 

Chart of ownership history of Fairfield Plantation from DAACS website
Ownership history of Fairfield Plantation. Source: Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery

Within approximately a year, in 1653, she married William Bernard, a resident of Virginia for nearly 30 years and a member of the Council of State. According to the Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery, the couple resided at Lucy’s Burwell plantation, Fairfield. 

The Encyclopedia of Virginia Biography states that William Bernard first arrived in Virginia in 1625 when he was in his twenties. While the aforementioned Encyclopedia states that Bernard arrived in Virginia on the ship America in 1625, one ship’s manifest for William Barker’s America lists Bernard as a passenger in the year 1635. [4] Barker was a mariner who sailed regularly between England and America, and it is certainly possible that Bernard traveled across the Atlantic more than once.

William Bernard settled in Isle of Wight County on the south shore of the James River, in the vicinity of Smithfield, opposite modern-day Newport News. Another land record states that to “Col. Bernard, Esq., 600 acres in Lancaster on Dividing Creek” was granted. Since Lancaster County came into existence in 1651, it is likely that this land grant occurred after that date. While common crops such as tobacco and corn were probably under cultivation on his properties, the Encyclopedia also mentions Bernard’s interest in silk cultivation: “Col. Bernard took part in the effort to make silk culture a success in Virginia, and in the ‘Reformed Virginia Silk Worm,’ published in 1652, John Ferrar Jr., who puts into rhyme the substance of letters lately received by his sister, Virginia Ferrar, says of him:

‘Yea, worthy Bernard that stout Colonel
Informs the lady the work most facile
And of rich silken stuffs made shortly there
He hopes that he and others shall soon wear.’” 

Bernard’s civil service is well documented. Throughout the 1640s and 1650s Bernard was elected to the Council of State in successive elections, confirming his influential position in the colony, both during the English Civil War and during the Commonwealth. After Richard Cromwell resigned as Lord Protector in May 1659 and the governor of Virginia, Samuel Mathews Jr, died in January 1659/60, Bernard was one of a number of Councillors who were considered as interim governor. Instead, former Governor Sir William Berkeley was called back into service. 

Documentation from his time on the Council also reflects the fact that Virginia experienced some religious diversity in those early days, and was not solely centered around the established Church of England. For example, one dissenting pastor, after being banished from Virginia back to Massachusetts, reflected that many of the Virginia council were favorably disposed toward the introduction of Puritanism, and that “‘one thousand of the people, by conjecture, were of a similar mind.” [5] In fact, during two sessions in 1652, two Puritans presided over the colony’s General Assembly. [6] 

Thomas Todd portrait - Supreme Court Justice from Kentucky
Thomas Todd, great-great grandson of Lucy Higginson and Supreme Court Justice

This second marital connection shows that Lucy Higginson was now not only a member of the ruling class in Virginia, which was collectively navigating a decade of the Commonwealth followed by the Restoration, but was also raising the next generation of planters and leaders. In addition to caring for her son Lewis, she and William Bernard had three children: Lucy, Elizabeth, and George. Elizabeth married Thomas Todd of Toddsbury, Gloucester County. Among their descendants was Lucy Higginson’s great-great grandson Thomas Todd who was nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Thomas Jefferson in 1807, after Jefferson had expanded the Court from six justices to seven. Todd, a Jeffersonian, was the first Supreme Court Justice from a western state, having moved from Virginia to Kentucky in the 1780s. 

William Bernard passed away in December 1665, leaving Lucy with three young children. 

A Third Marriage – to Philip Ludwell I

Portrait of Philip Ludwell I
Philip Ludwell I, third husband of Lucy Higginson

Within two years, Lucy remarried, this time to Philip Ludwell I – a rising planter with family connections to the royal governor, Sir William Berkeley. Ludwell was the younger brother of Thomas Ludwell, who was serving as the Secretary of the Colony. The Ludwells were from Bruton, Somerset, in England, just like the Berkeley family, and it is probable that Philip and Thomas’s mother was a member of the Berkeley family. 

Lucy and Philip had two children – Jane was born c. 1670 and Philip Ludwell II in 1671/72, both at Carter’s Creek in Gloucester, where the family lived. By this time, Lucy’s family was a prime example of a colonial extended family caused by premature death. Spousal deaths were followed by remarriages, and siblings grew up in the same house with step-siblings and step-parents, creating new webs of family alliances even before any of the children were married off. 

Daughter Jane Ludwell and Her Descendants

Lucy’s daughter Jane married Daniel Parke Jr, a passionate son of a landed Virginia family who had ideas of his own: to become the first native-born royal governor of Virginia. Jane and Daniel had two daughters, Lucy and Frances, and Daniel’s gubernatorial dream didn’t turn out the way he wanted. In service to the Duke of Marlborough, Daniel received the honor of rushing across the European continent in order to personally notify Queen Anne of the victory over the French and Bavarians at Blenheim in 1704. As a result of this, he expected to be named the next governor of Virginia, but was disappointed to land the difficult assignment of Governor of the Leeward Islands instead. Proud and uncompromising, he ended up being beaten to death by an island mob. 

He no doubt caused his Virginia-based wife Jane and his daughters much angst while he tilted at windmills in Europe. However, they landed on their feet, with Lucy marrying William Byrd II and Frances marrying John Custis IV. The first marriage was tumultuous. Byrd was a prominent planter and member of the Council who spent much time abroad in England. He mapped the Virginia-North Carolina border; founded the future capital city of Virginia, naming it after Richmond in London; and left behind a secret diary that seemingly leaves no detail unspoken about everyday life in colonial Virginia. Frances’ marriage to John Custis IV was an unhappy one, but their son had two children with his wife Martha Dandridge – these would one day be the step-children of George Washington. 

Son Philip Ludwell II and His Descendants

Lucy and Philip’s son, Philip Ludwell II, served on the Council of State and on the Board of Visitors of the College of William & Mary. When the colony’s deputy auditor died, Lt Governor Alexander Spotswood replaced him with Philip, whom Spotswood described as a man of “Capacity” and “Circumstances” who had an influence “over a great many in the country.” [7] Philip Ludwell II married Hannah Harrison, of the renowned Harrison family, and they raised their family at Green Spring Plantation, the estate that Philip Ludwell I had inherited from Governor and Lady Berkeley.

philip ludwell II letter to gov spotswood
Original copy letter from Philip Ludwell II, Auditor General of Virginia, to Lt. Gov Alexander Spotswood. From 1716, the year his son Philip Ludwell III was born.

Two of their children stand out in particular: Hannah and Philip Ludwell III. 

Their daughter Hannah Ludwell married Thomas Lee, and the two of them built Stratford Hall, the famous home of the Lee family of Virginia. Two of Hannah and Thomas’s sons became Signers of the Declaration of Independence (Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee) and two became de facto diplomats for the nascent United States during the Revolution War years (Arthur Lee and William Lee). 

philip ludwell iii, ludwell orthodox christian
Portrait of Philip Ludwell in his youth.

Their son Philip Ludwell III was born in 1716, making him 10 years younger than Benjamin Franklin and 16 years older than George Washington, both of whom he counted as friends. His father (Philip Ludwell II) died when Philip was 11 years old, and his mother passed away when he was about 15 years old. He thus inherited the vast Ludwell properties at a young age. As we’ve noted in a brief life about Philip Ludwell III, after finishing his studies at William & Mary and marrying Frances Grymes of Morattico, he sailed to London in 1738 in order to be received into the Orthodox Church. He thus ended up forming the first known Orthodox Christian family in America. 

Lucy Higginson: A Full Life and a Far-Reaching Legacy

inscription on grave of Lucy Higginson
Epitaph on Lucy Higginson’s grave, at Abingdon Church in Gloucester, Virginia.

Lucy Higginson – or perhaps more accurately, Lucy Higginson Burwell Bernard Ludwell – passed away in 1675, just before a striking series of events occurred in the colony of Virginia.

First, Bacon’s Rebellion materialized in 1676, the first homegrown revolt against royal authority in the colony. This event was followed by Sir William Berkeley’s death in 1677 and the death of Thomas Ludwell in 1678. Thomas bequeathed his property to his brother Philip Ludwell I, including Rich Neck Plantation adjacent to the future capital of Williamsburg. [8] With his increasing wealth, Philip Ludwell I married William Berkeley’s widow, Lady Frances Berkeley, which put the Ludwell family in control of Berkeley’s famed Green Spring plantation. By the early 1690s, Lucy Higginson’s Ludwell descendants found themselves in a more prominent position than ever before. 

grave of lucy higginson - abingdon episcopal church, gloucester virginia
The state of Lucy Higginson’s grave today, with her epitaph almost completely eroded.

As the years passed, the intermarriage of Virginia’s leading families increased the web of connections between the ruling elite of the colony. Historian William Cabell Bruce compared the process of intermarriage between Virginia families to “a tangle of fishhooks, so closely interlocked that it is impossible to pick up one without drawing three or four after it.” [9] While this process of intermarriage continued well into the 1700s and beyond, we can better understand the development of Virginia’s colonial society by fully appreciating the life’s work and struggles of one of Virginia’s most influential immigrants, Lucy Higginson. 

Notes

  1. Clayton Torrence, Winston of Virginia, and allied families, 1927. Clayton Torrence worked as a bibliographer at the Virginia State Library in Richmond, Virginia, from 1906 to 1910; as secretary of the Valentine Museum from 1910 to 1918; and as editor of the William and Mary Quarterly historical papers from 1915 to 1918.
  2. Martha W. McCartney, Land Ownership Patterns and Early Development in Middle Plantation: Report of Archival Research, Williamsburg, Virginia, 2000. 
  3. Eben Putnam, The Higginsons in England and America, Part I, English Ancestry of New England and Virginia Families, Research Publication Company, Boston, 1903. 
  4. Pilgrim Ship Lists Early 1600’s: https://www.packrat-pro.com/ships/shiplist.htm
  5. Warren M. Billings, Sir William Berkeley and the Forging of Colonial Virginia, LSU Press, 2010.
  6. Campbell Charles, History of the Colony and Ancient Dominion of Virginia, 1860. Campbell, an historian, was educated at the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University), where he joined the American Whig Society and received an A.B. in 1825.
  7. Emory G. Evans, A “Topping People”: The Rise and Decline of Virginia’s Old Political Elite, 1680-1790, University of Virginia Press, 2009.
  8. November 10, 1676 Will of Thomas Ludwell
  9. David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, Oxford University Press, 1989.

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