The House that Byrd Built


Contributed by David Gore


NameWilliam Byrd
Place of BirthVirginia
Born1674
Died1744
Westover
Westover



"The broad lawn that rolls down to the waters edge at Westover is shaded by huge trees - the yew planted by George Washington, the elms and sycamores, and the line of tulip poplars. They stand there before this great Georgian mansion which has withstood all the ravages caused by fire and wars ever since William Byrd II built it beside the James river 260 years ago".

Colonel William Byrd II
Colonel William Byrd II
Family Tree
Family Tree
Pennsylvania had William Penn and Virginia had the great William Byrd. Colonel William Byrd II (1674-1744), to give him his full title, was born on his father's plantation in Virginia but brought up in Essex and remained in England for most of his early life. Aged thirty when his father died in 1704, William returned to Virginia to manage the family's 26,000 acre estate and later built a fine house there which stands today. He became President of the Colonial Council, on which he sat as a Member for 35 years, and in 1733 established two towns, Richmond on the James river - now the capital - and Petersburg on the Appomattuck. He was truly one of the founding fathers of the modern State of Virginia whose southern boundary he personally established.

William was hardy and energetic and, like most Virginians of his time, often in the saddle. A great traveller, he was no ordinary pioneer: this was a man of culture, wide accomplishments and considerable charm, a genial host who had powerful friends on both sides of the Atlantic. He crossed that ocean ten times and "Golden Rose", the ship in which he often sailed, is in the background to Hans Hyssing's portrait of him.

While William was growing up in Essex he lived with his uncle, Daniel Horsmanden, the Rector of Purleigh near Chelmsford where he met his maternal grandfather, the formidable Colonel Warham Horsmanden, who for twenty years had been a member of the ruling council in Virginia. William attended Felsted Grammar School near Braintree for nine years when Christopher Glasscock was its headmaster and then studied law at the Middle Temple. He was called to the Bar in 1695, served a short apprenticeship in Holland and visited the Court of Louis XIV. In London William was becoming known as a satirical writer and wit, and in 1696, through the good offices of his mentor Sir Robert Southwell, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. His influence grew and he was appointed Virginia's colonial agent in London and was thus at the heart of the conflict between Crown and Colony that was eventually to spark into Revolution. No man had a better preparation for representing the old world in the new and vice versa.

Entrance to Westover
Westover
Side gate at Westover
Westover
The story of the great house that William Byrd built on his Westover estate reflects the early history not only of the Byrd family but also of the State of Virginia. The house was completed in about 1736 - a grand brick mansion admirably situated on the north bank of the James river 35 miles downstream from Richmond. Today it is said to be "one of the best examples of Georgian architecture in America". William spared no expense in materials and workmanship, importing many items from Europe and adding his own personal embellishments. At each approach to the property are elegant wrought-iron gates incorporating the Byrd family Arms. The main gates have WB woven into their classical design, while large eagles of lead stand on the stone columns on which they swing. Beneath the house is a labyrinth of cellars where the claret and madeira were stored. There are two secret rooms reached through a dry well, and a subterranean passage leading to the river - a reminder of the danger that once existed of attack by Indians and other raiders.

William's nickname was the Black Swan, which is perhaps an allusion to birds that he introduced at Westover. He was a lover of books and gathered together in his new home one of the largest libraries in the colonies - over 3600 volumes - of which he was inordinately proud. It contained Bibles in Dutch, Hebrew, Greek and Latin all of which he could read - a mark of his scholarship. The east wing in which it was housed was burnt down during the American Civil War but subsequently rebuilt. He also brought over from England many portraits of his family, his friends and men who he admired.

Evelyn Byrd
Evelyn Byrd (1707-1737)
One portrait by Charles Bridges was of the sad romantic figure of Evelyn Byrd, William's eldest child by his first wife, Lucy Parke. In England Evelyn was much admired for her beauty, wit and gentle disposition. When she was presented at Court, King George I remarked, "I have heard much of Virginia, but no one told me of its beautiful Byrds!" While there Evelyn formed an attachment to a Catholic gentleman - Charles Mordaunt, grandson of the Earl of Peterborough. The Byrds were ardent Protestants and her father broke off the match and brought her home to Westover. There the wistful Evelyn died a few years later still pining for her lost love. It is said that "the tap, tap of Evelyn's high-heeled slippers continues to be heard in the corridors of the home from which, long ago, she faded broken-hearted to the grave".

Colonel Daniel Parke (died 1710)
Colonel Daniel Parke (died 1710)
William was a hardy traveller. He led the surveyors who first traversed the Great Dismal Swamp while establishing the boundary line, 240 miles long, with North Carolina; and rode through the forests to Germanna to confront Governor Alexander Spotswood on behalf of the planters of the colony. He left witty satirical accounts of these and other expeditions - from which it seems he acquired a healthy respect for snakes and a distaste of fresh venison and bear.

His manuscripts are among the few early colonial literary works in existence. Best known is his 'History of the Dividing Line' (1728). Other manuscripts such as 'A Progress to the Mines' (1732) and 'A Journey to the Land of Eden ' (1733) were not published until 1841, nearly a century after his death, which is a good indication of their enduring quality. His cheerful entertaining discourse on Virginian life can be read in his diaries and copious correspondence much of which has survived. Among them are three less literary but more revealing "secret" diaries written in shorthand and discovered only sixty years ago. Together they cover nine years in the period 1709-41 and in America have been described as "one of the most complete, entertaining and informative cultural documents about 18th century life in the Old and New Worlds that we have in the English language". The middle diary has even been compared with Pepys' famous journal.

The tomb of William Byrd II
The tomb of William Byrd II
William's generous spirit caused him considerable distress in the last twenty years of his life. On the death of his father-in-law Colonel Daniel Parke, then Governor of the Leeward Islands, during a riot there (the result it is said of his own maladministration), William rashly stepped in to guarantee his debts. The amount proved to have been seriously underestimated and became a persistent burden. He had to dispose of much of his land, including in 1737 his Richmond property, and was almost forced to sell Westover itself and its fine tobacco plantation on which he had lavished so much attention. In the end the debt prevented him returning to England to spend his declining years among his friends as he had wanted. It was only the year before his death when he was seventy years old that William finally succeeded in satisfying his father-in-law's creditors in London.

The old Westover House
The old Westover House
William was buried in the garden at Westover and succeeded by his elder son, William Byrd III (1728-77) who became a soldier - an appropriate profession for those troubled times. A fire in 1749 damaged parts of Westover, but it was during the American Revolution that it suffered most. Twice it was ravaged by that renegade Benedict Arnold, and once in 1781 by Cornwallis on his way to defeat at Yorktown.

War returned again a century later when Westover was used as a headquarters during the American Civil War by General Pope and other Federal officers, and subsequently by McClellan on his retreat from Richmond. But by then the estate had passed out of the hands of the Byrd family who sold it in 1814. Westover today is still privately owned although the grounds are open to the public. Thus visitors can now enjoy something of the beauty of this famous old house with its riverside setting, and of the history of nearly three centuries that have passed since the Black Swan with all his energy, scholarship and wit flew in from England.



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