Dear Ace: What’s an Albemarle anyway? How did the county get its name?—Al B. Marlow
Al: If nothing else, it’s certainly a mouthful for outsiders: Ace has heard every pronunciative variation on our fair county’s name from the common “Al-Burr-Marle” to some unholy, mush-mouthed amalgamation involving albums, Arlo (Guthrie, Ace presumes) and marbles. But lest Ace’s dear readers get jealous of the easily articulated Nelson, Greene or Orange counties (not so much Fluvanna) they should know that the Albemarle name has a pretty interesting, if not terribly distinguished, history.
Government haters, listen up: The eponymous Lord Albemarle was known as ‘The Spendthrift Earl’ because he never met a shilling that he couldn’t waste.
Albemarle County is named for Willem Anne van Keppel, better known as the Second Earl of Albemarle. Laying aside Ace’s concerns about the guy’s grade school experience—getting through fifth grade with the middle name Anne must have been hell—a look at the lineage of Albemarle’s title tells us just what an “Albemarle” is. Evidently, “Albemarle” comes to English from the Latin Alba Marla, or “White Soil,” by way of Old French. It was originally a fiefdom granted in 1081 to William the Conqueror’s brother-in-law. After a few false starts in the intervening centuries, the title was revived in 1697, for Willem Anne van Keppel’s dad. But what was so great about the Second Earl that merited having such a fine county named after him?
Turns out, nothing in particular. Taylor Stoermer, Virginia history expert at UVA’s Corcoran Department of History, explains: “Albemarle gained a reputation for being ‘The Spendthrift Earl’ because he never met a shilling that he couldn’t waste. Horace Walpole wrote of him, ‘With no fortune at all, and with slight parts, he has £17,000 a year from the government, which he squanders away, though he has great debts, and four or five numerous broods of children of one sort or other!’” Stoermer continues, “He also got into trouble with the Court when it was suggested that his mistress was selling government intelligence to the French.” And if living in perpetual debt and schtupping a possible Froggie spy wasn’t enough, the guy never even set foot in Virginia. The county was only named for him because he was royal governor in 1744, when Albemarle County was carved out of Goochland.
All the same, in retrospect, the earl was quite an appropriate county father in at least one respect. French historian Jean-François Marmontel, perhaps being overly charitable here, said of the continental Albemarle, “He united what is best and most estimable in the characters of the English and French.” If that ain’t Jeffersonian to a T, Ace doesn’t know what is.