The English Civil War: Walter Chiles Loses a Ship



Our ancestor Walter Chiles became embroiled in the politics of the English Civil War and lost his ship as a result.

Walter was born in England and immigrated to Charles City, Virginia with his family in 1638. Chiles was a very successful ship owner and captain, tobacco farmer, and merchant. He was also a respected leader in his community and served from 1641 to 1653 in the Virginia House of Burgesses, the first elected assembly of English colonists in North America.

In 1649, the English Civil War ended as Oliver Cromwell seized power in England, establishing a republican government that would survive just 11 years before the monarchy was restored. One of the first acts of the new Cromwell government was to oust the Royal Governor of Virginia, Sir William Berkley.

Initially accommodating to the new governor, Cromwell loyalist Richard Bennett, Chiles relocated his family to Virginia's capitol, Williamsburg, and purchased the grand home of the former Governor Berkley for 26,000 pounds of tobacco. His new home was the first brick house in North America. Chiles served on the Governor's Council in 1651 but his relationship with the Cromwell loyalists would sour shortly.

In late 1651, Chiles sailed his ship The Fame of Virginia to Rotterdam, Netherlands, carrying tobacco in return for various European goods. Unfortunately, trading with the Netherlands was both restricted and frowned on since the Netherlands had supported Charles I against Cromwell during the Civil War. In fact, the two nations went to war from 1652-54: the Anglo-Dutch War.

Chiles arrived back in the Chesapeake Bay in 1652 with a plan to off-load his cargo, reload with tobacco, and sail to Brazil. While sailing toward James City, his ship was approached suddenly by the Hopeful Adventure, a ship under the command of Captain Robert Husband, who held a commission from the Cromwell government. Husband claimed that Chiles lacked a proper trading license from Parliament and seized The Fame.

Chiles quickly appealed to Northampton County commissioners, who demanded that Husband return The Fame to Chiles. But it was too late: Husband had already sailed off with the ship to "ye great indignation of ye commissioners thereof," according to a contemporaneous account. The commissioners then suggested that the county might reimburse Chiles for his ship. This proposal deeply upset the county residents, who held a raucous meeting to protest the higher tobacco assessments that would be required to reimburse Chiles. During the meeting, one Stephen Horsey called the commissioners a company of "Asses and Villyans." Evidently, government bailouts for the wealthy have been upsetting people for centuries.

Shortly after the Fame incident, the House of Burgesses elected Chiles Speaker of the House of the 1652 session. However, the Governor objected to Chiles becoming Speaker because of the Fame matter. Under pressure, Chiles resigned the Speakership after just one day.

In finale, the House of Burgesses voted to grant Chiles the title to a different ship, the Leopoldas, with all of its "equipment, guns &c," which had been confiscated for violations of the Navigation Laws. The Burgesses's grant of the Leopoldas appears to have been an act of defiance against the Governor and one of support for our ancestor.

Our family has proven our lineage to Walter Chiles I and Walter Chiles II for membership in the Jamestowne Society and The Society of Colonial Wars. Walter Chiles I is our common ancestor with President John Tyler, who was a 4th cousin of Lucy Wyatt Hawkins.