Richard Bellingham — Governor of Massachusetts Colony

c. 1592–1672

Richard Bellingham served several terms as the Governor of Massachusetts in the middle part of the 17th century. He was the last living signer of the original charter of Massachusetts and Nathaniel Hawthorne included him as a character in “The Scarlet Letter.”

Richard Bellingham, Governor, Massachusetts

This portrait of Richard Bellingham, governor of Massachusetts, is the first portrait known to have been painted in America. It was painted by William Read and signed by the governor in 1641. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Who was Richard Bellingham, Governor of Massachusetts?

Richard Bellingham, a colonial governor of Massachusetts, was born in England in 1592 and died away on December 7, 1672. Bellingham pursued a career in law and was among the original patentees of Massachusetts Bay Colony. 

Deputy Governor Bellingham

Upon his arrival in Boston in 1634, he actively participated in various administrative tasks, including serving on a committee that was responsible for distributing land. In 1635, he assumed the role of Deputy Governor. 

Antinomian Congroversy

During the Antinomian Controversy (1636–1638), he served as a magistrate during the trial of Anne Hutchinson and voted in favor of her banishment.

Anne Hutchinson, On Trial in Boston, Illustration
This illustration depicts the Trial of Anne Hutchinson. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Governor Bellingham

Bellingham’s political career continued to climb when he was elected Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1641, narrowly defeating John Winthrop by a slim margin of six votes. 

Massachusetts Body of Liberties

During his first term, the Massachusetts Body of Liberties was enacted. It was the first legal code established in the New England Colonies. It was unique because it provided details about the liberties people were granted, rather than restrictions imposed on them.

Controversy Over Marriage with Penelope Pelham

Soon after, he became involved in a scandal over his marriage to his second wife, Penelope Pelham. In those days, people were supposed to legally announce their intention to marry. These announcements were known as “banns of marriage.” Bellingham ignored the law and officiated the marriage ceremony.

When the case went before the Massachusetts court, Bellingham, who was both Governor and Chief Magistrate, refused to recuse himself and oversaw the trial. 

These actions were viewed as an abuse of his power and put him at odds with men like Winthrop and Thomas Dudley. In 1642, he lost the election for Governor to Winthrop.

Continued Involvement in Massachusetts Politics

Despite losing, Bellingham remained involved in Massachusetts politics. In 1648, he sat on a committee that reviewed Massachusetts laws to ensure they complied with English law.

Bellingham was re-elected Governor in 1654.

Quaker Controversy

In 1656, he was serving as Deputy Governor to John Endecott. A group of Quakers arrived in Boston, which created controversy because Quakers were prohibited in Massachusetts. When they arrived, Endecott was at Salem, leaving Bellingham to deal with the situation. Bellingham had them confined to their ship and their religious books were burned.

Controversy with King Charles II

In 1660, the Stuart Restoration took place in England and Charles II became King of England. Charles looked to establish his authority over the American Colonies, including the New England Confederation, of which Massachusetts was part.

King Charles II, Crowned at Westminster Abbey
King Charles II. Image Source: Wikimedia.

In 1664, Bellingham was appointed Major-General of the militia. That same year, Charles II sent a commission to investigate Massachusetts and make sure they were enforcing English laws, including the Navigation Acts. The commissioners conducted their investigation and returned to England.

The next year, 1665, Bellingham was elected Governor again. However, Charles II summoned him to England to explain the findings of the commission. Bellingham refused, although the decision sharply divided the colony. Massachusetts responded to the summons by sending a letter that explained its point of view, along with a ship loaded with ship’s masts as a gift. For various reasons, including hostilities in Europe, Charles II dropped the issue.

Later Years and Death

From 1665 until he died in 1672, Bellingham was reelected Governor. Overall, Bellingham served as Deputy Governor for 13 years and as Governor for 10 years.

Bellingham died in Boston on December 7, 1722, and was buried in the Granary Burying Ground.

Bellingham and The Scarlet Letter

Both Bellingham and his sister, Anne Hibbins, were included as characters in The Scarlet Letter, which was published by Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1850. In the story, he witnesses Hester Prynne’s punishment and serves as a symbol of the Puritan Theocracy.

Richard Bellingham’s Connections to Events Colonial America

Bellingham was involved with the government of Massachusetts during a time when many important events took place that shaped the course of New England and Colonial America. Some of those events are discussed here:

Pequot War (1635–1638)

The year after Bellingham arrived in Massachusetts, the Pequot War broke out. The Pequot War was the first conflict between the English colonists in New England and the Native American Indian tribes in the region. After some English fur traders were killed, Massachusetts responded by attacking the Pequot — in Connecticut territory. Soon after, the Pequot launched attacks on Connecticut settlements at Fort Saybrook and Wethersfield.

Over a few months, soldiers from Connecticut and Massachusetts Bay, along with warriors from various tribes, including the Narragansett, virtually eliminated the Pequot. 

After the fighting ended, a treaty was signed that gave Connecticut control of the Connecticut River Valley and sold the surviving Pequot Indians into slavery.

Massachusetts Body of Liberties (1641)

In 1641, during Bellingham’s first year as Governor, the Massachusetts Body of Liberties was adopted. It was the first legal code established by European colonists in New England was a list of liberties for people, instead of restrictions, and was intended for use as guidance for the General Court.

Navigation Acts (1651)

The Navigation Acts – also known as the Acts of Trade and Navigation — were a series of laws enacted by the British Parliament between 1651 and 1774 to regulate trade in Colonial America. During Bellingham’s time as Governor, opposition to the Navigation Acts grew and led to an increase in smuggling in Massachusetts. By not enforcing the Navigation Acts, Massachusetts was investigated by King Charles II but avoided having its charter revoked. 

New England Confederation (1643–1686)

The New England Confederation — also known as the United Colonies of New England — was an alliance formed between the Puritan Colonies — Plymouth, Connecticut, New Haven, and Massachusetts Bay — in 1643. Massachusetts was part of the Confederation for nearly all of Bellingham’s political career.

Anne Hibbins and Witchcraft in Colonial America (1656)

Ann Hibbins was the widow of William Hibbins, a prominent citizen, and the sister of Deputy Governor Bellingham. Hibbins was known for her temper and “sharp tongue.” After her husband’s death, she managed to frequently quarrel with her neighbors. This led to a significant amount of gossip and rumors being spread about her in Boston. At first, she was censured by the church, but all that did was make the Puritans a target for her anger. She was eventually accused of witchcraft and executed.

This illustration by Howard Pyle depicts the arrest of a suspected witch. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Stuart Restoration (1660)

Charles Stuart, the son of Charles I, was crowned Charles II  in 1660, in what is known as the Stuart Restoration. During his reign, the English government tightened control over the American Colonies.

An Account of the Life and Career of Richard Bellingham

This account of Richard Bellingham’s life appeared in Jacob Bailey Moore’s book, Lives of the Governors of New Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay, which was published in 1848. Please note that some typographical errors have been corrected, and section headings and spacing have been added to improve readability.

Richard Bellingham was the 8th Governor of Massachusetts Colony

Richard Bellingham, the eighth Governor under the first Massachusetts charter, was a native of England, born in 1592. He was educated in the profession of the law, which he abandoned, and

came to this country in 1634. On the 3rd of August in that year, he joined the church at Boston, with his wife Elizabeth, whose death is mentioned as having occurred not long after.

Bellingham was an Original Patentee

Bellingham was one of the twenty-six original patentees named in the charter of King Charles I in 1628; and being well qualified to take an active part in the affairs of the infant colony, the opportunity was not long wanting. He was chosen as a deputy in March 1636. He was an assistant from 1636 to 1639, and from 1643 to 1662; and was also treasurer of the colony from 1637 to 1639. 

He was a Member of a Commission that Oversaw Military Affairs

In May 1636, the general court placed him on the commission for military affairs, which Winthrop says “had power of life and limb” — and which was indeed the most important power exercised in the colony.

Bellingham’s associates in the commission were the governor, John Winthrop, deputy governor, John Endecott, and others, and they were empowered to make war offensive and defensive and to imprison such as they might deem to be enemies of the commonwealth, and in case of refusal to come under restraint, to put offenders to death.

John Winthrop, New England Confederation Governor, Portrait
John Winthrop. Image Source: Wikimedia.

Bellingham Chosen as Deputy Governor

At the succeeding general court, held at Newtown (Cambridge) on May 6, Bellingham was chosen deputy governor. From this period he was annually chosen as a magistrate until 1641. Thomas Hutchinson, in his history of Massachusetts, represents him to have been, at this period, like Winthrop, Dudley, and Bradstreet, a man of property and estate above most of the planters of the colony.

His Training as a Lawyer was Valuable

In the framing of the colonial laws, which occupied the attention of the General Court from time to time, Bellingham, being a lawyer, and a man distinguished alike for good judgment and integrity, had a greater share than any other person of his time, excepting perhaps Governor Winthrop.

Bellingham was Elected Governor in 1641

In 1640, Bellingham was re-elected deputy governor; and at the election in 1641, he was chosen governor, in opposition to Winthrop, by a majority of six votes. There were rival and party interests, even at that early day, amongst those who had fled from a common persecution. Winthrop seems to have been the favorite candidate of the General Court, and Bellingham, for the time, to have been the candidate of the people; and no sooner was the result known, than the Court manifested their discontent, by repealing the order formerly made for an annual allowance of £100 to the governor. 

Fears of John Winthrop Being Governor for Life

There was no general dislike of the excellent Winthrop, but the people held to the democratic doctrine of rotation in office, even to the neglect of so good a man as Winthrop, “lest there should be a governor for life.”

Winthrop seems to have felt some little mortification at this result, and complained that “there were divers who had not given in their votes,” and were denied by the magistrates, “because they had not given them in at the doors.” 

At the following election, however, the Court party rallied, and Winthrop was again elected.

Anne Hutchinson and Political Division

During the few years preceding, the harmony of the people was greatly disturbed by the Antinomian Controversy, in which the celebrated Anne Hutchinson bore so conspicuous a part. 

There were factions in the church, and factions in state, which for a long time divided the people on almost every question. There were other circumstances, however, which contributed to render the first administration of Bellingham unpleasant, and finally unpopular. 

Tension Between Bellingham and the General Court

Toward the close of the year, the General Court being in session, there were “uncomfortable agitations and contentions between the governor and Court.”

Winthrop says that they arose from the jealousy of the governor, at “seeing some others of the magistrates bear more sway with the people than himself, and that they were called to be of the standing council for life, and himself passed by.” And he goes on to pronounce the conduct of Governor Bellingham in this instance to be the “occasion of grief to many godly minds, and matter of reproach to the whole Court in the mouths of others.”

The prejudices of Governor Bellingham’s opponents, in this case, seem to have outstripped their judgment, as his alleged offenses bear no proportion to the formal reprimand that was imposed. 

Bellingham and the Miller

One was, that the governor had taken the part of a poor miller, of the name of Howe, of Watertown, in a dispute about the title of a mill, against the rich and austere Dudley; and another was, that he had interfered improperly in the matter of a fine imposed upon a citizen for an infraction of the law. 

The governor was inflexible in his opinions and probably did not spare his opponents in the heat of the controversy. The deputies, after consulting together, gave him, says Winthrop, ”a solemn admonition  which was never done to any governor before.”

Bellingham and Penelope Pelham

There was another proceeding, however, on the part of the governor, which greatly offended the Puritan delicacy of the elders and magistrates. Winthrop, who relates many other things less proper to be told, gravely expresses a doubt whether the facts in this case were “fit to be published.”

There resided at this period in the family of Governor Bellingham, a young man, who had been paying his addresses to a gentlewoman of the neighborhood, of the name of Penelope Pelham, a sister of Herbert Pelham; and matters had proceeded so far, Winthrop says, that she “was ready to be contracted to him” in marriage. 

The governor, who was a widower, suddenly made overtures to the damsel, who, being dazzled by the prospects of a better establishment thus suddenly placed before her, accepted his suit, jilted her former admirer, and married his excellency. 

This little episode in the affairs of the colony, excited universal attention and criticism. The governor, it seems, not only disappointed the hopes of the unsuccessful suitor, but he committed a gross breach of order, in refusing to have his contract of marriage published where he dwelt, according to law, and also by performing the marriage ceremony himself. This he claimed the right to do, in his capacity of magistrate, but it was contrary to the practice of the colony. 

These offenses were deemed so inexcusable, that he was presented by the grand inquest for a breach of the law; and the General Court, not being in a very friendly mood, took up the matter, and through their secretary formally summoned the governor to answer to the prosecution. 

However, Bellingham, refusing to descend from his high place as judge on the bench, to take the bar as an offender, and the magistrates not wishing to proceed to extremities, the matter was finally suffered to rest, without any further proceedings. But the popular opinion was for the time decidedly against the governor, and, as a consequence, in 1642, he was dropped from office, and Winthrop was chosen in his stead.

Political Alliance with Richard Saltonstall

After this, we hear little of Governor Bellingham for several years, except in occasional conflicts with his brethren of the magistracy, whose course he did not approve. With Richard Saltonstall, of Salem, one of the most worthy of the fathers of New England, Governor Bellingham frequently joined in opposition to the rest of the council and took part with the deputies against the powers claimed by the magistrates.

Bellingham and the Pig

In 1644, another controversy arose out of a trifling affair, which set the little colony by the ears, and so divided the magistrates and deputies, that the elders were obliged to interfere, and the difficulty was only ended by both parties finally getting weary of the dispute, and glad to compromise. 

A poor woman had lost a swine, which strayed away, and after some time she found it, as she alleged, in the possession of a rich neighbor. She claimed the swine, but the neighbor denying that it was hers, refused to deliver it up. She appealed to the magistrates. 

Bellingham, with his usual readiness to protect the interests of the weaker party against the more powerful, took up the cause of the poor woman; while Dudley, on the other hand, as in the case of the miller, espoused the cause of the patrician. The contest waxed warm, and there being no hope of ending it, Dudley and Bellingham, at last, “in order that the public peace might be restored,’” arranged a compromise between the parties.

Bellingham was Elected as Governor and Deputy Governor Many Times

In 1663, Bellingham was again chosen deputy governor; and in the following year, governor. In 1655, he was again elected deputy governor, and was annually re-elected until 1665. He was then chosen governor, in which office he continued under annual elections until his death, in 1672.

Instability in England

During this long period, he was actively engaged in the affairs of the colony, and carefully watched over its interests in the trying periods of the English Civil War, The Protectorate, and the Stuart Restoration. 

During the latter years of the reign of Charles I, and during the stern despotism of Cromwell, when the colonists were increasing in numbers and wealth, and were apprehensive of some invasion of their chartered privileges, Bellingham was an admirable pilot to carry them through the storm. 

Conflict with King Charles II

After the Stuart Restoration, and at a time when fears were entertained of the disposition of Charles II. respecting the charter, Bellingham was appointed, with Leverett and others, “to receive the charter and duplicate thereof in open court,” for safekeeping. The same determination probably existed at this time to preserve their Charter, at whatever hazard, that actuated the people of Connecticut, when Edmund Andros (the Governor of the Dominion of New England), twenty-two years afterward, demanded the surrender of theirs.

In obedience to a royal summons, agents had repaired to London to answer allegations against the colony, with whose explanations the King declared himself to be satisfied, and prompted to confirm their charter, at the same time enjoining upon them the toleration of Episcopalians and Quakers. 

A short time afterward, however, the colony was alarmed by the appearance of four royal commissioners, who had been appointed for the purpose of exercising a supervisory power over all the colonial governments.

The spirit of the colony was roused. They considered the commission to be, as in truth it was, in derogation of the powers granted by their charter. The colonial government had now a difficult task to perform. On the one hand, they were determined to resist at the threshold any invasion of their chartered privileges, and on the other hand, loyalty to the sovereign required that they should be discreet in their proceedings.

An extra session of the General Court was summoned, and the bold and decided stand at once taken, not to recognize the authority of the commissioners. An address was at the same time forwarded to the King, explaining and defending the course adopted. The proceedings of the commissioners were in general arbitrary and impolitic and adapted rather to distract than to tranquilize the people.

On their return to England, they did not fail to represent the conduct of Massachusetts in the most unfavorable light. 

The King was vexed at this instance of disregard for prerogative, and issued peremptory orders to Governor Bellingham and four others, who were named, to appear before him, and “answer for refusing the authority of his commissioners.’” 

Instead of complying with this injunction, they addressed a letter to the Secretary of State, in which they affected to doubt the authenticity of the royal mandate. They profess the utmost loyalty, and say that their case had been already so well unfolded, that the wisest among them could not make it any clearer. With this manifestation of loyalty, and the timely present of a ship-load of masts for the royal navy, at that time much wanted, and which was sent forward to the King, he was appeased — and the cloud, which had for some time been gathering over the colony, was dispersed.

Contemporary with the alarm occasioned by the proceedings of the Royal Commissioners, was the religious excitement occasioned by the Anabaptists. A law had been passed against them in 1644, with the penalty of banishment for adherence to their opinions, and contempt of civil authority. It does not appear, however, that any prosecutions were commenced until about 1666 when the sect had considerably increased.

Controversy with Anabatists

The dawn of a better spirit was seen in 1668, when, before proceeding to banish those who were deemed heretics, an opportunity was given for them to maintain their opinions before the public. In March, of that year, the Anabaptists were summoned to a public dispute upon their peculiar sentiments, “that it might be determined whether they were erroneous or not.”

Six of the ablest divines in the colony were appointed to manage the debate, and, as if fearful that these learned clergymen might not be a match for a few illiterate Baptists, the governor and magistrates were requested to meet with them. 

The debate began on the 14th of April, and continued for two days, in the first church in Boston. 

Governor Bellingham took part in this conference, the result or proceedings of which have never been made public. The storm which had threatened the peace of the colony, however, from this quarter, soon passed over.

Although, as before intimated, Governor Bellingham was less rigid than his associates Winthrop and Dudley, in his religious opinions, he was devotedly attached to the Puritan faith and warmly opposed any movement, which he feared might weaken or prejudice the church. 

Bellingham Opposed a New Church in Boston

He was opposed to the establishment of a new church in Boston, in 1669, “as detrimental to the public peace,” and summoned the council to consider the subject, but they declined to interfere. In the whole controversy growing out of the settlement of Davenport, he was the advocate of the first or original church.

Anne Hibbins Executed for Witchcraft

The witchcraft delusion was at this time existing in New England, and a sister of Governor Bellingham, the widow of William Hibbins, was executed in June 1666, as a witch, being the second victim in this country to that absurd fanaticism.

Hutchinson intimates that some pecuniary losses of her husband, in the latter part of his life, had so soured her temper, that she became quarrelsome, and falling under church censures, was so odious to the people, that they accused her of witchcraft. 

It was of her that the famous Norton remarked, that “one of the magistrates’ wives was hanged for a witch, only for having more wit than her neighbors.”

A prior case of witchcraft was that of Margaret Jones, who was condemned as a witch, and executed at Charlestown, Massachusetts, in 1648. 

From this period, although the belief in witchcraft was general (see Witchcraft in Colonial America), we hear of no more executions, until after the great Sir Matthew Hale had pronounced judgment against the Suffolk witches in England, when there was found to be so great a resemblance between the Old England demons and the New, that the most sanguinary proceedings were enacted in Massachusetts, until the very excess of the delusion, in 1692, put an end to the melancholy tragedy (see the Salem Witch Trials and Victims of the Salem Witchcraft Trials).

Salem Witch Trials, Howard Pyle
This illustration by Howard Pyle depicts the Salem Witchcraft Trials. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Death and Legacy of Richard Bellingham

Governor Bellingham died on December 7, 1672, at the age of 80. He was the last surviving patentee named in the Massachusetts Charter. 

As a man, he was benevolent and upright; as a Christian, devout and conscientious; and as a magistrate, attached to the interests of the people, and resolute in defending them. 

Hubbard speaks of him, as “a very ancient gentleman, having spun a long thread of above eighty years, a notable hater of bribes, and firm and fixed in any resolution he entertained.”

Mather, following Hubbard, says, that “…among all his virtues he was noted for none more than for his notable and perpetual hatred of bribes…” and for this he would honor him with a Theban statue. Nor does the testimony stop here; for, in the Granary Burial Ground, in Boston, over his tomb is inscribed:

Virtue’s fast friend within this tomb doth lie,

A foe to bribes, but rich in charity.

By his will, executed on the 28th of November, a few days before his death, he left his large property at Rumney Marsh, for charitable and pious purposes; but the instrument was drawn in such a manner that the General Court set it aside, and made a different disposition of the estate. Mrs. Penelope Bellingham, his widow, died in Boston on May 28, 1702.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Richard Bellingham — Governor of Massachusetts Colony
  • Date c. 1592–1672
  • Author
  • Keywords Richard Bellingham, Massachusetts Colony, New England Confederation, Antinomian Controversy, Pequot War, Body of Liberties, Navigation Acts, Anne Hibbins, Stuart Restoration
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date June 13, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update February 9, 2024