Elizabeth Royall was a royal – a member of New England’s informal royalty. When she was a tween girl, she and her older sister Mary sat for a young John Singleton Copley when he came to their Medford, Massachusetts house to paint their portrait in 1758.
New England royalty differed from British royalty in that most of the region’s wealthiest families had earned their royal status via a combination of education, commerce and the luck of having arrived first. Once having attained their status, New England’s royal families maintained it with strategic marriages, lots of social networking, and visits to England to establish and nurture helpful contacts.
Elizabeth’s grandfather Isaac Royall, born to a family of modest means in colonial Maine, kickstarted the family fortune as a merchant mariner who eventually amassed a fortune trading in rum, sugar and slaves. By the 1750s, Elizabeth’s father had inherited the family’s elegant home and farm in Medford and freely enjoyed the fruits of his wealth while continuing to add to his immense fortune. The Royall family was the largest slaveholder in New England, and the 20-27 slaves they owned (at various periods) supported the Royall lifestyle with their labors in the house and on the farm.
This portrait of Elizabeth and her older sister Mary, according to the Museum of Fine Arts, is designed to show off the family’s wealth and status through both the silk dresses and laces worn by the girls, and the inclusion of their pet dog, a King Charles spaniel then fashionable with English royalty.
A few years after sitting for the portrait, Elizabeth caught the eye of fellow New England aristocrat, William Pepperrell. Young William, from Kittery Point, Maine, was the great-grandson of a Welsh orphan who had parlayed a fishing sloop at the Isles of Shoals into a small fortune that was further expanded by the commercial dealings and real estate investments of his son, William Pepperrell, who later achieved fame as the commander of a colonial militia that succeeded in taking the fort at Louisbourg, Nova Scotia, from the French in 1745, service for which King George II awarded him a baronetcy. (The fort, however, was returned to France as part of a post-war territory swap). Pepperrell’s only son died at age 24. Eventually, Sir William named his grandson William Sparhawk as his heir, on the condition that he change his surname to Pepperrell.
After graduating from Harvard in 1766, young William began to prepare for his role as keeper (and expander) of the family fortune. Exactly how Elizabeth and William met is not known, but as “royal” young people of similar ages, they would have readily crossed paths in the Boston social scene in which both were active. Even though William hailed from Maine, his grandmother Mary Hirst Pepperrell was a Bostonian. In addition to his time at Harvard, it’s likely that as William grew up, he and his siblings spent extended periods of time visiting relatives and friends in the city.
The pair met and fell in love. Then and now, people tend to end up marrying others of similar social backgrounds, but that didn’t mean that these two young people didn’t feel a spark. William was 21 when they married in Boston’s Anglican Christ Church on October 24, 1767 (some sources list the date as November 12). Elizabeth was probably around the same age. A year later, in the fall of 1768, William left a newly-pregnant Elizabeth and headed off to England to polish and secure connections that could enable the family’s fortunes to thrive. He stayed aboard for almost two years, missing the July 1769 birth of his daughter Elizabeth, although he was quite thrilled when he finally got to meet her. “I found my little girl finely grown she stands very well & just beings to speak & tho’ I am a very young Papa,” he wrote to Lord Edgecumbe. “I find myself a very fond one.”
Elizabeth wrote him many letters while he was in England. She didn’t hold back on sharing her feelings. She missed him. She felt that the Sparhawk family in Kittery Point, especially her mother-in-law, didn’t like her. She filled him in on all the royal gossip, such as New Hampshire Governor John Wentworth’s marriage to his cousin Frances ten days after the death of her husband Theodore. “A good hint to him,” she wrote on November 15, 1768, “of what he may expect, if she outlives him but I think he’ll deserve it.” (As it turns out, Elizabeth’s observation was on target: Frances Wentworth later had a scandalous affair with Prince William Henry, the third son of King George III, and 20 years her junior, while John was serving as Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia).
But when William Pepperrell returned to Boston in the summer of 1770, after almost two years abroad, he found a world turned upside-down. A series of Parliamentary acts had resulted in protests and boycotts. One-time college buddies had become political activities. People were taking sides, Patriot or Loyalist. Like many who eventually came to be called “Loyalists,” William was conflicted – he didn’t like many of the laws passed by the British parliament — but he also didn’t countenance rebellion.
In 1774, William wrote letters to British figures such as Parliament member Edgecumbe and Prime Minister Lord North, urging conciliation and peaceful resolutions. By 1774, however, the royal government had gutted the charter of Massachusetts. The elected Council on which William served was dissolved and replaced with a Council of appointed men. William elected to not to resign, as so many others had done, and was branded as a Loyalist with a capital L, even though the title didn’t truly fit.
These years of stressful politics, however, were probably happy ones at home. Elizabeth had three additional children, Mary, Harriot, and William, in the five years after William’s return from England. Baby William, their fourth son, was born in the summer of 1775. By now, the Revolution had begun. Thanks to their costly victory at the Battle of Bunker Hill, the British still held Boston, but the town was blockaded by land. Food and other supplies were scarce. For the Pepperrells, the world of luxury and privilege they had always taken for granted no longer existed. But they had each other.
Then in September Elizabeth came down with a fever, sore throat, and a bad case of dysentery. Three weeks later, she was dead, and William became the single parent of four young children (including his two-month-old infant son). William also took ill and almost died, but recovered, although he wrote to his mother that he wished not to. Did Elizabeth contract cholera or typhoid fever? A virulent strain of influenza? A bad case of food poisoning? The cause is uncertain.
William blamed the war and the food shortages that resulted in a diet heavy with salted meat. “But I still breath,” William wrote to his mother Elizabeth Sparhawk, in November 1775. “Love I never can again, till my soul is rewedded to that of my dear Betsy’s in the Joy of praising God forever.” She was, he wrote, “my deceased Friend & the worthiest of women.”
In the spring of 1776, grief-stricken and subject to arrest if he stayed in Boston, William, with his four children, set sail for England, where he became a leader of American Loyalists and an advocate for America prisoners-of-war. By legislative act, all of his property was confiscated by the state of Massachusetts. He never returned to the U.S., nor did any of his children. (His Sparhawk brothers, however, eventually returned to Kittery).
Also living in London was Boston painter John Singleton Copley, who had moved there for artistic reasons. In 1778, Copley painted his second portrait of Elizabeth Royall — a portrait of her ghost. In a family portrait commissioned by William, Copley depicts a happy family, the six Pepperrells, including Elizabeth, at the peak of her beauty and fashion, but dead now for three years.
As with most colonial women, the historical record provides only glimpses of Elizabeth. Although her marriage to William is recorded, I have not found a record of her birth or death, or the location of her grave. But she did leave us her voice, in letters that she wrote to William while he was in Europe; the Portsmouth Atheneum holds a transcribed collection of them. The letters are chatty, sometimes petulant, loving, impatient, and brainy. Sometimes Elizabeth seems like a flighty young woman – after all, she was young, pregnant, and probably bored at her parents’ Medford home. But the letters also demonstrate that beneath the beauty lay a rigorous brain, as she asks William to bring home the latest books by scientists and philosophers.
What is most amazing about the letters is that they exist at all. William’s letters to her do not survive, although Elizabeth’s letters suggest that he wrote many. As Henry Knox’s cannons set their sites on Boston, and Loyalists hurriedly packed up to evacuate with the British Army, William carefully packed up the letters, by then already almost ten years old. The letters travelled to England, and then from one set of lodgings to another. Did William take them out from time to time to read them again, and hear her voice? Did he share them with his sons and daughters, to help them know the mother they had lost so young?
The letters survive today, in a private collection in England, as do Pepperrell’s descendants. William never re-married. All of his children fared well, with good careers and marriages. In his older years, William was comfortable, though no longer well. Never again would he watch sloops cruise past Kittery Point up the Piscataqua River to Portsmouth. Nor would he marry.
William was just shy of thirty when his wife died, and he lived to be 70. When he lost the love of his life, he still had his entire life ahead of him. Why didn’t he marry again, at a time when many young men lost their wives (usually in childbirth) and remarriage was routine? Was William preoccupied with his work and with raising his children? Was he not an attractive prospect because of his vastly reduced circumstances? Did he have flirtations and dalliances, or maybe a housekeeper/companion that shared his bed, if not his title? Or did William decide that no woman could ever replace Elizabeth in the family portrait?
In politics, Sir William was conflicted, a loyalist with a small “l”. In love, it seems, he earned his true title as Loyalist.
Sources and resources
Transcribed copies of Elizabeth Royall’s letters can be viewed at the Portsmouth Atheneum (although you have to go there in person to look at the letters).
For additional information on the portrait of Mary and Elizabeth Royall, visit the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
For additional information on the Copley portrait, Sir William Pepperrell and his family, visit the North Carolina Museum of Art.
The Royall House and Slave Quarters, in Medford, Massachusetts, is open on the weekend for tours from May through October. A beautiful location, and a secret hidden gem. The slave quarters are the only extent slave housing in New England.
For more detailed information on William’s status as a “loyalist” (small “l”), see “A ‘Great National Calamity’: Sir William Pepperrell and Isaac Royall, Reluctant Loyalists,” by Colin Nicolson and Stuart Scott, in the Historical Journal of Massachusetts Volume 28, No. 2