When Queen Elizabeth entered eternity and Charles III became king, he also became head of state not only in the UK, but also in 14 other countries that still recognize the British monarchy.
We are not one of them. We went to war to get rid of royalty. We remember the Declaration of Independence for the lofty words of Thomas Jefferson on how “all men are created equal”, on “inalienable rights”, on “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. We tend not to dwell on other parts of the document, which are a relentless attack on the monarchy, or at least the monarch at the time: “The story of the present King of Britain is a history of repeated insults and usurpations, all having as their direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these States.
Strong stuff. Jefferson might have done well on Twitter. Some today worry about the fall of statues, but one of the first acts of the American Revolution involved the tearing down of a statue. As soon as news of the Declaration of Independence reached New York – July 9, 1776 – a crowd gathered and carried away the statue of King George III. The 4,000 pound metal statue was later melted down and turned into bullets for the US military.
So here is today’s question: why, after waging war against the crown, did the victorious American colonies retain so many place names associated with royalty?
In Virginia, no less than 26 counties are named after members of the royal family. Two of those counties – Elizabeth City and Princess Anne – were merged into Hampton and Virginia Beach, respectively, but that didn’t happen until 1952 and 1963.
The original count, in order of creation:
Nine counties named after House Stuart: James City, Henrico, Charles City, Elizabeth City, York, Gloucester, Princess Anne, Fluvanna, Prince George.
Three counties named after the House of Orange: King and Queen, King William, Orange.
Fourteen counties named after the House of Hanover: Brunswick, Hanover, King George, Caroline, Prince William, Amelia, Frederick, Augusta, Louisa, Lunenburg, Cumberland, Prince Edward, Charlotte and Mecklenburg.
This list does not include towns, a legal distinction that came later, but which bear royal names – notably Williamsburg (King William III) and even Jefferson’s Charlottesville (Charlotte, wife of King George III).
It also does not include counties named after British nobility who were not members of the royal family, such as the Earldom of Bedford (named after John Russell, the Duke of Bedford, who was a cabinet minister British, although he was accused of spending too much time at his country estate playing cricket and shooting pheasants) and County of Halifax (named after George Montagu-Dunk, Earl of ‘Halifax, who as president of the Chamber of Commerce helped found a port city in Nova Scotia that now also bears his name). It also does not include counties named after other British figures, such as Pittsylvania County, named after British Prime Minister William Pitt, who was considered a friend of the colonies.
You will notice that these British names run out as you go west in the state; which reflects the settlement patterns of the time. Once you get past Augusta County, place names tend to be topographical (Alleghany, Bath, Highland, Roanoke, Rockbridge) or named after Revolutionary War figures or later historical figures . An exception is the county of Botetourt, named after the last royal governor we loved: Norborne Berkeley, on the 4e Baron Botetourt.
In my opinion, no other state has as many counties named after British royalty as Virginia. (North Carolina has only six counties named after royalty.) Even our state’s very name is derived from a royal reference — to Elizabeth I, the so-called “virgin queen.” The same goes for five others: Georgia (King George II), Maryland (wife of King Charles I), New York (the Duke of York who later became James II), North Carolina and South Carolina (Charles I).
So why did we keep all these names? If we were so disgusted with British royalty or British governance in general that we were ready to go to war, why didn’t we change all those names to something more American? We were ready to fight and die but not ready to change a road sign?
The answer, like so many answers, is complicated. We changed the name of a county. In 1772, Dunmore County had been established in the Shenandoah Valley, named after the Governor – John Murray, Earl of Dunmore. To be governor was then a good business; you have a county named after you. Dunmore also proved to be an unpopular governor. He was also the victim of bad timing (not to mention bad judgment). He was governor when the revolution broke out. He ordered the British Army to set fire to some buildings on the seafront in Norfolk to wipe out the rebels – today we call them patriots. The fire spread, the town burned, and Dunmore fled Virginia, never to return. Dunmore County was soon renamed Shenandoah County.
And yet all the other names remained, even that of Hanover County, the name of the royal family from which the hated George III came – “a tyrant [who] is unfit to lead a free people,” in Jefferson’s words.
For an answer, I turned to Roger Ekirch, professor emeritus of history at Virginia Tech. “The short answer, I think, is that these figures were always held in high esteem, such as King William III who, together with Queen Mary, ascended the throne(ies) after the Glorious Revolution of 1688”, m ‘he said. “William, a devoted Protestant, remained a staunch opponent of the reactionary Jacobites.”
Ekirch said the settlers had rather warm feelings towards William, in particular. “He was seen as something of an icon, just like Mary, with freedom and British heritage. Both before and after the revolution, he was considered an important contributor to Britain’s libertarian legacy. These warm feelings extended to other members of the British royal family, or at least did not develop into the kind of disgust that the colonists felt for a particular member of the British royal family.
These are my thoughts, not his: It is also important to remember that Americans were not an indigenous people shaking off a foreign colonial yoke. In 1775, about 63% of those living in the colonies had some sort of British heritage, according to US Census Bureau estimates, typically English, followed by Scots-Irish and Scots. When the colonials began to agitate against British rule, they felt they were merely asserting their rights as Englishmen under the Bill of Rights which Parliament had passed in 1689 at the sequel to the so-called Glorious Revolution which saw the authoritarian James II overthrown in favor of William. and Mary. It was only later, after London continued to refuse colonial demands, that the colonists began to see themselves as a distinctly different people who should govern themselves.
Nor are they old, irrelevant events in a history book. You will recall that in 2016, the Supreme Court of Virginia ruled that Governor Terry McAuliffe exceeded his powers when he tried to sign a blanket order restoring the civil rights of all convicted felons, instead forcing him to make a one-by-one base. Chief Justice Donald Lemons, author of the opinion, devoted several pages to the history of the Glorious Revolution and how British parliamentarians at the time had “a widespread fear…of absolute executive power”. James II held firmly to the divine right of kings to do as they pleased (he was also a Catholic, which did not sit well in Protestant Britain at the time). His daughter, Mary, was Protestant and had married a Protestant, William of Orange. William and Mary were considered much more favorable to parliamentary rule and consented to this bill of rights which set out some of the details. We Americans liked it so much that we finally passed our own bill of rights. The fact is that Americans in 1776 did not necessarily reject all aspects of their British history and therefore were in no mood to rename localities.
In modern jargon, post-Revolutionary Americans were so cold about their British heritage that they didn’t even rename the County of Fairfax, even though Lord Fairfax – the only British nobleman to reside in the colonies – was a declared loyalist to the crown. Centuries later, Virginia honored him specifically by naming a community college after him, although it has now been renamed Laurel Ridge as we reassessed Lord Fairfax’s role as a slave owner. This reassessment has also ensnared some of our founders. The state insisted that Patrick Henry Community College drop its name because Henry was also a slaveholder—”give me liberty or give me death” apparently had only limited application. Our reassessment of history, however, is either incomplete or inconsistent. The state allowed this school to become Patrick & Henry, the names referencing two counties in its service area, even though they are named after, yes, the same Patrick Henry. Patrick Henry’s name was deemed inappropriate for one school, but not for two counties. Likewise, no one has suggested renaming Fairfax County, even though in theory its name should be just as tainted as the school’s name.
For those struggling to understand why the Americans didn’t rename counties named after British royalty, but renamed things named after certain Americans, here’s the way of looking at it: we renamed things named after Confederates and segregationists (like Dabney S. Lancaster, whose school is named after Mountain Gateway) because at least some figured out they were on the wrong side. Early Americans felt Governor Dunmore was also on the wrong side, so he renamed his county – but didn’t feel the same way about former royals and assorted nobles. That’s why today we still have all those counties named after kings, queens, princes, princesses, plus a duke or baron here or there, even though we swore no allegiance to His Majesty Elizabeth II, by the Grace of God Queen of this Kingdom and her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith.