Continuing my series looking at the real-life characters from the Mercia Blakewood stories, this week I look at a man at the heart of royal government who became the first British Governor of New York.
9: Colonel Richard Nicolls (1624 – 1672)
‘We may be getting somewhere with this Dutch business at last. The Duke is pushing for a more direct intervention. . . the King is still uncertain but I think we will convince him.’“Richard Nicolls, Birthright, Chapter Nine
New York, New York. One of the most iconic addresses in the world, but shift the sands of time a tiny amount and the famous bright lights could have shone over New Amsterdam, New Netherland instead. Founded under that name in 1625, this embryonic trading post at the mouth of the River Hudson was established not by the British, but by the Dutch. Yet come the 1660s, the ambitions of the newly restored British monarchy were firmly set on supplanting their great rivals from this fast-growing hub of trade.
As told in Mercia’s first adventure Birthright, Colonel Richard Nicolls was the commander of the fleet King Charles II dispatches to seize New Amsterdam from the Dutch, the same fleet with which Mercia and the other civilians sail to America under the protection of the King’s soldiers. Hand-picked by Charles’s brother – James, Duke of York – to be the first British Governor of that town, Nicolls was a man of considerable honour and morality, and in the novel a man who, while not fully appreciating Mercia’s presence in his fleet, is nonetheless impressed by her stubbornness and intelligence, characteristics the two fully share.
An Ardent Royalist
Nicolls was born in Ampthill, Bedfordshire in 1624, the son of English MP Francis Nicolls and descendant through his mother Margaret Bruce from Scottish families of wealth. Showing promise at an early age, the Civil Wars of the mid-17th century interrupted his youth, and he abandoned his university studies at the age of eighteen to serve as captain of a troop of horse on the side of the Royalists. After the King’s ultimate defeat at the hands of Parliament, Nicolls followed his patron the Duke of York into exile and fought side by side with him in service in foreign wars on the continent.
After the Restoration of 1660, when Charles II was returned to his throne, Nicolls was in reward invested as Groom of the Bedchamber to the Duke, a most prestigious appointment granting intimate access to James’s most private chambers as well as to the King and his war councils. War was ever on James’s bellicose mind, particularly war with the Dutch – Britain’s principal adversary of the day – and Nicolls, like his master, favoured bringing what was termed ‘the Dutch business’ to a head by means of direct conflict.
The Dutch Business
In the seventeenth century, both Britain and the Netherlands were intent on building a global empire, competing with each other for supremacy in trade. In the Americas, both had already laid claim to different Caribbean islands, and now the British Court’s interest returned further north. By the 1660s, New Amsterdam had become a trading post of increasing importance, threatening to outshine its British counterparts such as Boston, its influence extending through the vast Dutch territory of New Netherland deep into the continent. Sandwiched directly between New England to the north and Virginia to the south, this growing menace to British dominion could in James’s eyes no longer be tolerated.
In Birthright, Mercia’s discovery that the Oxford Section of stolen royal artworks has been shipped to New Amsterdam provides Charles with added impetus to dispatch a well-armed fleet, but in fiction and in fact, when he finally in 1664 agreed to send an expedition across the Atlantic, it was Nicolls whom James nominated to command it and thence to rule the seized colony in his name. Sharp, military-minded, imposing yet fair – and with a proven grasp of languages – Nicolls was a natural choice to lead this diverse town, then as now one of the most vibrant settlements in the world.
After a ten-week voyage, during which the fleet became separated in fog before regrouping off the American coast, Nicoll’s flagship the Guinea led the Elias, the Martin and the William and Nicholas (renamed the Redemption in Birthright) into New Amsterdam harbour in late summer 1664, anchoring in full view of the Dutch fort. As it happened, the ‘conquest’ of New Amsterdam then proceeded smoothly, with scarcely a cannonball fired and not a pike or musket drawn. Nicolls had conscripted a militia of New Englanders on arriving in America, and the sight of this army together with the four warships in their harbour led the pragmatic local population to compel their furious leader Stuyvesant simply to surrender. This bloodless capitulation was doubtless helped by Nicolls’ generous terms, by which the citizens of New Amsterdam were to be allowed to continue living in their homes with all property and rights intact, including the coveted right of religious freedom.
First Governor of New York
True to his word, Nicolls took peaceful possession of the town, renamed both it and the surrounding colony New York after his master, and walked into the newly renamed Fort James as the first British Governor of New York. To allow the Dutch population to become used to the new regime, he introduced English law over a period of years, and in 1665 published the ‘Duke’s Laws’, the first legal code of New York. The leaders of the adjacent New England colonies may have had their misgivings about this ultra-Royalist arrival, but under his considerate governorship life in the bounds of New York proceeded largely as before.
After near four years as Governor, Nicolls returned to England in 1668, sent on his way by a grand procession lined by the townspeople who had come to regard him as a just and principled leader. Taking up service once more in the Duke’s entourage, when war inevitably resumed with the Dutch he was posted again to the navy, but for Nicolls this was to prove fatal. Still only in his late 40s, unmarried and with no descendants, he was killed at sea during the Battle of Sole Bay off the Suffolk coast in 1672.
Feted as a considerate governor, a stalwart soldier, and a decent man, Nicolls was buried at St. Andrew’s Church in Ampthill, the village where he had been born. The impressive monument raised to him beside the altar includes the very cannonball that killed him, set beneath the Latin inscription ‘the instrument of his death and his immortality’. Still in impeccable condition today, the monument is a fitting tribute to this measured and mostly forgotten first governor of that bright jewel we call: New York, New York.
Coming next: an infant prince who was the hope of his nation: James, the original Duke of Cambridge
All photographs by David Hingley / Matthew Jackson