Meeting Philip Calvert

November 22, 1992|By FRANK D. ROYLANCE

I arrived early at the Chapel Field on the morning they planned to raise the last of the three lead coffins from the sandy crypt in St. Mary's City. As had become my habit, I stopped first inside the gayly-striped green-and-white tent that sheltered the excavation, to see what work had been done there overnight.

The gray, lead-wrapped coffin rested alone at the bottom of the pit, embraced now by a steel cradle and a framework of pine two-by-fours, fashioned to lend support during the delicate business of hoisting it from the earth.

It was a crisp, sunny November morning. But inside the tent it was just cold and still. It was too early for the usual hum of equipment and scientific hubbub and, for a moment, the place regained the stark loneliness of the tomb it had been for 300

years.

On either side of the pit were visible the massive brick bulkheads of the Great Brick Chapel's foundation. In the cold and quiet, I tried to imagine the high, dark walls of the chapel's right transept rising above me. The archaeologists say the sanctuary where I stood was floored in stone before the place was torn down in 1705.

The heavy brick and stone would have made this wilderness chapel a raw, dark place in December 1682. That was the month they buried Philip Calvert, perhaps in this very coffin. As I stood alone beside the crypt, I tried to imagine the pale winter light filtering in through narrow windows, catching smoke from incense or votive candles lighted for the funeral. The pit would have been open then, too. Waiting.

Outside, the pollen experts say, town and chapel were surrounded by virgin woods of oak and pine. Dr. Herman Heikkenen, the tree-ring expert, says this coffin's wooden interior was fashioned from broad planks of yellow pine and tulip poplar cut from those forests.

The leaves would have been gone by December. Perhaps there was snow on the ground as they lugged Philip Calvert's coffin into the chapel. It could not have been easy. The lead alone weighed some 500 pounds.

What must these colonists have thought at the death of this man? He was 56, old in a day when 70 percent of the men were dead by 50. But in many ways he was the soul and the glue of the colony.

By the time he died, say historian Lois Green Carr and state archivist Edward C. Papenfuse, Philip Calvert had been a central figure in the colony for 25 years. He apparently had never sailed home to England, which might explain why there are no known paintings of him. The colony had no portraitists.

He was a cultured and educated man, raised in London from age 6 by his half-brother Cecil, the 2nd Lord Baltimore.

When he died, probate records show St. Peter's -- Philip's brick mansion in St. Mary's City, as large as the governor's mansion built 25 years later in Williamsburg -- contained a library of books on poetry, natural history, religion, animal husbandry, astrology, astronomy, law and medicine.

His arrival in Maryland in 1657 with his devout Catholic wife, Anne Wolseley (or Wolsey) was the Calvert family's bid to regain control of their property from the Puritans and Virginians, who had seized it three years earlier, part of the larger religious struggle of the English Civil War.

To appease the government, Lord Baltimore named a Protestant governor, Josias Fendall. But he made Philip the colony's councilor, provincial court justice, principal secretary and judge of probate.

It was a wise choice, for Fendall attempted a coup in 1660. When it failed, trusted Philip was named governor. He served until 1661, when His Lordship named his son and heir, Charles Calvert, governor.

Philip now became chancellor under his nephew, and remained in that post until his death in 1682. It was a powerful position.

As chancellor, Philip was the chief legal officer of the colony. He established a court of equity to settle disputes, closely following English procedure. He served as chief justice of the Provincial Court in the governor's absence.

As probate judge, he established laws and procedures for the inheritance of property and the protection of orphans' estates that survive in modern law. He began the careful archiving of property records that ensured their preservation, not just for heirs and creditors, but for modern historians as well. The state archives still hold original property records bearing Philip Calvert's signature.

"If this is Philip Calvert, we have a lot to thank him for," said Dr. Papenfuse, as he waited to help lift the coffin's lid. "He brought a sense of stability and reliability to government that has provided us with a set of records that helps us understand who these people were and what their quality of life was like."

Philip Calvert was also a diplomat for the colony, negotiating with the Dutch over settlements in Delaware, and with Virginia over its claims to what is now Somerset County on the Eastern Shore. He also established rules of behavior for both whites and Indians that ended clashes on the lower Eastern Shore.

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