The Governors of the Hudson’s Bay Company, part 1: 1670 to 1770

Three hundred and forty-five years ago this month, on May 2, 1670, King Charles II signed an official charter for a commercial enterprise calling itself The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson’s Bay. The King granted the Company, whose first investors included the chemist Robert Boyle and the architect Sir Christopher Wren, exclusive rights to trade in the area draining into Hudson Bay, effectively granting them ownership of the land; for the next 200 years, this would make the Hudson’s Bay Company, as it came to be called, the single largest private landowner on the planet.

The Hudson’s Bay Company still exists today, though it has changed from trading furs to operating high-end retail chains in Canada and the US. The head of the company, instead of being called President or CEO, still retains the old title of Governor. It alone has survived among its contemporary trading rivals – the Muscovy Company, the Royal African Company, the East India Company; indeed, the HBC is the oldest corporate entity of its size in the world.

Because the HBC existed for so long, I am breaking up my examination of the HBC’s governors into several parts. I will start with the Company’s first hundred years.

HRH Prince Rupert, Count Palatine of the Rhine, Duke of Bavaria, Duke of Cumberland, Earl of Holderness, KG PC FRS (1619-82), 1670-82. Prince Rupert of the Rhine, as he was commonly known, was born in Prague to Frederick V, Elector Palatinate; his maternal grandfather was King James I of England, and through his sister Sophia he was the uncle of King George I of Great Britain.

Prince Rupert’s family were driven into exile from Prague to The Hague when he was a child, where the Prince began a crazily long and varied military career: he fought with Holland against Spain in the Eighty Year’s War and against the Holy Roman Empire in the Thirty Years’ War before moving to England to serve as a cavalry general for the Royalist forces in support of his cousin, King Charles I, during the First Civil War, eventually becoming the senior Royalist general. He was followed everywhere in battle in England by his white poodle, Boye; this was the subject of a lot of propaganda accusing Boye of being a witch’s familiar. Prince Rupert surrendered to Cromwell’s forces in 1646 and was exiled to France, where he fought for Louis XIV against the Spanish in the final years of the Thirty Year’s War; Rupert was shot in the head at this time, but survived. (His commanding officer, the Maréchal de Gaisson, said at the time, “I am most annoyed that you are wounded.” “Me too,” replied Rupert.)

Prince Rupert then turned his martial energies to the sea. He joined up with the Royal Navy in 1648 during the Second Civil War after it mutinied against Parliament, and eventually took command of the Royalist fleet and became a privateer in the Caribbean to raise money for the Royalist cause. Between 1655 and 1660 Rupert fell out with the Stuart court-in-exile and returned to Germany, where he had several minor military command for various states, got involved in palace intrigues at the court of his brother Charles Louis (the new Elector Palatinate), and turned his attention to art. It was at this time that Prince Rupert involved himself in the perfection of the mezzotint, a new form of printmaking, and became a master of its use.

After the English Restoration Prince Rupert returned to England, serving as an admiral in the Second and Third Anglo-Dutch Wars. He also became involved in politics, serving in the House of Lords as the Duke of Cumberland and as a Privy Councillor, serving on a number of its committees. The official records of these committees show Rupert as an active participant, but the famous diaries of Samuel Pepys, who admittedly did not get along well with the prince, record him as doing little but laughing and swearing. Prince Rupert also became very involved in scientific innovation at this time: he built a laboratory and worked on improving gunpowder and grapeshot. He made significant contributions to metallurgy, finding a vastly improved way to strengthen the metal in fishhooks and creating a new alloy of brass for cannons, now known as Prince’s Metal. He was a founding member of the Royal Society and was an active member, demonstrating the glassblowing curiosity known as the Prince Rupert’s Drop and positing the geometrical puzzle known as Prince Rupert’s Cube.

It was at this same time that Prince Rupert entered a number of historically important business ventures. He was a shareholder in the Royal African Company when it was founded in 1662 and was a founding councillor of the Royal Exchange in 1670. But his biggest investment was in fur trading in Canada. Prince Rupert put up most of the money behind the first ship sent to Hudson Bay, the Nonsuch, in 1669, and the HBC’s first public fur auction in London was held on January 24, 1672, at Garraway’s Coffee House on Change Alley. (Change Alley was a shortcut between the Royal Exchange at Cornhill and the post office on Lombard Street, and so was host to dozens of coffee houses and trading offices. Garraway’s was destroyed along with most of the rest of the alley in a fire in 1748.) Prince Rupert became the first Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company when it was granted its charter in 1670, a post he held until his death. The Company then named the territory it had been granted “Rupert’s Land”, in his honour.

Prince Rupert died of a lung inflammation at his home in Westminster in 1682, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. The city of Prince Rupert, BC, was named after him, as was the Rupert River in northern Quebec. In a 1970 British biopic of Oliver Cromwell, Prince Rupert was played by future James Bond actor Timothy Dalton.

HRH Prince James, Duke of York, Duke of Albany, Earl of Ulster, KG (1633-1701), 1682-85. James was born in London as the second son of King Charles I and the younger brother of King Charles II. He was confined to St. James’s Palace by Cromwell’s forces in 1648, but escaped in a clever ruse and fled to Holland. He served in the French army during the Protectorate and returned to England after the Restoration to serve as Lord High Admiral, commanding the English fleet in the Second and Third Anglo-Dutch Wars. After the British capture of New Netherlands, King Charles II grated the territory to James; it was renamed New York in his honour, as was the city of Albany.

Prince James was appointed Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1683 but did not take an active role in its governance. It was at the start of his tenure that the HBC got its first permanent London headquarters in Scriveners’ Hall at the corner of Noble Street and Oat Lane. Two of the Company’s main trading ports on Hudson Bay, Fort York and Fort Albany, were named in his honour. He resigned in 1685 when he succeeded his heirless brother Charles as King James II of England and King James VII of Scotland. Parliament dethroned James in 1688 for his Catholicism and installed his Protestant daughter Mary and her husband, William of Orange, as joint monarchs. James mustered an army of French and Irish troops to retake his crown but was defeated by William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. James then went into exile in France, where he died in 1701. His tomb was raided in the French Revolution.

King James appears as the main villain in the Victor Hugo novel The Man Who Laughs, where he orders the son of a man who insulted him to have his face disfigured into a permanent maniacal grin. The book was made into a film in 1928 with Conrad Veidt as the disfigured son, whose frightening look inspired Batman co-creator Bill Finger to create Batman’s arch-nemesis, the Joker.

The Rt. Hon. John Churchill, 1st Earl of Marlborough, 1st Baron Churchill of Sandridge, 1st Lord Churchill of Eyemouth, PC (1650-1722), 1685-92. Born at his family’s estate in Devonshire, as a boy John Churchill was appointed as a page to the Duke of York as a reward for his father’s loyalty during the Civil War. He joined the Grenadier Guards and was garrisoned at Tangiers, where he gained tactical experience in skirmishes with the Moors. He fought in the Anglo-Dutch wars and returned to England, marrying a woman from a well-off Hertfordshire family named Sarah Jennings. He was appointed to negotiate with Holland in preparation for a war with France that never happened, then was obliged to attend to the Duke of York for some time during his exile to the Low Countries after the Popish Plot of 1678. Upon the Duke’s return to London in 1682, Churchill was elevated to a Lord of Parliament in the Scottish peerage. At this time, Churchill’s wife Sarah was appointed as a lady-in-waiting to James’s daughter, Princess Anne.

Upon the Duke of York’s succession to the throne as James II, Lord Churchill succeeded him as Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and was made a baron in the English peerage. It was during his time as Governor that Henry Kelsey began exploring what is now southern Saskatchewan for the Company, and the town of Churchill and the Churchill River, both in Manitoba, were named for the Governor. Churchill commanded the English infantry to quash a rebellion led by Charles II’s illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, but his strong Protestant faith led him to abandon James and ally himself with William of Orange during the Glorious Revolution. Upon the coronation of William III and Mary II, Churchill became the Earl of Marlborough and a Privy Councillor. Soon thereafter, Churchill was placed in command of a large number of British troops on the Continent during the Nine Year’s War, in which a coalition of European states aimed to curtail the land power of Louis XIV of France. Churchill was then called to Ireland in 1690 to take control of the ports used to supply Jacobite troops at the time of the Battle of the Boyne. Soon thereafter the relationship between William and Churchill soured, and upon suspicion of aiding James II in returning to power Churchill was stripped of all appointments in 1692 and imprisoned on accusation of high treason.

Churchill’s relationship with the royal court improved in 1694, with the death of Mary II, leaving Princess Anne, to whom Sarah Churchill was extremely close, as heir presumptive. Churchill was restored as a general in the army and a Privy Councillor in 1698. William appointed Churchill to command British forced allied with Holland and the Holy Roman Empire against France and Spain in the War of the Spanish Succession in 1700. William died soon after and was succeeded by Queen Anne, who also appointed Churchill as Master-General of the Ordnance and made him a Knight of the Garter. Churchill’s greatest victory was at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704, turning the French army away from a planned attack on Vienna; for this Queen Anne paid for Churchill’s impossibly large country home, Blenheim Palace, and made him Duke of Marlborough; the Holy Roman Emperor declared him  Prince of Mindelheim at the same time. During his time away, political fighting between Marlborough’s supporters and rivals loosened Sarah Churchill’s hold over Queen Anne, which, coupled with French military gains in 1707 and 1708, severely weakened Marlborough’s position at home, despite a rout of the French forces at Malpaquet in 1709. A pro-peace government was elected and dismissed Marlborough as commanding general, attempting to prosecute him for corruption. Marlborough, rather than return to England, toured the royal courts of the Holy Roman Empire, particularly that of the Electorate of Hanover. By 1714, after the Treaty of Utrecht was signed much to Britain’s advantage (the Treaty demanded Marlborough surrender his title as Prince of Mindelheim, whereon the Holy Roman Emperor made him Prince of Mellenburg instead) and Marlborough’s nemesis, the Earl of Oxford, had fallen from predominance, Marlborough and Queen Anne reconciled, and the Queen died shortly thereafter. Marlborough stayed on good terms with the new King, George I, who was also the Elector of Hanover, and oversaw the suppression of the First Jacobite Rebellion in 1715.

Marlborough died of a stroke at Windsor in 1722. He was initially buried at Westminster Abbey, but later moved to the chapel at Blenheim Palace upon the death of his wife Sarah. The Duke of Marlborough was the great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather of Sir Winston Churchill, who wrote a biography of him, and the great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather of Prince William, Duke of Cambridge.

Sir Stephen Evance, Kt. (1655-1712) (first time), 1692-96. Stephen Evance (as it is spelled in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; Peter C. Newman’s definitive history of the Hudson’s Bay Company gives it as “Evans”) was born in New England and sent back to London as a boy to apprentice as a goldsmith.  He became a capable banker and loaned a lot of money to the government, for which he was knighted in 1690. He was made chief cashier of the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1681, then was appointed Governor in 1692. One of his first acts was to move the Company’s headquarters from Noble Street to Culver Court, off of Fenchurch Street. Evance also owned stock in the East India Company and the Royal Africa Company, and founded a company to manufacture hollow sword blades. Evance was made to leave the governorship in 1696 due to poor attendance, and he pursued other business interests, but returned to the office in 1700 and served until he committed suicide in 1712, two months after declaring bankruptcy following failures in insurance speculation. After his death the Hollow Sword Blade Company switched from manufacturing to finance and became one of the first privately-held banks in England.

Sir William Trumbull, Kt. (1639-1716), 1696-1700. William Trumbull was born to a good family in Berkshire and earned a law degree from Oxford. He entered the Middle Temple and practiced ecclesiastical and admiralty law, eventually becoming Judge Advocate of the Fleet and going to Tangiers in 1683 to aid in the evacuation of the British garrison there. Samuel Pepys, who was on the same expedition, was unimpressed with Trumbull. Trumbull was knighted the following year and was sent as an ambassador to Paris and Constantinople before returning to London in 1694 to serve as a Commissioner of the Treasury, became a Privy Councillor the following year, and in 1696 became Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company. His tenure coincided with calamity: as a result of the War of the Spanish Succession, in 1697 the French fleet seized all of the HBC’s trading ports on Hudson Bay, except for Fort Albany. Trumbull resigned as Governor in 1700, when he retired from public life; he had resigned from his seat in Cabinet three years earlier. Trumbull became friends with the poets John Dryden and Alexander Pope, and died at his home in Berkshire in 1716.  Trumbull’s granddaughter married into the family of the Marquesses of Downshire; he is an ancestor of the current Marquess.

Sir Stephen Evance, Kt. (1655-1712) (second time), 1700-12.

Sir Bibye Lake, Sr., Bt. (1684-1744), 1712-43. Bibye Lake (his first name was his mother’s maiden surname) was born in Lincolnshire to a good family. He read law and entered the Middle Temple. After his father’s death Bibye discovered that his great-uncle had been granted a baronetcy by Charles I that was unfinalized due to the Civil War; as Bibye would have stood to inherit this title, he presented it to the government, and was awarded the baronetcy in 1711. Sir Bibye was Governor of the HBC for 31 years, the longest term of any Governor; for most of that time, he was also the Sub-Governor of the Royal African Company. Bibye also saw the Company’s good fortunes after the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, when France returned to the Company all of its ports on Hudson Bay. Bibye died in 1744 and was buried in Edmonton, London; two of his sons and one grandson would also go on to serve as Governor of the HBC.

Benjamin Pitt (?-1746), 1743-46. Pitt was chosen as a member of the HBC board of directors in 1711. He became Deputy Governor in 1735 and Governor in 1743, serving until he died three years later.

Thomas Knapp (1685-1750), 1746-50. Knapp bought £300 of shares in the Hudson’s Bay Company in May of 1720 and joined the board of directors in November of that year. He became Deputy Governor in 1743 and Governor in 1746, serving until he died four years later.

Sir Atwell Lake, Bt. (1713-60), 1750-60. Sir Atwell Lake inherited his baronetcy and his shares in the Hudson’s Bay Company from his father, Sir Bibye Lake. Like his father, his first name was his mother’s maiden surname. He became Governor on the death of Thomas Knapp and held that office until he died ten years later. It was while Sir Atwell was Governor, in 1754, that Anthony Henday explored the length of the Saskatchewan River.

Sir William Baker, Kt. (1705-70), 1760-70. William Baker was born in London and became a prominent merchant trading with the Americas, becoming a director of the HBC in 1741 and trading extensively with New York and the Carolinas. He was Deputy Governor under Sir Atwell Lake and served as Governor for the last ten years of his life; he was also knighted in 1760, and served as an alderman of the City of London from 1739 to 1770. Baker Lake, in Nunavut, was named for Sir William Baker, who had sent an expedition to explore Chesterfield Inlet.


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