William Claiborne was baptized on August 10, 1600 in Crayford Parish, Kent County, England. His father, Thomas, had moved there shortly before his birth. Thomas had married Sara, the widow of Roger James, on November 21, 1598, in Stepney, Middlesex. William’s older brother, Thomas, was born in 1599.
Before this move, his father Thomas had been Mayor and Alderman of King’s Llyn, as had his father Thomas before him. King’s Llyn was an old port on the east coast of England. In medieval times (when it was Bishop’s Llyn, before Henry VIII), it was the largest English port, trading with the Hanseatic League around the North Sea and the north coast of Europe. As trade began to develop in the Atlantic, King’s Llyn’s importance declined. Claiborne moved closer to London and the center of the action. He was a wealthy merchant. He and Sara owned, among other things, a tavern called the Royal James in the growing South Bank neighborhood near the Globe Theatre.
Thus, William came into a well-to-do family, with roots in trading and the sea. When he was 7, in 1607, his father and mother died. I do not know the cause of their death, but they both died the same day. None of the other children died. But it was certainly a tragic event in William’s life. I do not know who William lived with after he was orphaned. One source suggested that he was mentored by John Smith, who spent time in England, writing up his voyages. This would have fired his imagination about Virginia and the possibilities of a life of adventure. Shorto describes Smith’s early life as follows: “… the considerably larger-than-life John Smith, who had fought in Hungary against the Turks, was captured and sold into slavery in Istanbul, won the heart of his female captor, escaped to Transylvania via Russia, and trekked across North Africa–all before his twenty-fifth birthday.” (p. 22)
Even if he was not directly acquainted with Smith, such were the stories available to him. Nonetheless, he went to college, graduating from Pembroke College, Cambridge in 1616. In 1621, he was selected for the post of Surveyor for the new colony of Virginia. I haven’t found the specific person who chose him for this post. It is suggestive that the new Governor, with whose party he sailed, was Sir Francis Wyatt, the son of George Wyatt, from Boxley Manor in Kent. Also in the party was the new Treasurer, George Sandys, who was the uncle of Wyatt’s wife, all also from Kent. It is likely that someone in the Claiborne family knew one of these people.
What is evident is that William himself impressed people. Throughout his life he is chosen for leadership or else takes it as his right.