When Queen Elizabeth passed into eternity and Charles III became king, he also became head of state not just in the United Kingdom but also in 14 other countries that still recognize the British monarchy.
We are not one of them. We went to war to throw off royalty. We remember the Declaration of Independence for Thomas Jefferson’s high-minded words about how “all men are created equal,” about “unalienable rights,” about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” We tend not to dwell on other parts of the document, which are an unrelenting attack on the monarchy, or at least the monarch of the time: “The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.”
Strong stuff. Jefferson might have done well on Twitter. Some fret today about statues coming down but one of the first acts of the American Revolution involved a statue being torn down. As soon as news about the Declaration of Independence reached New York City – on July 9, 1776 – a mob assembled and hauled down the statue of King George III. The 4,000-pound metal statue was then melted down and turned into bullets for the American army.
So here’s the question for today: Why, after going to war against the crown, did the victorious American colonies keep so many of the place names associated with royalty?
In Virginia, no fewer than 26 counties were named after members of the royal family. Two of these counties – Elizabeth City and Princess Anne – have been merged away into Hampton and Virginia Beach, respectively, but that didn’t happen until 1952 and 1963.
The original count, by order of creation:
Nine counties named after the House of 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 doesn’t include cities, a legal distinction that came later, but which bear royal names – most notably Williamsburg (King William III) and even Jefferson’s own Charlottesville (Charlotte, the wife of King George III).
It also doesn’t include counties named after British nobility who weren’t members of the royal family, such as Bedford County (named for John Russell, the Duke of Bedford, who was a British cabinet minister, albeit one who was accused of spending too much time at his country estate playing cricket and shooting pheasants) and Halifax County (named for George Montagu-Dunk, the Earl of Halifax, who as president of the Board of Trade helped found a port city in Nova Scotia that now also bears his name). Nor does it 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’ll notice that those British names run out as you go farther west in the state; that reflects the settlement patterns at the time. Once you get past Augusta County, the place names tend to either be topographical (Alleghany, Bath, Highland, Roanoke, Rockbridge) or named after Revolutionary War figures or later historical figures. One exception is Botetourt County, named after the last royal governor that we liked: Norborne Berkeley, the 4th Baron Botetourt.
By my count, no other state has as many counties named after British royalty as Virginia does. (North Carolina has just 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.” So, too, do five others: Georgia (King George II), Maryland (the 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 those names? If we were so disgusted with British royalty or British governance in general that we were willing to go to war, why didn’t we change all those names to something more American? We were willing to fight and die but not willing to change a road sign?
The answer, like so many answers, is complicated. We did change one county name. In 1772, Dunmore County had been established in the Shenandoah Valley, named after the governor – John Murray, the Earl of Dunmore. Being governor was a good deal then; you got a county named after you. Dunmore also turned out to be an unpopular governor. He was also a victim of bad timing (not to mention bad judgment). He was governor when the revolution broke out. He ordered the British military to set fire to some waterfront buildings in Norfolk to clear out rebels – today we call them patriots. The fire spread, the city burned, and Dunmore fled Virginia, never to return. Dunmore County promptly got renamed as Shenandoah County.
And yet all the other names remained, even the one named Hanover County, after the royal family from whence the detested George III came – “a tyrant [who] is unfit to be the ruler of a free people,” in Jefferson’s words.
For an answer, I turned to Roger Ekirch, a University Distinguished Professor of History at Virginia Tech. “The short answer, I think, is that these figures were still held in high regard, such as King William III who, with Queen Mary, ascended to the throne(s) after the Glorious Revolution of 1688,” he told me. “William, a devoted Protestant, remained a staunch opponent of the reactionary Jacobites.”
Ekirch said that colonists had rather warm feelings toward William, in particular. “He was seen as something of an icon, as was Mary, with freedom and Britain’s heritage. Both before and after the revolution, he was seen as an important contributor to Great Britain’s libertarian heritage.” Those warm feelings extended to other British royals, or at least didn’t turn into the kind of distaste that colonists felt for one British royal in particular.
These are my thoughts, not his: It’s also important to remember that Americans were not an indigenous people throwing off a foreign colonial yoke. In 1775, about 63% of those living in the colonies had some sort of British heritage, according to estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau, typically English, followed by the Scots-Irish and Scottish. When colonials first started agitating about British rule, they felt they were simply asserting their rights as Englishmen under the Bill of Rights that parliament had passed in 1689 following the so-called Glorious Revolution that saw the high-handed James II overthrown in favor of William and Mary. It was not until later, after London kept refusing colonial pleas, that colonists began to think of themselves as a distinctly different people who ought to govern themselves.
These are not ancient, irrelevant events in some history book, either. You’ll recall that in 2016 the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that Gov. Terry McAuliffe was exceeding his authority when he tried to sign a blanket order restoring the civil rights of all convicted felons, forcing him instead to do so on a one-by-one basis. Chief Justice Donald Lemons, who authored the opinion, devoted multiple pages to a history of the Glorious Revolution, and how British parliamentarians at the time had “a widespread fear … of absolute executive power.” James II held tight to the divine right of kings to do as they pleased (he also was Catholic, which didn’t go over well in Protestant Great Britain at the time). His daughter, Mary, was a Protestant, and had married a Protestant, William of Orange. William and Mary were seen as much more amenable to parliamentary rule, and assented to that Bill of Rights that spelled out some of the particulars. We Americans liked that so much we eventually adopted our own Bill of Rights. The point is: Americans in 1776 weren’t necessarily rejecting all aspects of their British history, and so weren’t in a mood to rename localities.
In modern lingo, post-Revolutionary Americans were so chill about their British heritage that they didn’t even rename Fairfax County, even though Lord Fairfax – the only British noble to reside in the colonies – was an avowed loyalist to the crown. Centuries later, Virginia honored him specifically by naming a community college after him, although it’s now been renamed Laurel Ridge as we’ve reappraised Lord Fairfax’s role as slaveholder. That reappraisal has ensnared some of our Founders, too. The state insisted that Patrick Henry Community College give up its name because Henry was also an enslaver – “give me liberty or give me death” apparently had only limited application. Our reappraisal of history, though, is either incomplete or inconsistent. The state allowed that school to become Patrick & Henry, with the names referring to two counties in its service area, even though they are named after, yes, the same Patrick Henry. The name Patrick Henry has been deemed inappropriate for a school, but not for two counties. Likewise, no one has suggested we rename Fairfax County, although in theory its name should be just as tainted as the school name was.
For those struggling to understand why Americans didn’t rename counties named after British royalty, but have renamed things named after certain Americans, here’s the way to look at it: We’ve renamed things named after Confederates and segregationists (such as Dabney S. Lancaster, whose school namesake is now Mountain Gateway) because at least some have come to understand that they were on the wrong side. Early Americans felt that Gov. Dunmore was on the wrong side, too, so renamed his county – but didn’t feel that way about previous 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 if we paid no allegiance to Her Majesty Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God Queen of this Realm and of Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith.