Thomas West, baron De La Warr

Thomas West, twelfth baron De La Warr (1576–1618)

Thomas West, twelfth baron De La Warr, served as the first governor of Virginia appointed by the Virginia Company of London, living in the colony only briefly but holding the title until his death. Born to a wealthy and well-connected Protestant family, De La Warr attended Oxford without taking a degree and served with his first cousin, Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex, in Ireland. After managing to escape the taint of Essex's failed rebellion against Queen Elizabeth, De La Warr invested in the Virginia Company and, after James I issued its second charter, was appointed governor and captain-general for life. He arrived at Jamestown in 1610 just in time to save the colony from abandonment. After establishing a strict, military-like regime and renewing a brutal campaign against the Indians, he left Virginia in March 1611 because of illness. De La Warr attempted to return to Virginia in 1618, having never relinquished his title of governor, but he died en route. Three of his brothers also lived in the colony, two of whom, Francis West and John West, also served as governor. The Delaware River was named for De La Warr. MORE...


Early Years

Thomas West was born on July 9, 1576, the son of Thomas West, second, or eleventh, baron De La Warr, and Anne Knollys West, of Wherwell, Hampshire, England, where mostly likely he was born and christened. The barony De La Warr (pronounced "de la ware") was created first in 1299 and then again, due to a legal dispute, in 1570. As such, the baron's number depends on a willingness to recognize the second creation, which started its count again at one.

The family possessed impeccable social and political connections that assisted West in his career. He entered the Queen's College, University of Oxford, at age fifteen on March 9, 1592. Like many other young men he left without taking a degree, but the university awarded him and more than a dozen other dignitaries an MA in 1605 on the occasion of a visit by the king. West married Cecilia, or Cecily, Shirley on November 25, 1596, at St.-Dunstan-in-the-West, a church in London. They had six daughters and one son. After a year's tour of Italy, West won election to the House of Commons from Lymington and served in the Parliament that met from October 1597 until February 1598.

He soldiered in the Low Countries and campaigned in Ireland with Robert Devereaux, second earl of Essex. A victory against Phelim MacFeagh O'Byrne near Arklow, County Wicklow, on the east coast of Ireland, on June 30, 1599, led to West's knighthood a couple of weeks later. Suspected of complicity in Essex's hapless revolt against Queen Elizabeth I, West was imprisoned briefly in 1601, but the earl absolved him of any guilt. With the cloud of suspicion lifted, West became a privy councillor to the queen and to her successor, James I. When West's father died in March 1602, he succeeded to the barony and thereafter signed himself Tho: Lawarre.


In November 1606 the king appointed De La Warr to the royal council that oversaw the Virginia Company of London. De La Warr invested £500 in the company, by far the largest investment of any company officer during the following decade. During the critical first years of the Virginia colony, De La Warr monitored from London the deteriorating situation in the colony and worked toward revamping its governance. He may have assisted in drafting the Charter of 1609, which abolished the royal council and authorized the company to appoint a resident governor with the power to name his subordinate officers. Noble rank, stature at court, military experience, and his own substantial personal investment in the company combined to make De La Warr the obvious choice as Virginia's governor, and on February 28, 1610, the company commissioned him governor and captain-general for life.

De La Warr departed from London a few weeks later in command of a substantial expedition of colonists, supplies, and ships. The swiftness of his departure and the number of resources suggest that his appointment had been agreed to long before the date of his commission and the first references to it in the company's surviving records. De La Warr's fleet arrived in Virginia early in June 1610. As it entered the James River, it encountered Sir Thomas Gates and the survivors of the Starving Time of November 1609–May 1610. They had abandoned Jamestown and were setting sail for Newfoundland to catch a ride to England aboard the fishing fleet. De La Warr's timely arrival with reinforcements and provisions prevented Virginia from becoming another failed venture like the colony on Roanoke Island in the 1580s.

De La Warr reorganized the colony along the military lines that the company had envisioned. To that end, he implemented harsh civil regulations akin to what the English had imposed on their troops in the Netherlands and Ireland. Sir Thomas Dale subsequently added military regulations, and the combined orders were published in London under the title For The Colony in Virginea Britannia. Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall, &c. (1612). The military regime stabilized Virginia, though it gave rise to choruses of complaints from the settlers and did little to ensure the colony's profitability.

De La Warr attacked the Algonquian-speaking Indians of Tsenacomoco with a fierceness and brutality that matched his fighting in Ireland. After an attack by the Paspahegh Indians, De La Warr's soldiers retaliated, killing the chief's captured wife and two children. Two villages of Warraskoyack Indians were burned and their corn stolen. Still, the bloodshed brought no resolution to the First Anglo-Powhatan War (1609–1614) by the time the governor left Virginia. Chronic ill health, including dysentery and scurvy, drove De La Warr to flee the colony in the spring of 1611 in search of relief. His abrupt return to London caused such consternation in the company that later in the year he defended himself by publishing The Relation of the Right Honourable the Lord De La-Warre, Lord Governour and Captaine Generall of the Colonie, Planted in Virginea.

Three of De La Warr's brothers also took active parts in the colonization of Virginia. Francis West sailed to Virginia with Christopher Newport in 1608. He served on the governor's Council from 1609 until his death and as governor from November 1627 through February 1629. Nathaniel West and John West (1590–1659) may have gone to Virginia together in 1618. The latter established himself as a prominent military officer, a member of the Council, and acting governor from 1635 to 1637.

One of the early settlements on the James River, West and Shirley Hundred, probably acquired its name from the family names of the governor and his wife. Samuel Argall named a cape and a bay for De La Warr during voyages along the mid-Atlantic coast in 1610 and 1612. The river that empties into that bay and one of the principal Indian tribes that dwelled in its vicinity also acquired his name in English-language discourse, as did the American state, all spelled as one word, Delaware.

Later Years

Early in 1618 De La Warr boarded the Neptune to return to Virginia and resume his work as governor, but he died en route on July 7, 1618. John Pory reported in the autumn that De La Warr had "dyed in Canada," suggesting that the governor died near the coast north of the charter boundaries of Virginia, probably off Nova Scotia or perhaps Newfoundland. One of De La Warr's servants later testified that the governor's body was carried to Virginia and buried there.

Time Line

  • July 9, 1576 - Thomas West, the future baron De La Warr, is born at Wherwell, Hampshire. He is the son of Thomas West, eleventh baron De La Warr, and his wife, Anne Knollys.
  • March 9, 1592 - Thomas West matriculates at Queen's College, Oxford. He will leave the university without a degree.
  • 1595 - Thomas West travels to Italy with a son of Sir Thomas Shirley of Wiston, West's godfather.
  • November 25, 1596 - Thomas West marries Cecilia Shirley, the youngest daughter of his godfather, Sir Thomas Shirley, at St.-Dunstan-in-the-West, a church in London.
  • October 1597–February 1598 - Thomas West serves in the House of Commons representing Lymington.
  • 1598 - Thomas West possibly serves with English forces fighting the Spanish in the Netherlands.
  • July 12, 1599 - Thomas West is knighted while in Ireland fighting in a campaign against Irish rebels, which is led by his first cousin, Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex.
  • February 19, 1601 - Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex, imprisoned for leading an uprising against Queen Elizabeth, apologizes to Thomas West's father, Essex's uncle, for causing his cousin to be arrested. West "was unacquainted with the whole matter," Essex says.
  • March 24, 1602 - After his father's death, Thomas West inherits the barony De La Warr, becoming third, or the twelfth, baron De La Warr. The number depends on a willingness to recognize the barony's second creation, in 1572. West also becomes a member of Queen Elizabeth's Privy Council.
  • October 3, 1603 - Henry West is born to Thomas West, twelfth baron De La Warr, and Cecilia Shirley West.
  • August 30, 1605 - Thomas West, twelfth baron De La Warr, is created an MA of Oxford University.
  • May 23, 1609 - The Crown approves a second royal charter for the Virginia Company of London. It replaces the royal council with private corporate control, extends the colony's boundaries to the Pacific Ocean, and installs a governor, Sir Thomas West, twelfth baron De La Warr, to run operations in Virginia.
  • November 1610 - Governor Sir Thomas West, twelfth baron De La Warr, sends an expedition west toward the falls of the James River. After an initial defeat at the hands of the Appamattuck's weroansqua, Opossunoquonuske, the colonists destroy the Appamattuck village.
  • June 25, 1611 - Thomas West, twelfth baron De La Warr, addresses a letter to his superiors at the Virginia Company of London. He had left Virginia with plans to recuperate from illness in Bermuda, but a storm forced him west, eventually all the way to England.
  • Autumn 1616 - Thomas West, twelfth baron De La Warr, and his wife, Cecilia Shirley West, introduce John Rolfe and his wife, Pocahontas, into English society. The visitors from Virginia are in London to raise funds for the Virginia Company of London.
  • October 14, 1618 - By this date, news has reached England of the death of Virginia governor Thomas West, twelfth baron De La Warr. His son Henry inherits the barony De La Warr.
  • 1619–1623 - Cecilia Shirley West, the widow of Thomas West, twelfth baron De La Warr, disposes of her husband's sixty-five shares of land, including his investment in West and Shirley Plantation.
Further Reading
Brown, Alexander. "Sir Thomas West, Third Lord De La Warr." Magazine of American History with Notes and Queries 9 (1883): 18–30.
Fausz, J. Frederick. "An 'Abundance of Blood Shed on Both Sides': England's First Indian War, 1609–1614."Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 98, no. 1 (January 1990): 3–56.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Billings, W. M., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Thomas West, twelfth baron De La Warr (1576–1618). (2013, October 27). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from

  • MLA Citation:

    Billings, Warren M. and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Thomas West, twelfth baron De La Warr (1576–1618)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 27 Oct. 2013. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: May 21, 2013 | Last modified: October 27, 2013