After the Virginia Company charter was revoked and Virginia became a royal colony, governors were appointed by English king and queens. There were no fixed terms of office; the appointees served at the pleasure of the sovereign.
The House of Burgesses could also influence the officials in London to recall a governor, especially if some members of the Governor's Council concurred. Complaints about the governor's behavior, and suggestions of corruption, might cause a governor to be replaced even though the primary objections from Virginians were about the royal policies being implemented by the royal appointee.
The House of Burgesses normally sought to sway the governor through compromise. Waiting for a term to end and hoping for a governor more supportive of the colonists' priorities was not a viable option, and the ability to force a recall was very limited. With no mechanism to replace a governor, the House of Burgesses had to negotiate to accept/amend his policy directives in exchange for royal approval of other policies desired by the burgesses.
The most impressive display of local power over a royal governor occurred in 1635. Governor John Harvey was "thrust out" by the Gvernor's Council, the group of men appointed by London officials to share executive authority in the colony. In 1643, the Council and the House of Burgesses began to sit as separate bdies, creating the bicameral General Assembly.
Harvey was forced to leave Virginia and sail back to London, involuntarily. He had lost a key argument with the Council regarding his authority:1
Governor Harvey tried to shift colonists towards products other than tobacco - but without success
Source: National Park Service, Jamestown, 1630s: Harvey's Industrial Enclave (painting by Keith Rocco)
A philosophical debate over the role of a colonial governor was not a sufficient justification for expelling the top official in Virginia appointed by the king. Harsh personality conflicts were also a major factor.
Harvey treated the Virginia gentry with arrogance, and was "too fond of money, and not particular as to how it came to him." Perhaps the greatest conflict regarded his willingness to implement guidance from London to support the Calvert's new colony in Maryland, despite its damaging economic impact on powerful Virginia fur traders and land speculators.
The end of Governor Harvey's rule was triggered when he tried to arrest his political opponents and hang them for treason. The governor had no royal troops stationed in the colony to support him, and not enough allies to implement his plan. The response of his opponents was to physically force Governor Harvey to board a ship that returned him to England, and have a senior member of the Governor's Council serve as acting governor.
The official colonial records note:2
King Charles I sent Harvey back to Virginia as governor, as a demonstration that royal officials could not be forced out by colonists. However, the king failed to "strengthen his hand," and by default empowered the colonial leaders in Virginia.3
In the colonial era after Virginia became a royal colony, governors served at the pleasure of the king and did not have a fixed term of office. Several governors were appointed to serve a second time. Sir Francis Wyatt was the first governor appointed by the king in 1624; he served for two years. He was appointed governor again in 1639 and served for three years. In the gap between those terms, Sir John Harvey was governor from 1630-1635 and (after being temporarily "thrust out") between 1637–1639.4
There were vacancies in Virginia after a governor died, was recalled by London officials or sponsors, left the colony for other business, or failed to arrive on time. When there was no officially-appointed governor in residence:5
Governor William Berkeley, the longest-serving governor of Virginia from 1642-1652 and 1660-1677, was forced out of office for eight years during the English Civil Wars. Parliament sent a military force to Virginia and the General Assembly elected four different governors. Once it was clear Charles II would be restored to the throne, Berkeley resumed his position as governor.
Governor Berkeley was temporarily displaced during Bacon's Rebellion in 1676. He was forced to flee Jamestown to the Eastern Shore, before crushing the rebellion. The committee sent by Charles II to investigate the rebellion finally forced Berkeley out of office.6
Governors could not rule by edict. To implement their instructions, they had to obtain the support of the Virginia gentry who were appointed to serve on the Council, and get legislation passed by the House of Burgesses. The Reverend James Blair was instrumental in conveying the displeasure of the gentry to the Board of Trade in London, and arranged to get two or three governors recalled.
In 1689, Blair was named commissary, the representative of the bishop of London in Virginia. That made him the highest ecclesiastical official in the colony. He was appointed to the Governor's Council in 1694, where he came into conflict with Governor Edmund Andros. Three years later, Blair traveled to London and convinced key officials that Andros needed to be replaced.
After Andros submitted his resignation, Francis Nicholson was appointed to replace him. Blair and other members of the Council also fought with Governor Nicholson. In 1703, Blair went to England again to advcate for Nicholson's dismissal. The Board of Trade fired Governor Nicholson in 1705, demonstrating the power of the tobacco planters in Virginia who provided so much tax revenue to England.7
Governor Edward Nott died in 1706 after serving as governor for one year in Williamsburg. A lasting reminder of his short term is the Governor's Palace; he convinced the General Assembly to fund its construction.8
After Governor Edward Nott died in office, Edmund Jenings became the "acting" governor due to his senior leadership position on the Governor's Council. The Board of Trade formally authorized Jenings to serve officially as the lieutenant governor until the new royal appointee arrived. In 1608, Robert Hunter was chosen to become the next governor of the Virginia colony.
Governor-to-be Hunter sailed to Virginia, in order to serve as the resident governor in Williamsburg. His ship was captured by the French while traveling across the Atlantic Ocean. He never made it to Virginia to start his term in office, much less to finish.
After Hunter was captured, Queen Anne chose George Hamilton, the Earl of Orkney, as the new governor in 1710. He started the pattern of staying in England and sending his appointee to Virginia as his lieutenant or deputy governor.
Alexander Spotswood was his first appointed lieutenant governor. He traveled to Williamsburg and did all the work, with full powers delegated to him by the Earl of Orkney. The Council and the House of Burgesses called him Governor Spotswood. He was paid a portion of the governor's salary, which he had negotiated with the Earl of Orkney (who pocketed the rest).
Governor Alexander Spotswood had a contentious relationship with his Council, including the Reverend James Blair who had already orchestrated the removal of two governors. Spotswood was forced out of office in 1722; he did not retire on his own initiative. Officials serving King George I, rather than the Earl of Orkney, decided when to replace Spotswood and chose his replacement.9
Following the pattern set by the Earl of Orkney, all of the appointed lieutenant governors between 1710-1768 stayed in England. Royal favorites got an appointment as governor of Virginia, but treated it as a sinecure. They allocated a portion of the office's salary to pay a lieutenant governor, who would cross the Atlantic Ocean and do the actual governing in Virginia.
The Council in Virginia did not try to claim that the lieutenants lacked full authority. When an appointed lieutenant governor died or left, the president of the Governor's Council served as acting governor until a new appointee arrived. One of the deputy governors, Sir William Gooch, sailed with the British fleet to join the military expedition against Cartagena. For 10 months in 1740-41 until he returned and reassumed his position, the president of the Council was acting governor.10
Sir Jeffery Amherst was officially the governor between 1759-1768, and he appointed Francis Fauquier to serve in Virginia as his lieutenant governor. After Governor Fauquier died in 1768, the ministers under King George III directed Amherst to move from England to Williamsburg. The ministers recognized the need for governors to exert greater British authority, in person, after the colonists had organized to resist implementation of the Stamp Act and other proposed taxes.
Amherst refused to leave England, so he was dismissed from the position of governor. The last two colonial governors, Lord Botetourt and Lord Dunmore, came to Virginia and lived in the Governor's Palace.
Neither Botetourt nor Dunmore had a long term of office, and both were unsuccessful in reconciling Virginia to royal rule. Lord Botetourt died after two years in Williamsburg.
Lord Dunmore arrived in 1771, but fled the Governor's Palace on June 8, 1775, as the American Revolution broke out. The last royal governor of Virginia was forced to leave his position prematurely.11