Royal Revelations

Seven things you probably didn’t know about Benning Wentworth, our first Royal Governor

illustration by brad fitzpatrick

Benning Wentworth lorded over the brand-spanking-new Granite State from 1741 to 1767. But how much do you know about him?

1. He was super rich. Sure, his family was wealthy — his ancestor, Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, was BFFs with King Charles I. (Until he wasn’t anymore, and got beheaded. Spoiler alert: So did Charles.) But Benning made his own money too. After a financial kerfuffle with the Crown, he came out on top as governor of our new state, which we’re lucky wasn’t called Benningland or Benningsylvania. He then set to work making bank, becoming one of the richest men in New England.

2. He went to Harvard. BW graduated fifth in his class. Back then, class rank was based on social standing, not book smarts.
Sassypants Wentworth did set a college record — most fines incurred by an undergraduate for shenanigans and breaking stuff.

3. He might be the reason your town exists. Benning issued more than 100 land grants so towns could be incorporated. He even revitalized Town Meeting. OK, so maybe some of the land he sold was kind of in New York, causing the scuffle that resulted in the founding of Vermont. Oh, and he kept 500 acres of each grant for his timber business. But despite his dealings being so shady that the British Crown had to step in and say, “Buddy, dial it back,” he was a pretty popular guy. His nephew, John, even convinced the powers-that-be to just forget about all that unethical nonsense and let his dear uncle retire in peace at his seaside mansion.

4. Like lilacs? So did Benning Wentworth. He was one of the first people — possibly the very first — to import our state flower to this continent.

5. Longfellow wrote a poem about him. Like Fred MacMurray on that show whose name I forgot, Benning Wentworth had three sons. He outlived them all, as well as his wife, Abigail. He spent his remaining years in seclusion, contemplating not material riches but the riches of the human spirit. Just kidding! He married his 20-something housekeeper. At the silver fox’s 64th birthday party, he surprised the guests by marrying Martha Hilton on the spot. Longfellow’s poem about it is called “Lady Wentworth.”

6. There are some strange legends about him. Did he keep horses in the basement? (Let’s hope not.) Did he hide in the closet when angry people came to visit him? (Maybe.)

7. His house is strange and wonderful. B-Webs lived for a time at the Warner House in downtown Portsmouth, where you can now see the Warner family furniture and those weird (seriously weird) murals. He wanted to stay forever and ever, but couldn’t get his assembly to pony up the dough (he had kind of trashed the place). So he was forced to assemble the sprawling Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion on Little Harbor from a few structures he had lying around. How many rooms does it have? Heck, we can’t even agree on how many floors it has. But if you’re looking for a fish-smoker on the second floor next to the guest room, you’re in luck! For the full Benning Wentworth Experience, take a tour this summer.

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