William Penn

1644 – 1718

William Penn was born during the Civil War near Tower Hill, London, on 14th October 1644. His father was Vice-Admiral Sir William Penn, a great sea-captain, who was a friend of King Charles II and his younger brother the Duke of York, later to become James II.  During Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate William Penn senior was made an Admiral and was granted Shannagarry estate in Ireland.  After an unsuccessful expedition to the West Indies led by Admiral Penn the family moved to Shannagarry.  It was here that William Penn met and was greatly influenced by Thomas Loe, who was a Quaker.

At 16 William went up to Christ Church, Oxford. The Church of England was the only accepted form of worship at this time and students were expected to attend services.  Penn was increasingly drawn to Quakerism, which had been started by George Fox in 1652.  He began to organise meetings and to challenge the authorities.  In March 1662 he was sent down. His father disapproved strongly, and sent him to France hoping to dispel his rebellious ideas.  There Penn enrolled in the Huguenot Academy and was influenced by Moise Amyraut, a strong supporter of religious freedom.  On his return to England he began to study law. This was interrupted by the Great Plague of London in 1666, and his father sent him far away, to care for the family estates in Ireland.  Here he became a convinced Quaker.

In 1668 he was imprisoned for seven months for his religious beliefs. While in prison he wrote No Cross No Crown, one of his most influential books. Around this time he also met Gulielma Springett, daughter of Mary Penington and step daughter of Isaac Penington, both committed Quakers.

The new Conventicle Act banned public meetings of more than 5 people, in an attempt to suppress all but Anglican worship. In 1670 William Penn and his friend William Mead spoke to a large crowd in London’s Gracechurch Street, and were arrested and tried at the Old Bailey. The Penn-Mead Trial has gone down in legal history due to Penn’s skilled arguments and the courage of the jury. It set a precedent for the rights of juries to reach independent conclusions and is still referred to today. It is a very important part of Penn’s legacy, both in the UK and in the US.  In 1672 William and Gulielma married.

William’s father had died in 1670. Part of William’s inheritance was a crown debt of £16,000 which his father had lent to Charles II, and in 1681 in settlement of this debt he was granted land on the west bank of the Delaware River in the American Colonies. Penn wanted the province to be called Sylvania, but the King insisted on the name Penn being prefixed in memory of his father, so it became Pennsylvania.

He went to America in 1682 and spent two years there establishing the colony. He called it his Holy Experiment because it was to be a place where the Quaker ideals of equality, religious freedom, and open democratic processes could be put into practice in ways that seemed impossible in Europe.  He treated the Lenape Indians with great respect and made a treaty with them for the use of their land.  Voltaire said of the treaty that it was the only one “not ratified by an oath, and that was never infringed."

Penn also drew up a remarkably progressive constitution for Pennsylvania.  He believed that if people had freedom, education and equal rights under moral laws that they themselves had helped to make, things might go wrong from time to time, but would put themselves right. It served as a model for several other states, and was a key influence on the US constitution drawn up in Philadelphia nearly a century later.

He had an early opportunity to demonstrate that he was really serious about equal rights and moral laws when Margaret Mattson was brought before him in 1683, on a charge of witchcraft. Such charges were all too common then, but the verdict on Margaret was that she was 'guilty of the common fame of being a witch' which was undoubtedly true but not an offence, and she was set free. There were no more witch trials in Pennsylvania.

Soon after Penn’s return to England in 1684, the King died and was succeeded by James II. As a close friend of the new King, Penn did much to further religious freedom. The culmination of this was the 1689 Act of Toleration which enabled Quakers and all other religious groups to worship openly.

In 1694 Gulielma died. Two years later he married Hannah Callowhill, and they went to America in 1699, to live at Pennsbury, near Philadelphia. He had to return to England in 1701 where his health declined and he had financial problems. In 1712 he had a stroke and suffered from loss of memory. He died in 1718 and is buried in the grounds of Jordans Quaker Meeting House in Buckinghamshire.

Further Reading and Credits


Image of William Penn reproduced by kind permission of the copyright holders Pennsbury Manor