Virginia and Geneva

Sir Edwin Sandys.
Sir Edwin Sandys.

One must recognize that there was a very definite purpose and aim in the minds of the leaders of the Virginia Company in giving the name “City” to these raw little settlements [James City, Kecoughtan (Elizabeth City from 1621), the City of Henricus, and Charles City]. In English thought and custom in the seventeenth century, the appellation “city” was never given to a community, however large in population, unless it was the “see city” of a diocese and had a cathedral as the seat of its bishop. As there was not the slightest intention of sending a bishop to Virginia, or of establishing a diocese with a see city, one must look elsewhere than to the authority of English precedent to find the reason for the four “cities” in Virginia.

The explanation seems to be very clear. The group of men with Sir Edwin Sandys as their leading spirit who were formulating the plans and guiding the destinies of the Virginia Company were seeking to create a form of government which would give the greatest degree of autonomy and self-government to the settlers in these new communities, who to so great an extent would be thrown upon their own resources. Regardless of the question of the degree of loyalty of the radical puritans to the monarchial form of government, the settlers in Virginia were removed by three thousand miles of ocean from their king, as the source of civil authority, and from their bishop as the head of ecclesiastical order and government. They must, consequently, for their own protection and the welfare of their settlements, have as large a degree of authority to govern themselves and to make and administer their own laws as was consistent with their loyalty to both king and Church. Certainly it must have been realized that neither Parliament nor any group of officials of the company living in England could wisely enact laws governing local conditions in Jamestown, because they could not know enough about local conditions; nor could any court in England exercise authority there through lack of jurisdiction. Sir Edwin Sandys, and his fellow-members of the “Court” or executive committee of the Virginia Company, had the clear political sagacity to perceive that, if their colony was to develop into anything more than a trading post in a foreign land, its people must have the authority to govern themselves. There was no provision for dukedoms, palatinates or baronies with their political powers and civil courts. The plan later developed by the Caroline kings of granting great tracts of American land to favored groups of proprietors, to whom were given semi-regal authority over their “subject” settlers for the sake of the financial returns accruing therefrom, does not seem to have been conceived when either Virginia or Massachusetts was established. The source of their government and the authority of their courts must be found in the settlers themselves, as the owners of their own land, and not as tenants owing fealty and service to overlords who owned the land, and who, in consequence of that ownership, could make laws and establish courts to enforce their edicts.

Such freedom of self-government of and by the people themselves could not be found in any community in England at that time. The evidence as to the source whence he drew his conception of colonial local self-government is to be found in the words of Sir Edwin Sandys himself. “If ever God from heaven,” quoth that doughty puritan, “did constitute and direct a frame of government on earth it was that of Geneva.”

Virginia’s Mother Church and the Political Conditions Under Which It Grew,
Brydon, G. MacLaren (George MacLaren), pp. 31-32.

Published by Christian Clay Columba Campbell

Christian Clay Columba Campbell is a Roman Catholic of the Anglican Use. As Senior Warden of the Cathedral of the Incarnation (Orlando, FL), he organised the process by which the parish accepted the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum coetibus, petitioning to join the Catholic Church. The Anglican Cathedral is now the Church of the Incarnation in the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter. Personal queries should be directed to me at eccentricbliss dot com.

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