Yes, there was a female Lord Proprietor in Carolina

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Frances Culpeper

Speller, Ben March 2017.jpg

By Ben Speller
For Museum of the Albemarle

Sunday, November 26, 2017

At a recent program about the early development of the Carolinas under the first eight Lords Proprietors, the question was asked, “was there a female Lord Proprietor?” The Lords Proprietors were eight Englishmen to whom King Charles II granted, by the Carolina charters of 1663 and 1665, the joint ownership of a tract of land in the New World called "Carolina."

Yes, there was a female Lord Proprietor: Frances Culpeper Stephens Berkeley Ludwell. Indeed, she inherited the same position two times. How did she do this? She married with a prenuptial agreement that ensured that this happened. She also managed her own properties.

The year Frances Culpeper arrived to the colonies is unknown, although she is said to have come with her parents around 1650. She was in the colonies by 1652, in which year she married Samuel Stephens of Warwick County, Virginia.

Her husband became "Commander of the Southern Plantation" in 1662, serving in that role for two years; in 1667 he became governor of Albemarle which is present day North Carolina, holding that position until dying in 1670. At his death Frances Culpeper Stephens inherited a plantation in Warwick County, a provision which had been agreed to before their marriage. Unusual for a woman at the time, she managed the estate herself instead of handing it over to a man. As there were no other heirs she received absolute possession of her husband's estate.

Within a few months of her husband's death Frances married Sir William Berkeley, governor of Virginia. She became a staunch defender of her husband, taking part in the events that led to Bacon’s Rebellion. Bacon's Rebellion was an uprising in 1676 - 1677 against American Indians and the colonial government in the Virginia Colony over taking reprisal action for alleged thefts by the Native Americans. It was led by Nathaniel Bacon, a wealthy 29-year-old planter and a relative of Lady Frances Berkeley, in opposition to the Governor of Virginia, Sir William Berkeley. Bacon's Rebellion was the first rebellion in the American colonies. 

Lady Frances Berkeley traveled to England and petitioned King Charles II on Berkeley's behalf. Berkeley died in 1677, discredited by many former friends.

At the time of her husband’s death, Lady Frances Berkeley was the richest woman in British North America. Through her second husband's will, Frances Culpeper Berkeley became a Lord Proprietor of the province of Carolina for a second time. By a curious combination of circumstances, she had the good fortune to sell the Lord Proprietor interest twice, in 1682 and again in 1684.

Lady Frances Berkeley married one more time, in 1680, to Philip Ludwell who was also named governor of the Province of Carolina and so for a third time she became first lady, once again of North Carolina. She continued her interest in Virginia politics, occasionally petitioning the House of Burgesses on her husband's behalf.

William Byrd, I and William Fitzhugh were among those who noted her influence and enlisted her aid in holding documents and information. At the time of her death in 1695 she had a reputation as a woman of intelligence and influence. Lady Frances Berkeley’s vigorous convictions, lively temperament, and shrewd mind made her a valuable friend and ally. She was considered one of the most influential Virginians of her time.

Ben Speller is president of the Friends of the Museum of the Albemarle. He is a member and secretary of the Edenton Historical Commission where he is also chairman of the History and Legends Committee. He was professor in the North Carolina Central University School of Library and Information Sciences from 1976-2004 where he served as dean from 1983-2003.