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The curious Carolina nobility

A reflection on the 350th anniversary of the founding of Carolina

“The roots of the present lie deep in the past, and nothing in the past is dead to the man who would learn how the present comes to be what it is.”

— Eola Willis, Charleston Renaissance actress, artist and author.

The Restoration of the monarchy of Charles II brought many rewards for his supporters. Eight of his most prominent supporters, the Lord’s Proprietors were given “Carolina” the King, for their loyalty.

Carolina — named for King Charles I — was originally a charter given to his Attorney General, Sir Robert Heath, in 1629 along with other grants for his service to the Crown. Another victim of the English Civil War, Heath was impeached by Parliament in 1644 and died in 1649, the same year Charles I was executed. In 1630 Heath attempted to settle a group of French Huguenots living in England in Carolina. The Mayflower was hired to transport the settlers to Carolina, but ended up headed to Virginia instead. (History will recall that the Mayflower voyage of 1620 was destined for Virginia but ended up in Massachusetts.) Heath made little more attempt to settle Carolina.

Charles II declared the Heath Charter forfeited and gave it to the eight Lords Proprietors in 1663.

The Charter claimed a large swath of land from the Carolinas to northern Florida, stretching west to southern California and northern Mexico. Using the directive from the Book of Genesis 1:28 “Be fruitful, and multiply and replenish the earth and subdue it,” the proprietors devised a plan to cultivate the new world — and make fortunes. The Proprietary Arms bear the motto “Cultivators of the Earth,” confirming the biblical charge.

The English philosopher, John Locke, while studying medicine at Oxford, met the most prominent of the Carolina Lords Proprietors, the Earl of Shaftesbury, Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper. The earl came seeking advice for a serious liver ailment and credited Locke with saving his life; he persuaded Locke to become part of his retinue. It was during this time that Locke served as the secretary to the Lords Proprietors of the Carolinas resulting in the, creation of The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina.

The First Charter of Carolina of 1663 created the only hereditary nobility in America and the framework of how the new land “not yet cultivated or planted” was to be settled and administered. The Charter gave the Lords Proprietors authority to create “Patronage, Jurisdictions and Privileges” in the new province.

First presented March 1, 1669, this governing document, The Fundamental Constitution of Carolina provided the normal authority to create laws, judges, magistrates, a militia, officers and land grants along with “Liberty of Conscience.” This unique provision provided a person to affirm first “That there is a God” and second “That God is pubickly to be Worshipped.”

Inheritance of land and titles by women for want of a male heir was uniquely provided. “No manor for want of male issue shall be divided amongst co-heirs; but the manor, if there be one, shall entirely descend to the eldest daughter and her heirs.” In the case of several manors, other daughters would have their choice in order of their ages.

An underclass of “leet-men” and leet-women, was created. This underclass their children and following generations, like the medieval serfs or tenant farmers, would be tied to the land forever: This class never materialized.

The province was to be divided into counties, with each county consisting of eight signories, (a French term for extensive land owned by one person), four baronies and four precincts.

Several titles of the new nobility created tied to the ownership of land and authority including the term “Palatine” or “Count of a Palace.” The palatine was “the title the eldest of the surviving Lords Proprietors with authority and privileges of vice-royalty.” “Landgrave,” a German title of nobility was connected to the ownership of an estate of 48,000 acres or more. Next were “cassique,” a title of dominion among the Mexican Indians, with 24,000 acres; “barony,” 12,000 acres and a “lord of the manor,” at 3,000 acres. Of the 1,364,000 acres of land available for grants less than 200,000 acres were claimed.

Beginning in 1670, the first title of landgrave appears, being given four baronies of 12,000 each. The titles were hereditary and renewable annually upon the payment of “a penny, lawful money of England for each acre.” Of the 60 titles of landgrave or cassique, four belonged to women, 56 to men. The last recorded title of landgrave was inherited in 1751. No barons or lords of the manor are listed. Some notable early Carolinians claiming these titles include Edmund Ballinger, Robert Daniell, Robert and John Gibbs, Seth Sothel, Joseph Morton I and II, Sir Nathaniel Johnson, James Moore I, Thomas Smith I and II, John Wyche and John Yeamans. John Locke, who did not venture to Carolina was made landgrave and had Locke’s Island, now Edisto Island, named for him.

The Proprietary authority included the “Full power and authority, to give, confer, Unto and upon such inhabitants of the said Provence, as they shall think do, or shall merit the same, such Marks of Favour and Titles of Honour as they shall think fit, so as these titles of honour be not the same as enjoyed by, or conferred upon any the subjects of this our Kingdom of England” and “because any persons born or inhabiting in the said Province for their deserts and service, may expect and be capable of marks of honour and favor, which in respect of the great distance cannot be conveniently conferred by us.”

The marks of favor followed the English system administered by the College of Arms in London to record, regulate the use of and issuance of coats of arms and badges. As many readers know, armorial bearings or coats of arms originated in the medieval period as a means of recognition of knights on the battlefield and tournaments. Historically possession of a coat of arms conferred a noble status and was used as a system of identification on property and documents. Heralds from the College of Arms kept the necessary records of who was and who was not entitled to use coats of arms. Misuse or assumption of arms was a serious civil offense.

On June 1, 1705, pursuant to the Royal Charter, the Lords Proprietors appointed the York Herald of Arms, Laurence Cromp, to be the president of the Court of Honour and Principal Herald for the whole Province of Carolina “to grant to the Landgraves and Cassiques such arms and crests as he should think proper, the arms to be set upon the face of the sun, and the crest to be surmounted with a coronet formed of the rays of the sun. The patent depicts the robes of scarlet embossed with gold and other marks of honour to be borne by the nobles of the Province. We likewise Impower you to hold a Court of Honour & to cite & cause to appear before you all such Persons or Persons, as shall presume to use a Coat of Arms that they cannot make out their due Right to.”

Cromp died insolvent in 1715 and, in spite of his position, there were no recorded arms granted in Carolina. Back in England, the Lords Proprietors did create a Carolina title when on March 24, 1708/9 a patent was issued to Abel Ketelby of the Middle Temple as “Landgrave of Carolina.” Kettleby died without male issue in 1744 and the title then went to his only child, Mary, who married Robert Johnson of the Middle Temple. Johnson changed his name to Kettelby and assumed the Kettelby Arms by an act of Parliament. Another Englishman, William Hodgson, a brother in law of the deceased Lord Proprietor William Craven, was created both a cassique and landgrave on April 11, 1715.

Many of the Carolina settlers arrived already possessed with titles including early governors, Sir John Yeamans and Sir Nathaniel Johnson. Ladies included Lady Rebecca Pratt Axtel and Dame Margaret Berringer, who married Gov. James Moore. The custom of the new “Carolina Aristocracy,” many of them from armigerous families, was to use their ancestral arms.

Carolina was founded on a feudalistic system. If we examine the early Carolinians, social position was indeed tied to the ownership of land. In a race to establish their wealth and credentials many acquired as much land as possible, in some cases going into enormous debt. We see many men “Qualified to be Landgraves or Cassiques when the title became available.” Generally, settlers were given a grant or warrant for land on their arrival. A typical warrant was 50 acres per man with an additional 50 acres for his wife, each of his children, servants and slaves.

Shrewd businessmen often traded these land grants and warrants for passage aboard ships bound for Carolina. The Petit-Guérard Colony founded by Jacob Guérard in April 1680 with 90 people is but one example. Of more interest, Lord Shaftsbury sent Locke on an expedition to France in 1675 to conduct, “Observations on Wines, Olives, Fruit and Silk.” Locke’s paper was published in February 1680 and was received by Shaftebury with “Great Joy.” It is no coincidence that Shaftsbury had a hand in Huguenots who arrived in April of 1680 with Petit and Guérard “many of them skillful & practiced in the manufacture of Wines, Silkes and Oyles.” One of my own ancestors, a barrel maker — slightly important for the production of wine — arrived with this group.

Though there is little evidence of the success of these crops, a well-trained middle class of French Huguenots would become prominent and wealthy landowners.

Carolina never became the feudal society proposed by the Proprietors, but through land ownership evolved into a landed aristocracy with the landgrave and cassique serving as the ideal. Early Carolinians were focused on commercial pursuits and self-determination, leading to the overthrow of Proprietary Rule and planting the seeds of liberty resulting in the American Revolution.

Vic Brandt is a native Charlestonian and vice president of the Society of First Families of South Carolina 1670-1700.

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