Two Royal Governors

First Governor: The Saga of Sir William Phips

Sir William Phips, 1651–1695
The first royal governor that King William appointed was Sir William Phips, who arrived in May, 1692 bearing the charter. (It had been issued in October of the previous year, but this was its official introduction to Massachusetts.)

Phips was a Bostonian, originally a shipbuilder of humble social standing, but skillful enough to have done well in that business. He invested in a boat and crew and took to exploring in the Caribbean for sunken Spanish treasure ships. Some modest successes in this venture earned him a royal commission from Charles II and financial backing from some of the aristocracy.
Raising the treasure
Charles had died and James was king when Phips made a spectacular find: the wreck of Nuestra Señora de la Concepción (an event illustrated here by an artist who had obviously never seen a picture of Phips, and didn't know that steeple-crowned hats were decades out of fashion for even the staunchest Puritans). Phips carried back to London a cargo whose value was estimated at about £210,000. A 10% share went to the king under English law, and most of the rest to his noble investors, but even after paying his crew £8,000 (as he had promised in order to stave off a mutiny), he still had £11,000 left, a considerable fortune for a Bostonian. He and his crew also received medals and popular adulation, and Phips himself was knighted and appointed Provost-Marshal General (in effect, chief law enforcement officer) of the Dominion of New England.

When he returned to Boston, however, Phips found that Governor Andros, who had already appointed a Provost-Marshal and the sheriffs who reported to him, was too deeply involved in military and administrative business to take any interest in making a change. Frustrated, Phips sailed back to London in search of justice, where he joined Increase Mather and other Massachusetts exiles in their lobbying against Andros. When the Glorious Revolution put William and Mary in James’ place, Phips returned to Boston bearing proclamations from the new king and queen. Arriving there in May, 1689, he found Andros and friends already behind bars.

France, on behalf of the exiled James II, had declared war on England, and danger threatened on the northern frontier. The English government asked Massachusetts to do something, and the General Court, eager to gain good will in London, appointed Phips to lead an expedition against Port-Royal (now Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia), the capital of French Acadia. Finding the fort undermanned and in the process of reconstruction, Phips took it easily.
Frontenac's defiance
Another expedition was mounted, against Quebec—but this one was a disaster. New France's colorful governor, Frontenac, scorned Phips’ demand to surrender, choosing to respond, he said, “from the mouths of my cannons.” Uncoordinated, unprepared, and undersupplied, Phips’ forces couldn’t so much as scratch the city’s defenses. The balance sheet showed, on the loss side, a large expense of money and men, the latter mostly victims of smallpox and other diseases, plus a navigation mishap that sank two of the expedition’s 34 ships. On the profit side, there was nothing.

Phips optimistically returned to England to seek support for another expedition, but reasonably enough this wasn’t forthcoming. He stayed there to help Increase Mather campaign for a return of the old Massachusetts Bay charter. As we know, that effort failed, but the appointment of Sir William Phips as the first royal governor was a compensatory gesture on the crown’s part. He had become close friends not only with Increase Mather, but also his son Cotton Mather, now one of Boston’s leading clerics.
Witch trial in Salem
When the new royal governor arrived with his commission in the spring of 1692, he found Massachusetts caught up in the hysteria of the witchcraft allegations in Salem. Phips appointed the special court that dealt with these (in ways that have become notorious), but terminated it a few months later. However, charges of witchcraft continued to be made, sometimes against prominent citizens, including Governor Phips’ wife. Not everyone charged was arrested, but in the spring of 1693, Phips lost patience, suspended witchcraft trials in all courts, and released all prisoners being held for trial on that charge. About 150 of these unfortunates regained their freedom.

Though he was a much more acceptable governor than another Andros would have been, Phips proved to have no greater skill as a politician than he had as a soldier. Political factions in the province were in fierce contention, and Phips formed few ties with any of their leaders. Many eminent Bostonians resented his lower-class manners. His irascibility and “blustering aggressiveness” (admitted by several of his biographers, according to Wikipedia) complicated relations with other colonies as well as local movers and shakers. Meanwhile, in London, Joseph Dudley was scheming and working constantly to replace him.
Joseph Dudley
In 1694, Dudley persuaded the Lords of Trade to summon Phips to England to answer questions about his observance of the Navigation Acts. When he got there, on January 1, 1695, he was immediately arrested: Dudley had brought charges that were, to say the least, exaggerated, accusing him of conspiring to skim off customs money. Bail was set at £20,000, a figure that Dudley apparently hoped would keep Phips locked up indefinitely. Instead, a wealthy friend bailed him out, but he never got to clear his name—he died of a fever in February, before a trial could be held.

Second Governor: More or Less Absent

Lord Bellomont, 1636–1701
Dudley wasn’t the winner—Phips had enough friends, and perhaps more important, Dudley had enough enemies, to deny him the governorship of Massachusetts this time. Instead, King William, perhaps feeling that governors native to the colony were too apt to slight the crown’s interests, appointed an Irish Protestant nobleman, Richard Coote, Lord Bellomont. To ensure that the royal point of view was thoroughly understood throughout the northern provinces, the king at the same time appointed him governor of New Hampshire and New York.

It took many months to get Lord Bellomont’s various commissions finalized, and he didn’t arrive in the New World until late in 1697—at New York, not Boston. He was not a young man, and held his three governorships for just over three years until his death early in 1701. During that time he spent about 14 months in Boston, trying to carry out the government’s policies against the polite obstruction of the General Court (which, although it wouldn’t vote him a salary, did vote an unusually generous grant of £1,000). Historically speaking, his influence on the province of Massachusetts was not great.