Edward Digges

Edward Digges (14 February 1620 – 15 March 1674/75) was an English barrister and colonist who served as Colonial Governor of Virginia from March 1655 to December 1656. He was the son of the English politician Dudley Digges. He invested heavily in planting mulberry trees and promoting the silk industry in the colony, in recognition of which he was appointed auditor-general of Virginia.[1]

Edward Digges' father, Sir Dudley Digges; commonly mistaken as a portrait of his son, Edward

Early life

Edward Digges' father, Sir Dudley Digges

Born in Chilham Castle, Kent, England,and christened in Chilham parish on 29 March 1620, Edward Digges was the fourth son of Sir Dudley Digges (1583–1638) and his wife Mary Kempe (1583–?). Sir Dudley was the Master of the Rolls for King Charles I and an investor in the Virginia Company of London.

Edward Digges entered Gray's Inn in 1637 to become a barrister. He emigrated to the Virginia Colony about 1650 and purchased from Captain John West a plantation of 1250 acres in present-day York County, Virginia, near Yorktown.[1] About 1653, he laid out Fort Mattapony near Walkerton, King and Queen County, Virginia.[2]

Experiments in silk production

Digges developed a strong interest in reviving the production of silk in Virginia. The cultivation of the silkworm had been attempted previously in the colony, in response to King James's interest in the subject.[3] However, these early efforts had been unsuccessful, perhaps due to lack of enthusiasm among the colonists. Digges, in contrast, became deeply absorbed in his project. He brought over two Armenians(which are considered to be the first armenians in america) to help him experiment with silk production, and even wrote a pamphlet entitled "The Reformed Virginia Silkworm", in which he claimed that "native silkworms could be kept outdoors on native mulberry trees and that Indians could be employed to care for the worms."[4]

Silkworm Larvae

Digges sent a parcel of his silk to the Royal Society, by way of his cousin Dudley Palmer,[5] one of the original Fellows of the Society. In the letter accompanying the silk sample, Digges comments on his findings, for example:

Our Country of Virginia is very much subject to Thunders : and it hath thundered exceedingly when I have had worms of all sorts, some newly hatched; some halfway in their feeding; others spinning their Silk; yet I found none of them concerned in the Thunder, but kept to their business, as if there had been no such thing.[6]

Digges's efforts to create a silk industry in Virginia proved futile. By 1656 the Virginia Assembly had become disillusioned with silkworms, and passed the following terse act to signal its loss of enthusiasm:

WHEREAS the act for mullberrie trees seemes rather troublesome and burthensome then any waies advantageous to the country, It is hereby enacted, That the said act for planting mullberrie trees shall be repealed and made void.[7]

To this day there are numerous mulberry trees, which were used to raise the silk worms, still standing on the land of the old plantation. In recognition of his efforts, Edward Digges was given a seat in the council in November 1654, "having given a signal testimony of his fidelity to this colony and commonwealth of England."


Edward Digges was more successful with tobacco than with silk. He became known for growing "E.D." tobacco, a sweet-scented variety which brought an unusually high price in London.[8]

Digges served as Colonial Governor of Virginia from 30 March 1655 to December 1656, for which he received a salary of 25,000 pounds of tobacco, with the duties levied on vessels, and marriage license fees. In December 1656, The House of Burgesses selected Samuel Mathews as governor to replace Edward Digges, and Digges became the colonial agent to England. In this position, Digges was to go to England and meet with English merchants about the price of tobacco and to secure the rights of the colony. Leaving in March 1657, he took a letter from the House of Burgesses to Oliver Cromwell, who had been ruling England since 1653, following the English Civil War, to settle the long pending controversy between the Colony and Lord Baltimore.

Marriage and family

Edward Digges married Elizabeth Page, daughter of Francis Page (1595-1678) of Bedfont, Middlesex, and sister of Col. John Page of Middle Plantation.[9]

Digges died in 1675. A large tombstone was placed over his grave near his home at Bellfield, with the following inscription:

To the memory of Edward Digges Esq. Sonne of Dudley Digges of Chilham in Kent Kn t & Bar t Master of the Rolls in the rain of K. Charles the First. He departed this life 15th of March 1674 in the LIII d year of his age, one of his Mag ty Councill for this his colony of Virginia. A gentlemen of most commendable parts and ingenuity, the only introducer and promoter of the silk manufacture in this colony. And in everything else a pattern worthy of all Pious Imitation. He had issue 6 sons and 7 daughters by the body of Elizabeth his wife who of her conjugal affection hath dedicated to him this Memorial.[10]

Digges' will (dated 28 August 1669, proved 16 June 1675) left legacies "to all my children being four boys and four girls", thus establishing that by 1669, when the will was written, only eight of the thirteen children mentioned in the grave inscription were still living.[11]

Following Bacon's Rebellion, Mrs Digges was referred to in the Report of the Royal Commissioners as one of those who had suffered as a result of family loyalty to the King:

Capt Wm. Diggs sonne to Mr. Edward Diggs, deceased, a Galland, brisk young Gentleman, who in a single dispute betwixt him and Hansford, one of the cheifest champions of the Rebells side, cut off one of Hansfords fingers, and forced him to fly, and maintained the Governors cause against the Rebells, with great constancy till he was forced to fly to Maryland, whose mother suffered considerably in her estate for her sonnes Loyalty.[12]

Elizabeth died intestate in 1691. An article published in the William and Mary Quarterly in 1893 recounts the division of her personal estate between her surviving heirs:

On November 24, 1691, Capt. Francis Page, in behalf of his daughter, Elizabeth Page, "as legally representing her deceased mother, Mary, ye daughter of ye said Mrs. Elizabeth Digges, petitioned ye Court for a division of Mrs. Digges' estate", which was ordered. Accordingly on the 10th December, 1691, Joseph Ring, Thomas Barber and Martin Gardiner reported the division, and the inventory was entered in the York records, August 24, 1692. It amounted to L1 102, 18, 10.[13]

Mrs Digges' personal property was divided by the Court, in accordance with the law, among her four surviving heirs: three sons (William, Dudley, and Edward) and one granddaughter (Elizabeth Page, daughter of Mary Digges and Francis Page).

The plantation which Digges had purchased from Capt. John West (known as the E. D. plantation) remained in the family until 1787, when it was sold. It was known as "Bellfield" by 1811, when it was advertised for sale as "Belfield, 1.000 acres in York Co., the only estate where the famous E.D. tobacco was raised, which never failed to bring in England one shilling when other tobacco would not bring three pence."[1]


Six of the thirteen Digges children survived to adulthood:[9]

  • William (– 24 July 1697); he married Elizabeth Wharton, step-daughter of Lord Baltimore, and had ten children.
  • Dudley (1664 – 18 Jan 1710); he married Susannah Cole (1674 - 1708 and produced four children:
  • Cole (1692–1774); he married Elizabeth Foliott Power:
  • Dudley (c. 1728 – 1790), Cole's third son, served in the House of Burgesses from 1752 until the Revolutionary War. Dudley Digges was a member of the Committee of Safety established by the Virginia Conventions to act in the absence of the royal governor, he would become a lieutenant governor of Virginia and was one of the members of the Virginia Assembly captured by the British in a Charlottesville raid in 1781.
  • Mary (– 1690/91); she married her first cousin Francis Page, and had a daughter Elizabeth, who in turn married a first cousin (John Page) and died in 1702, aged 19, leaving two children (John and Elizabeth), both of whom died without issue.
  • Anne (– 1686); she married William Cole and had two sons, both of whom died in childhood.
  • Edward; he shared in the 1692 division of his mother's estate, but died unmarried and without issue.
  • Catherine (1654–1729); she lived in New Kent, Virginia, and married three times. She produced 3 sons (Edward, James, and William Herndon).

See also


  1. Tyler, Lyon G., "Pedigree of a Representative Virginia Planter", William & Mary Quarterly Jan. 1893
  2. Pete Payette (1999). "Tidewater Virginia: Fort Mattapony". American Forts Network.
  3. Hatch, Charles E. Jr, "Mulberry Trees and Silkworms: Sericulture in Early Virginia", VA Mag. of History & Biography, Jan 1957, pp3-61
  4. Musgrave, C.A and Bennett, D.R., "Bicentennial Review of Early American Entomology",The Florida Entomologist, Vol.55, No.4, 1976
  5. Son of Sir Anthony Palmer and his wife Margaret Digges, sister to Sir Dudley Digges and aunt to Edward
  6. An Extract of a Letter Containing Some Observations, Made in the Ordering of Silk-Worms, Communicated by That Known Vertuoso, Mr. Dudley Palmer, from the Ingenuous Mr. Edward Digges. Palmer, D.; Digges, E Philosophical Transactions (1665-1678). 1753-01-01. 1:26–27
  7. Hening's Statutes at Large
  8. Tarter, Brent. "Edward Digges (1621–1675)". Encyclopedia Virginia/Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Retrieved 9 March 2015.
  9. Dorman, John Frederick, Adventurers of Purse and Person, 4th ed., v.1, pp.821-844.
  10. CNIC: Naval Weapons Station Yorktown: The Land: BELLFIELD
  11. Documents Online, National Archives, Prerogative Court of Canterbury, PROB11/383
  12. "Persons Who Suffered by Bacon's Rebellion. The Commissioners' Report [Winder Papers, Virginia State Library]", The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Jul., 1897), pp. 64-70. "A List of the names of those worthy persons, whose services and sufferings by the late Rebell Nathaniel Bacon, Junior, & his party, have been Reported to us most signal and Eminent, during the late unhappy troubles in Virginia, And Particularly of such, whose approved Loyaltie, constancy and courage hath rendered them most deserving of his Majestie's Royall Remark..."
  13. "Pedigree of a Representative Virginia Planter, Edward Digges, Esq., Addenda", William and Mary College Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 4. (Apr., 1893), pp. 208-213.

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