Edward Digges (1621–1675)

Edward Digges was a member of the governor's Council (1654–1656; 1670–1675) and governor of Virginia (1655–1656). Born in England the son of a merchant with shares in the Virginia Company of London, Digges arrived in Virginia around 1650 and bought land in York and Gloucester counties. There he planted a sweet-scented tobacco that was so respected it came to be known, even years after his death, as ED tobacco. He also was celebrated for his fine silk. In 1654, Digges was elected to the governor's Council, and the following year he became governor. When Puritans overthrew the proprietary governor of neighboring Maryland, Digges relinquished his office and sailed to London, where he helped negotiate an end to the political turbulence. In the meantime, he lobbied on behalf of Virginia's tobacco farmers, seeking first to stop production of the plant in England and then to reduce its production in Virginia, all in an attempt to raise prices. Digges returned to Virginia in 1669, again became a member of the Council, and died in 1675. MORE...

 

Digges was a younger son of Sir Dudley Digges and Mary Kempe Digges. Born probably at his father's Chilham Castle, in Kent County, England, he was baptized in Chilham Parish on March 29, 1621. His father was a prosperous and well-connected merchant, an owner of shares in the Virginia Company of London, a member of the House of Commons in the 1610s and 1620s, and master of the rolls to Charles I during the 1630s. Digges was admitted to Gray's Inn, one of the law courts, on May 19, 1637, and he may have gained knowledge of the colonial trade there or in a London mercantile house during the 1640s. Sometime during that decade he married Elizabeth Page, whose brother John Page (d. 1692) became a member of the governor's Council. Of their seven daughters and six sons, Dudley Digges (d. 1711) also sat on the governor's Council.

Digges's religious affiliation and political opinions during the English Civil Wars are not known, but his career in England and in Virginia indicates that he retained the confidence both of influential Puritans and of royalists. Sometime before or early in 1650 he moved to Virginia. He purchased 1,200 acres of land in York County on December 11, 1650, and patented more than 3,000 acres of land in Gloucester County in 1653. Digges planted a particularly fine variety of sweet-scented tobacco that commanded a high price in the London markets and became so well known that for generations after his death it was referred to as ED tobacco.

In addition to planting tobacco and probably facilitating business contacts between other planters and London merchants, Digges produced silk in quantity. He distributed silkworm seed to other planters and encouraged them to begin production on their plantations. He imported two skilled Armenian silk workers from the Ottoman Empire and by 1654 was regarded as the premier silk producer in Virginia. To a collection entitled The Reformed Virginian Silk-Worm (1655) his London friend John Ferrar contributed a report from Digges and a poem lauding his achievements.

On November 22, 1654, the governor and Council recommended to the House of Burgesses that Digges be elected to the Council. The House unanimously consented, "he haveing given a signal testimony of his fidelity to this collony and Common-Wealth of England." On March 31, 1655, the assembly elected Digges governor of Virginia. In that office he dealt with a border controversy that resulted from a longstanding claim of William Claiborne, a member of the Council, to ownership of Kent Island, in the Chesapeake Bay, which Maryland claimed under its charter. Digges was also concerned about political turbulence in Maryland, where Puritans had wrested control from the proprietary governor. Low tobacco prices threatened the prosperity of both colonies. Assembly records and Digges's correspondence with Oliver Cromwell and other officials in London indicate he and the Council in Virginia could not resolve the first and second problems and were unable alone to do much about the third.

The General Assembly that convened on December 1, 1656, commissioned Digges to represent the colony's interests in those matters in London, to which he was planning to return on personal or family business. He relinquished the governor's office and left Virginia sometime after the assembly concluded its work about December 15. In London during the winter of 1657–1658, Digges helped negotiate a settlement of the political strife in Maryland. In December 1660, a few months after the restoration of the monarchy, Charles II appointed Digges to the influential new Council of Foreign Plantations, forerunner of the Board of Trade. Digges presented a quantity of Virginia silk, probably from his own plantation, to the king early in 1661, and two years later he and Governor Sir William Berkeley presented the king with silk that Berkeley had produced. In August 1662 the two men requested that the king suppress tobacco cultivation in England because it had aggravated a glut on the market and lowered the prices that Virginia planters received. Digges and other men representing the colony's planters testified before the Privy Council in the autumn of 1664 about depressed tobacco prices, and he recommended that the king take steps to reduce tobacco production in the colonies and encourage production of silk, flax, naval stores, and potash.

Digges returned to Virginia during the second half of 1669, intending to settle his business affairs there and then retire to England. In the spring of the following year Berkeley appointed him auditor of the royal revenue in the colony, and on April 19, 1670, Digges again became a member of the governor's Council. He attended meetings often during the next five years and took responsibility for settling complex disputes involving property and other matters. Digges also resumed tobacco and silk production. In 1671 the assembly awarded him £100 as "the author and promoter of a hopeful advantagious designe of makeing silk" and for other "important Services" he had rendered. In October of that year the king appointed Digges surveyor of tobacco exports at a salary of £250 per annum. Digges relinquished that position early in 1674, when he became collector of customs in Virginia. In lieu of a salary, he kept half the money he collected and paid one-third of that to an assistant who performed most of the work.

Edward Digges died on March 15, 1675, probably at his York County residence, later known as Bellfield, where he was buried.

Time Line

  • March 29, 1621 - Edward Digges is baptized in Chilham Parish, in Kent County, England. He is a younger son of Sir Dudley Digges and Mary Kempe Digges.
  • May 19, 1637 - Edward Digges is admitted to Gray's Inn, one of the London law courts.
  • 1650 - Early in the year or perhaps soon before, Edward Digges moves to Virginia.
  • December 11, 1650 - Edward Digges purchases 1,200 acres of land in York County.
  • 1653 - Edward Digges patents more than 3,000 acres of land in Gloucester County and produces fine tobacco and silk.
  • 1654 - By this year Edward Digges is regarded as the premier silk producer in Virginia.
  • November 22, 1654 - Governor Richard Bennett and the governor's Council recommend to the House of Burgesses that Edward Digges be elected to the Council. The House unanimously consents, "he haveing given a signal testimony of his fidelity to this collony and Common-Wealth of England."
  • 1655 - A collection entitled The Reformed Virginian Silk-Worm is published and includes a report from Edward Digges on his silk production and a poem lauding his achievements.
  • March 31, 1655 - The General Assembly elects Edward Digges governor of Virginia.
  • December 1, 1656 - The General Assembly convenes and commissions Edward Digges to represent the colony's interests in London, especially regarding political turbulence in Maryland, where Puritans have wrested control from the proprietary governor.
  • December 15, 1656 - By about this day, the General Assembly adjourns, after which Edward Digges sails for London, where he plans to lobby on behalf of Virginia.
  • 1657–1658 - During the winter, Edward Digges, in London as a lobbyist on behalf of Virginia, helps to negotiate a settlement of the political strife in Maryland, where Puritans have wrested control from the proprietary governor.
  • December 1660 - Charles II appoints Edward Digges to the influential new Council of Foreign Plantations, forerunner of the Board of Trade.
  • 1661 - Early in the year, Edward Digges presents a quantity of Virginia silk, probably from his own plantation, to King Charles II.
  • August 1662 - Edward Digges and Governor Sir William Berkeley request that King Charles II suppress tobacco cultivation in England because it has aggravated a glut on the market and lowered the prices that Virginia planters receive.
  • 1663 - Edward Digges and Governor Sir William Berkeley present King Charles II with silk that Berkeley has produced.
  • Autumn 1664 - Edward Digges and other men representing Virginia's planters testify before the Privy Council about depressed tobacco prices, and Digges recommends that Charles II take steps to reduce tobacco production in the colonies and encourage production of silk, flax, naval stores, and potash.
  • 1669 - During the second half of the year, Edward Digges returns to Virginia from London intending to settle his business affairs and then retire to England.
  • Spring 1670 - Governor Sir William Berkeley appoints Edward Digges auditor of the royal revenue in Virginia.
  • April 19, 1670 - For a second time Edward Digges is appointed a member of the governor's Council.
  • 1671 - The General Assembly awards Edward Digges £100 as "the author and promoter of a hopeful advantagious designe of makeing silk" and for other "important Services" he has rendered.
  • October 1671 - King Charles II appoints Edward Digges surveyor of tobacco exports at a salary of £250 per annum.
  • 1674 - Early in the year, Edward Digges relinquishes his position as surveyor of tobacco exports when he becomes collector of customs in Virginia. In lieu of salary, he keeps half the money he collects and pays one-third of that to an assistant who performs most of the work.
  • March 15, 1675 - Edward Digges dies, probably at his York County residence, later known as Bellfield, where he is buried.
Further Reading
Tarter, Brent. "Digges, Edward." In the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 4, edited by Sara Bearss. Richmond: Library of Virginia, forthcoming.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Tarter, B., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Edward Digges (1621–1675). (2013, September 23). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Digges_Edward_1621-1675.

  • MLA Citation:

    Tarter, Brent and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Edward Digges (1621–1675)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 23 Sep. 2013. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: April 5, 2011 | Last modified: September 23, 2013


Contributed by Brent Tarter and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Brent Tarter is founding editor of the Dictionary of Virginia Biography