Williamsburg Stories and Tips

Our Third James River Plantation, Westover

Westover House facing the James River.  Photo, Williamsburg, Virginia

Our third choice was Westover, built about 1736, by William Byrd II (1674-1744). William was born in Virginia on his father's plantation, but was brought up in Essex, England, by his uncle Daniel Horsmanden, the Rector of Purleigh near Chelmsford, where he met his maternal grandfather, the formidable Colonel Warham Horsmanden, who for 20 years had been a member of the ruling council in Virginia. William attended Felsted Grammar School near Braintree for 9 years when Christopher Glasscock was its headmaster and then studied law at the Middle Temple. He was called to the Bar in 1695, served a short apprenticeship in Holland, and visited the Court of Louis XIV. In London, William was becoming known as a satirical writer and wit, and in 1696, through the good offices of his mentor Sir Robert Southwell, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. His influence grew, and he was appointed Virginia's colonial agent in London, thus at the heart of the conflict between Crown and Colony that was eventually to spark into revolution. No man had a better preparation for representing the old world in the new and vice versa.

When his father died in 1704, William was 30 years old and returned to Virginia to manage the family's 26,000-acre estate. He became President of the Colonial Council, on which he sat as a Member for 35 years, and in 1733, established two towns, Richmond on the James River, now the capital, and Petersburg on the Appomattuck. He was truly one of the founding fathers of the modern state of Virginia, whose southern boundary he personally established by leading the surveyors who first traversed the Great Dismal Swamp while establishing the boundary line, 240 miles long, with North Carolina. William was hardy and energetic and, like most Virginians of his time, often in the saddle. A great traveler, he was no ordinary pioneer: this was a man of culture, wide accomplishments, and considerable charm, a genial host who had powerful friends on both sides of the Atlantic, which he crossed 10 times, often sailing on a ship called the "Golden Rose."

We were not able to tour the inside of Westover, considered one of the most outstanding examples of Georgian architecture in America. Of special notice is the unusual steepness of the roof, the tall chimneys in pairs at both ends of the main structure, and the elaborate doorway, which continues to be recognized as the "Westover doorway" despite its adaptation to many other buildings. The grounds and garden are open 9am to 6pm daily.

Westover, sitting 35 miles downstream from Richmond, was named for Henry West, fourth Lord Delaware and son of Thomas West, Governor of Virginia. The two wings were originally identical and not connected to the three-story central structure. The east wing, which once contained the famous Byrd library of more than 4,000 volumes, burned during the War Between the States. The library had also contained Bibles in Dutch, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, all of which William could read, a mark of his scholarship. The present east wing was built about 1900, and both wings were connected to the main home at that time. Just west of the house is the icehouse and a small structure containing a dry well with passageways, which led under the house to two secret rooms and to the river, a reminder of the danger that once existed of attack by Indians and other raiders. Across the driveway from the icehouse is the Necessary House. At each approach to the property are elegant wrought-iron gates incorporating the Byrd family arms. The main gates have WEB woven into their classical design, while large eagles of lead stand on the stone columns from which the gates swing. Beneath the house is a labyrinth of cellars where the claret and madeira were stored. The formal gardens were re-established about 1900. At the center, where the paths cross, is the handsome tomb with its interesting epitaph honoring the colorful William Byrd II, "Black Swan of Westover," who was buried there in 1744.

Although we were unable to tour the inside and had no guide to enlighten us about Westover’s historical significance, it must be obvious that it made such a grand impression that we have since researched it. There was no set admission fee when we were there. There was just a small holder with brochures and a sign asking for a token donation.

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