The New England Knight: Sir William Phips, 1651-1695


359 pages
Contains Photos, Illustrations, Maps, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-8020-8171-1
DDC 974.4'02'092




Reviewed by Graham Adams, Jr.

Graham Adams, Jr., is a professor of American history at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick.


William Phips rose from colonial obscurity to a position of wealth and
prominence. Authors Emerson W. Baker and John G. Reid view his unique
career as an exemplification of the social, political, and cultural
conditions of the British Empire in the late 17th century.

Born into a family of less-than-average wealth in rural Maine, Phips
moved to Boston, where he pursued a career as a ship’s captain. Phips
had family connections in Britain sufficient to enable him to gain royal
support from King Charles II to conduct an expedition for sunken
treasure in the Caribbean. This highly successful venture made Phips a
wealthy man, and King Charles, who acquired one-quarter of all the
treasure removed, bestowed a knighthood upon him.

Named a major-general in 1690, Phips planned an extensive campaign
against the French. He took Port Royal when its commander surrendered
without resistance, but his other military actions failed disastrously.
Despite these defeats, Phips managed to gain the support of several
powerful patrons in Britain as well as of Increase and Cotton Mather,
leading Puritan divines and New England political leaders. Phips worked
with the Mathers to secure a new charter for Massachusetts, and, in
1692, he obtained an appointment as the first royal governor of

Phips assumed this post just at the peak of the Salem witchcraft
trials. He steered clear of them until he realized that popular
opposition to the proceedings had increased significantly. He then
suspended the trials and sent a bill of the General Court to terminate
them. As governor, Phips also negotiated a treaty with the native
Wabanaki Indians, but it proved illusory and ended in failure. Factional
bickering and abrasive relationships induced Phips’s recall to Britain
and probably would have led to an investigation had Phips not died while

Phips achieved his greatest success as a treasure hunter. His record as
a military commander and royal governor boasted few accomplishments. Yet
Phips’s career demonstrated that patronage and access to the king
ranked as crucial factors for social advancement. Biographers Baker and
Reid correctly assert that Phips’s life tells us a good deal about the
nature of British society during this era.


Baker, Emerson W., and John G. Reid., “The New England Knight: Sir William Phips, 1651-1695,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 21, 2024,