Historic Garden Tour: Governor's Palace
         Williamsburg, Virginia          
  May 2017

In my book, nothing quite compares with an elegant eighteenth-century 10-acre garden, complete with terraces, brick-walled "secret" gardens, white oyster-shell walks, a canal, and walls of neatly-trimmed, cobwebby boxwoods. (Photos are included at the end of this piece.) This is the magnificent garden adjacent to the Governor's Palace in Williamsburg, Virginia. (For a beautiful map of all the gardens of Williamsburg, which you can download or print, click here.) If you're planning your visit to Williamsburg, it is one of the few gardens that requires an entrance pass, which you can learn more about purchasing here.  Park at the Colonial Williamsburg Visitor's Center (free all day), buy your passes, and take the free shuttle to the first stop (which handily enough is the Governor's Palace).  In nice weather, opt for an easy half-mile stroll along a scenic path running from the Visitor's Center to the Palace.  

Williamsburg residents, enjoying the heyday of the city's prosperity as the capitol of Virginia, were very proud of their imposing new Governor's Palace.  In 1724, a professor at the College of William & Mary described the newly-completed Palace in glowing terms:

From the Church runs a Street northward called Palace Street; at the other end of which stands the Palace or Governor’s House, a magnificent Structure built at the publick Expense, finished and beautified with Gates, Fine Gardens, Offices, Walks, a fine Canal, Orchards, &c. . . . This likewise has the ornamental Addition of a good Cupola or Lanthorn, illuminated with most of the Town, upon Birth-Nights, and other Nights of occasional Rejoicings.

Completed in 1722 to house the colony's royal British governors, the Palace tragically burned to the ground in 1781, a year after Virginia's capitol was moved to Richmond for security reasons.  For over 100 years, the building and grounds, along with much of the former capitol lay in ruins.  When work was finally begun to reconstruct the Palace in the 1920s, landscape architect Arthur Shurcliff used the Bodleian Plate, a copperplate engraving unearthed in the British Bodleian Library in 1929, to exactly restore the gardens to their original glory. In their day, they represented the height of fashionable gardening, imitating the well-ordered British country estate gardens that were popular during the reign of King William III and Queen Mary II.  

Before this starts to read like a school field trip report, let's talk about the Palace ghosts (who perhaps take a turn in the garden, when the weather's foul).  The Reverend Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin, one-time rector of Bruton Parish Church (who has been justly called "The Father of the Restoration of Colonial Williamsburg,") once said, "I wouldn't give a hoot for anybody who doesn't believe in ghosts."  (For more about this man and his work, please be sure to enjoy the delightful article Dr. Goodwin's Ghosts.)  In 1927, he wrote of the ghosts of Williamsburg, 

[You can] shut your eyes and see the gladsome ghosts who once made these places their home. You can learn to call them back...You can train yourself to hear what they have to say.

One could argue that since the Palace is an entirely modern, reconstructed building, its ghosts may well have departed during the ravaging fire of 1781.  But we all know about a woman scorned...and perhaps the lovely ghost of Lady Ann Skipwith, who routinely haunts Wythe House down the street, returns to the scene of her last ball (with choice words for her wandering husband). Sometime during the 1770s, so the story goes, Lady Ann attended a ball at the Palace with her husband, Sir Peyton Skipwith.  Sir Peyton, rumor has it, had a thing for Lady Ann's sister, Jean.  In an out-of-print book about Virginia ghosts, published in 1930, the author notes circumspectly that "[t]he record of his faithfulness does not reach us entirely without blemish." 

On the occasion of this grand ball, Lady Ann was fashionably attired in "a dress of cream satin," and upon her dainty feet she wore "tiny red slippers, upon which shone buckles of brilliants."  Virginia historian and folklorist L.B. Taylor, Jr. (who is now, one hopes, doing some friendly haunting of his own), picks up the thread of the story:

...something happened at the ball—no one is quite sure just what—which triggered Lady Ann’s famous temper. Offended by whatever slight it was, she bolted from the Palace unescorted even as the minuets continued, and dashed across the Palace Green towards Wythe House [where she was a guest]...she broke either the strap or heel of one of her slippers and arrived at the house hobbling on one shoe, with the other foot clad only in a silk stocking. Thus, she ascended sounding somewhat like a person with a peg leg.
— The Ghosts of Williamsburg, Volume I

Perhaps poor suicidal Lady Ann, who may well have had grounds for suspicion (her grieving husband promptly married Jean upon his wife's tragic demise), still walks the oyster-shell paths of the Palace gardens, amid the boxwoods shrouded in cobwebby dew.  (Please note: folklorists have taken great liberty with the facts of this tale, which I am not about to confirm or deny. However, it makes a great story.)

And what about the 150+ Revolutionary War soldiers buried in the cemetery on the grounds (the Palace was used as a hospital during the war)?  Archeologists unearthed the remains of over 130 of these Revolutionary soldiers during the 1930s, when work was begun to restore the Palace.  In September 1930 they wrote in a precise, scientific report:

The evidence indicates that the men buried in the cemetery were soldiers; in view of this the two women were likely nurses. The fact that they were young men would bear this out and on this point the archaeological evidence is practically conclusive. There are two instances where sword-points were found broken-off in the bodies and there is an instance where a fragment of cannon ball lay beneath the right hip of the individual buried.

Or what of the lone, unfortunate soul who, on December 22, 1781, was unable to escape from the burning building, at that time serving as an active Revolutionary hospital?  A Charleston newspaper depicts the dreadful scene:  

Last Saturday night about eleven o’clock the palace in the City of Williamsburg, which is supposed to have been set on fire by some malicious person, was in three hours burnt to the ground. This elegant building has been for sometime past a continental hospital, and upwards of one hundred sick and wounded soldiers were in it when the fire was discovered, but by the timely exertions of a few people, only one perished in the flames.

Only one--but does he or she still walk the gardens of the Governor's Palace?  You'll have to come see for yourself.  In 1936, Dr. Goodwin wrote this to a friend who was curious about his Williamsburg ghosts:

They are very elusive ghosts and refuse to be delineated or described within the limits of any paragraph. The only way is to come here and hold communion with them.


Garden Gallery (Please Click To Enlarge)


From top left: views of the Governor's Palace (as seen from the gardens); boxwood gardens behind the Palace; a living archway of Beech trees; stone & brick detail; imposing gates leading to more boxwood gardens; even more boxwoods (ghosts reputedly LOVE haunting areas with boxwood); gate detail; terraced gardens leading to the Palace Canal; walled garden details with red door, circular window, and corner tower.