The Real Housewives of the Virginia Gentry

As Virginia continued to grow certain families began to grow in wealth and political power. These families are known as the gentry of Virginia. The most powerful person within these families was the father or male patriarch. These men are often the ones that history is written about. But there are other stories that are told far less often. There are of the gentry’ women of the first families of Virginia. These are the women who stood by the men sides through many turbulent years of marriages. The gentry women gave everything to their husbands, they brought them honor and respect but instead of praise these women were treated more like objects than human beings.

 

Robert “King” Carter was the wealthiest man during his time in Virginia. As one of the first families of Virginia, Robert’s world was centered on honor. Similar to most families of the time period, Carter’s families’ behavior reflected him. Even on their tombstones Robert Carter’s two wives reflected what he wanted society to see (Christ Church Historical Site). Women of the times were no longer expected to have a functional use but rather a social use to men. For this reason Carter chose certain elements to appear on their tombstones. On his second wife, Betty Landon’s tomb it was chosen to tell what family she was born into, showing prominence. To show her fertility and femininity, which was important in this period, the tomb reads, “She bore to her husband ten children”(Christ Church Historical Site). Showing that Betty was able to bring children into this world brought honor upon her and Carter’s family. Betty had 10 children with Carter. These children brought honor upon Carter. While he did receive an heir with his first wife, the children he had with Betty gave him more sons to pass on the gentry’ tradition to. Carter married Betty just two years after his first wife died. Either Carter moved on very quickly from his first wife’s death or he had other motives.  Carter was focused on keeping his high status in society (Christ Church Historical Site). I believe that he married Betty not for love but for the honor and social status he needed to maintain. Betty brought Robert Carter the entire honor he ever wanted but as observed at the Christ Church Historical Site she has a noticeably smaller tomb memorial than Carter’s first wife. One can greatly question why this is.  Personally I feel that Carter married his first for love and after she died he married Betty to “keep up appearances”. He used her for his own personal gain, and then even in her death didn’t let her have her own light.

The tombs of Robert "King" Carter and his two wives.

The tombs of Robert “King” Carter and his two wives.

 

William and Lucy’s Byrd’s marriage is a much more extreme example of the male control. Lucy Byrd’s marriage is sometimes thought to be abusive many believe this is all due to her husband, William Byrd. But in reality Lucy’s long, damaged life began long before William Byrd appeared. Lucy’s early gentry family life was far from perfect. He father, Daniele Parke II, was a complicated man. He treated his wife and two daughters as if they were disposable items. First, Daniele Parke never hid his infidelity from his family (Treckle, 138). When he returned home from a trip to England in 1692, he brought his mistress who gave birth to a son shortly after (Treckle, 138). Lucy’s mother Jane was forced to raise the baby as her own, as Lucy watched her struggle. As Daniele Parke exploited Lucy’s mother, Lucy never learned what it was like to have a “real marriage.” Daniele Parke was also not the world’s best business man. On multiple occasions Jane Parke was forced to fix his mistakes in order to make them somewhat profitable (Treckle, 140).  Daniele Parke saw his wife not as a person but as an object. Like Robert “King” Carter, he married her for convenience rather than love. Jane Parke was someone to raise his children and bring him honor in the community of the gentry. This dysfunctional relationship is what is passed down to Lucy causing her marriage to have similar issues.

 

William Byrd exhibited through his journal that he was clearly the patriarch of the Byrd household. Lucy and William Byrd’s marriage was both dysfunctional and abusive in today’s eyes, but in the time of the gentry their marriage was common and even stereotypical. Personally, I feel that William Byrd provided Lucy with everything she could ever need or want but at the cost of her independence. During the course of their turbulent marriage William Byrd did multiple things that would classify him as abusive today. As it is apparent in his journals William Byrd frequently forced himself sexually upon his wife (Treckle, 125). Byrd used his wife when ever he wanted. He was inconsiderate as to what circumstances she was under. Whether she was pregnant, had just miscarried, or mourning a child’s death, if William Byrd was “in the mood” he used her. He gave her no choice or voice in the matter. However in other aspects Lucy challenged her husband’s authority. As Lucy grew up watching her mother submit to her father, she wasn’t about to allow William to dominate in all areas (Treckle, 136).  As one author puts it, “although her actions were often ruled by her heart, not her head, Lucy refused to submit to her husband as women were instructed to do” (Treckle, 136). Through out her whole life Lucy struggled with submitting to her husband’s will and challenging the status quo. Lucy often took her anger on one of her husband’s favorite slave, Jenny. Lucy “hurt” her husband by physically hurting what was thought to be his property. What I find intriguing is that Lucy often threatened herself, which would bother and hurt her husband. Why does hurting herself have the same effect on William as hurting his property does? I believe this is because William viewed Lucy as property rather than companionship.  While Lucy and William may have loved each other to some extent, their relationship was based on superiority rather than equality.

 

Lucy Parke Byrd, daughter of Daniele Parke II and wife of William Byrd II.

Lucy Parke Byrd, daughter of Daniele Parke II and wife of William Byrd II.

 

The first families of Virginia gave off a vibe of perfection but with a closer look we are left to question whether or not they were really happy. The women of the Virginia gentry show us a more complicated and bumpy life. From the infidelity to the belittling of their husbands the women had to turn a blind eye and appear poised at all times in order to  bring honor onto their families. The aforementioned stories of the wives of some of the most wealthy men of the late 17th to early 18th centuries show a different side to the lavish lives that they lead. They stand to show that these women were treated more as objects rather than people.

 

 

 

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