Portrait of Gentility: The Intentional “Shaping” of Byrd and Carter

As the seventeenth century came to a close, the Virginia colony underwent a remarkable transformation from a rather uncivilized land dominated by Native American tribes and starving, disease-ridden English settlers to a stratified society emulative of the colonists’ homeland. A robust and powerful upper class built massive homes on expansive estates, enslaving hundreds if not thousands of Africans. While the elite nobility comprised a meager fraction of the populace, their status-driven culture influenced the whole of Virginia society. These horribly vain and proud individuals included Robert ‘King’ Carter and William Byrd II; through Carter’s shaped landscape and Byrd’s lavish life and spouse, they intentionally sculpted their respective identities.

Many prominent members of colonial society are notable for owning expansive tracts of land. The aptly nicknamed Robert ‘King’ Carter was the single largest landowner in the colony of Virginia, reigning over thousands of acres, from the Chesapeake Bay to the foothills of the Appalachians (Hudgins 60). But prior to 1690, even the wealthiest of planters resided in fairly modest homes on small plots of land tended by a few indentured servants. These tobacco planters were not defined by their land or their possessions; they did not flaunt their hard-earned wealth. As the ultra-elite nobility rose to power, however, this enviable culture of modesty disappeared. Land ownership especially became “tangible evidence of success and failure” as unhealthy materialism rose (Hudgins 59). Evidently, Robert ‘King’ Carter actively attempted to portray himself as a successful member of society. His home plantation, Corotoman, was a conglomerate of separate buildings that resembled a large village, and it truly was a settlement, inhabited by hundreds of slaves (Hudgins 67). Christ Church in Lancaster County is lasting proof of Carter’s self-created glory. Carter built the simple Georgian structure in the last decade of his life, and even today his haughtiness is evident there. The massive pew reserved specifically for the Carter family is a testament to the King’s prowess along the Rappahannock. The pew has an unsurpassed view of the pulpit and rises eminently above the others. Outside, ornate tombs mark the colonial Carter family’s final resting places, their epitaphs inscribed in Latin. Of course, Latin was the language of the nobility; in a world where very few were literate at all, proficiency in a classical language was indicative of high social stature. A walkway lined with cedars leads up to what was once Corotoman. Christ Church itself contributes to the powerful identity of Robert ‘King’ Carter; it was essentially Carter’s donation to the community. As a nearly 300 year old structure, it still embodies Carter’s ideal perception of himself, an eminent yet generous person with a considerable sense of pride.

Robert 'King' Carter

Robert ‘King’ Carter

 

William Byrd II

William Byrd II

William Byrd II is strikingly similar to Robert “King” Carter in that he hailed from a prosperous family and lived a lavish lifestyle. However, Byrd maintained a detailed diary in which he recounts every meal, every instance of sexual intercourse, and every major event of his life that aids historians in better understanding his relationship with his wife, Lucy Parke Byrd. William envisioned himself as a biblical Gentile, a powerful planter-patriarch with supreme authority. He expected Lucy, as his wife, to submit to his every will and generally acquiesce in every circumstance (Treckel 135). Lucy, however, attempted to resist her husband’s authoritarian power through passionate emotion and frustration. Ultimately, William won that battle as a “tyrannical man who humiliated his… compliant wife” (Treckel 136). Mr. Byrd so forcefully bound Lucy to his preconceived notions of spousal behavior because she was part of him. William was defined by Lucy’s behavior as much as he was defined by his own, especially as patriarch. He continually exerted power over her through “flourishes” and coerced her into obedience, commonly viewed as a feminine virtue (Treckel 138). Not only did Byrd try to create a genteel, patriarchal image of himself through his wife, but he also meticulously sculpted his image through his plantation, Westover. The manor house itself sits dramatically atop a high bluff overlooking an especially scenic stretch of the James River. The property is clearly visible from the opposite side of the river and would have been easily noticed by passing vessels. The grand estate’s appearance parallels Byrd’s own conception of himself- distinguished, accomplished, and conspicuous. The property comprises hundreds of acres of tobacco fields, where a similar number of slaves toiled laboriously and endlessly. Behind the 18th Century Byrd manor lies the intricate and extensive garden. While the garden is itself a showplace, the centerpiece is William Byrd II’s mausoleum. Once again, Byrd ensures that his preeminence will never be forgotten. Byrd, like many prominent individuals of his time, deliberately crafts a favorable image of himself; he is the Gentile, the patriarch, the wealthy landowner and slaveholder. He knowingly suppresses his wife’s influence to elevate himself and intentionally crafts an estate designed to accentuate his power.

Westover Manor House on a bluff overlooking the James River

Westover Manor House on a bluff overlooking the James River

As two of the most prominent individuals in early 18th century Virginia, William Byrd II and Robert ‘King’ Carter are emblematic of the status-driven culture that appeared at the end of the 1600s. Carter’s unsurpassed fortune and land ownership signified his cachet as a noteworthy Gentile and thus aggrandized him to a ‘kingly’ status. The self-centered Byrd saw himself as unparalleled in extravagance and exaggerated his stature by dominating his wife. Byrd viewed Westover as an extension of himself and further elevated himself through this prized possession. The gentry of Virginia will live on through the ways in which they so expertly displayed their power in the age of materialism and image.

 

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