Margaret Tryon: Wife of a North Carolina Governor

I recently took a short holiday to Norfolk. It’s full of history and as where I come from is the furthest away from the sea you can get, I love to be by the sea. For one day, we went into the city of Norwich, famous for it’s historical buildings. The city was once one of the largest in England, largely due to the wealth Norfolk got from its farming and wool trades. Of course, I also went because of its links to Anthony Woodville. Little did I expect when I’d booked to go round the Stranger’s Hall, a merchant’s house dating back to the 1200s, that there would be a connection to one of my favourite period dramas, Outlander. In the very lovely Georgian dining room, there was a portrait of Margaret Tryon, the wife of William Tryon, Governor of North Carolina, who features in series four and five of the drama. I would like to thank Cathy Terry, the Senior Curator of Social History at Norwich Museums, who left a copy of her research into Margaret near her portrait, who it turns out, was an amazing woman in her own right.

Portrait of Margaret Tryon by an unknown artist in the 1750s at the Stranger’s Hall in Norwich, Author’s own image

Margaret was born in London in around 1732 as the daughter of William Wake and his wife, Elizabeth. Elizabeth claimed descent from John Rolfe and his wife, Pocahontas, whereas William, was a wealthy merchant for the East India Company, who went on to be the Governor of Mumbai (then known as Bombay) between 1742 and 1750.[1] She went on to marry William Tryon in 1757, who was an aristocratic army officer. Margaret’s dowry was £30,000, which is around £3 million today, which showed just how wealthy her father had become.[2] It would seem that Margaret would be just any other military wife, but she had very different ideas about that. Not only was she a talented organ and spinet player, she was fascinated by all sorts of intellectual topics aspects of government, military strategy and religion.[3] These topics would keep her in good stead for the next aspect of family life, which saw the Tryons move to America.

William had been injured during a raid on Cherbourg in the Seven Years War, so a less physical role was needed for him. Thankfully, Margaret’s relations were able to help with this. One of her relatives was Lord Hillsborough, who was the Secretary of State for the Colonies, which explains why William’s next position was as Lieutenant Governor of North Carolina, which he took up in 1764.[4] The couple, along with their young daughter, also called Margaret, moved to Wilmington in North Carolina.

1769 Map of Willmington, North Carolina by Joseph Claude Sauthier. Map reproduction courtesy of the British Library’s King’s Topographical Collection.

Within a year, the existing Governor died, leaving William to take the promotion to Governor himself. Whilst in Wilmington, the family lived in a house on the Cape Fear River. It was there that a boy was born, but he sadly died in infancy. The couple often held social events inviting the upper classes from Wilmington and throughout the area. Margaret was known to seek out male, rather than female, company due to her masculine interests. On this, a friend known as Mrs Janet Montgomery wrote of her that:

‘Her mind was masculine. She studied everything difficult…. She published a book on fortifications and I fancy I could have won her heart if she could have given me a taste for such useful arts. The many called her mad; she certainly was eccentric. As trifling amusements had been beneath her lofty mind, and as they were essential to please the town, she found a substitute in me to amuse the circle and make the parties at the card tables.’[5]

She was also known to insist she be addressed as Your Excellency, a title which should have only been addressed to her husband, William.[6] William himself has been seen as a controversial man, and there is not enough time to go into the whys in this post, but he was known for his bad temper and he did isolate the people of Wilmington. Rebellions led by men called The Regulators dominated the area, blaming the Governor’s corruption and unwillingness to listen to grievances. The building of a new Governor’s Palace, known as Tryon’s Palace, in New Burn, nearly 100 miles away, was the last straw. Tryon had brought over an English designer and no expense was spared on the build, which was paid for by the citizens of Wilmington.[7] The Regulators were eventually stamped out by Tryon’s forces, but the damage was done. In order to get out of the situation, William accepted the Governorship of New York. Tryon Palace had only been lived in for a year before the family moved in 1771.

Photo of the reconstructed Tryon’s Palace in New Bern, North Carolina (2020), Wikimedia Commons

When William took up this post, the family moved into another richly decorated house at Fort George. They had little luck there either as the house burned down in 1773 after a fire lit in the council chamber got out of control.[8] The fire was so great that all of their possessions were lost. The estimated loss was £6,000 in possessions (around £523,000 in today’s money), and £900 in cash (around £78,500).[9] In order to claim compensation, detailed inventories of the contents of each of the 16 rooms of the house were required. These still survive and show just how richly the Tryon family lived. No wonder the family briefly returned to England in 1774.

The family did return to America following the outbreak of the American War of Independence. This was an awkward time for William Tryon, who’s duty was to the British Crown. Forces under Tryon were known for their brutality against civilians.[10] He also had a particular animosity towards George Washington, which led to him being embroiled in plot to assassinate Washington.[11] The Tryons did eventually return to England again in 1780, when William’s health began to deteriorate. They moved to Mayfair, a wealthy part of London that was seen to fit their status. Despite concerns for his health, Tryon was still given military duties, this time back in East Anglia. He was appointed to command the fortifications at Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft, and also placed at Somerleyton Hall, his headquarters, where he was also in charge of forces from American and Canadian from.[12] William died in 1788 and left the bulk of his estate to Margaret. Tragically, their daughter, Margaret, died only 3 years after her father, when she fell onto railings outside the London home, when climbing down from a rope in an attempt to elope with her army officer sweetheart.[13] Margaret herself died on 16 February 1819 in Great Yarmouth, where she had retired to a respectable lodging house on the famous Yarmouth Rows, used by families as a holiday home.[14]

Tim Downie and Melanie Gray as William and Margaret Tryon in Series 4 of the Starz series, Outlander

No one is really sure just how long she lived in those lodgings for, but what is known is that she was buried alongside her husband and daughter at St Mary’s Church in Twickenham, London. Her memory, and that of her husband’s (whether deserved or not in his case), is continued by Tryon’s Palace in New Burn. This curious museum is not the original home of the Tryon’s, as that was seized by rebels at the start of the American War of Independence and burned down in 1798. Instead, it is a modern recreation based on the original plans, which opened in 1959. Still, it is used to remember a turbulent period of the history of North Carolina, of which Margaret Tryon, with all her masculine ways, played a part in.


[1] Cathy Terry, ‘A ‘fine accomplish’d lady’: Margaret Wake Tryon’, Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, https://norwichcastle.wordpress.com/2021/03/30/a-fine-accomplishd-lady-margaret-wake-tryon/; Trevor Nicholls, ‘Margaret Tryon c. 1732 – 1819’, Journal of the Great Yarmouth Archaeology and Local History Society, 2020, p. 63

[2] Cathy Terry, ‘A ‘fine accomplish’d lady’: Margaret Wake Tryon’, Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, https://norwichcastle.wordpress.com/2021/03/30/a-fine-accomplishd-lady-margaret-wake-tryon/

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid; Trevor Nicholls, ‘Margaret Tryon’, p. 64; B. D. Bargar, ‘Governor Tryon’s House in Fort George’, New York History, 35.3 (1954), p. 297

[5] Extract from Janet Montgomery’s Memoir, page 5

[6] Cathy Terry, ‘A ‘fine accomplish’d lady’: Margaret Wake Tryon’, Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, https://norwichcastle.wordpress.com/2021/03/30/a-fine-accomplishd-lady-margaret-wake-tryon/

[7] Ibid

[8] B. D. Bargar, ‘Governor Tryon’s House in Fort George’, p. 299

[9] Ibid, p. 298

[10] Cathy Terry, ‘A ‘fine accomplish’d lady’: Margaret Wake Tryon’, Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, https://norwichcastle.wordpress.com/2021/03/30/a-fine-accomplishd-lady-margaret-wake-tryon/

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid

[13] Ibid

[14] Ibid; Trevor Nicholls, ‘Margaret Tryon’, p. 61

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