Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

William Penn, Criminal Justice, and the Penn-Mead Trial

In September 1667 Penn was arrested for the first time, at a meeting of Friends. The mayor, noticing his aristocratic dress, offered to free him on his promise to behave; but the 23-year-old refused and was sent to prison with eighteen others.  Penn wrote that religion was his crime and made him a prisoner to a mayor's malice, but at the same time it made him a free man.

Penn became an active promoter of Quaker ideas by writing numerous pamphlets. After he wrote "The Sandy Foundation Shaken" to refute the doctrines of the trinity and the eternal damnation of souls, he was put in prison again, not for his ideas but because he had no license from the bishop of London. Penn wrote "Innocency with her Open Face" and was released. Also while in the Tower of London he wrote his most famous book, No Cross, No Crown.

In 1670 Penn and William Meade were arrested in Gracechurch Street, London, for preaching. The recently passed Conventicle Act forbade gatherings for worship of more than 5 people, apart from for services of the Church of England. In the trial the prisoners appeared before twelve judges and twelve jurors. Penn challenged the legality of the indictment and would not plead without seeing a written copy; since this was not given, he pleaded not guilty. The next day the prisoners were fined forty marks for failing to remove their hats. Penn cited Coke on common law and the rights in the Great Charter (Magna Carta). Despite these arguments, the recorder charged the jury to bring in a verdict of guilty. Four jurors dissented, and they were sent back to rethink their verdict. The jury then found Penn and the others guilty of “speaking in the street”, but refused to add the words "in an unlawful assembly". The magistrates refused to accept this, and ordered the jury to be "locked up without meat, drink, fire, and tobacco", while Penn called to them not to give up their rights as Englishmen.

The charge that unarmed worshippers had riotously broken the peace was absurd. Yet the result was that Penn and all twelve of the jury were sent to prison. Someone, probably Penn's father, paid the fines, and they were discharged.

The jurors, released on a writ of habeas corpus, sued the mayor and recorder, winning their case before the Court of Common Pleas in a historic decision that conceded that judges "may try to open the eyes of the jurors, but not to lead them by the nose." Penn wrote a further pamphlet with an appendix citing numerous precedents since the Magna Carta of 1215.

This Penn-Meade trial became famous and showed that the arbitrary and oppressive proceedings of the courts badly needed reform. It is a precedent to this day.

Again the next year Mayor Starling had Penn arrested for preaching without taking an oath, even though the Conventicle Act requiring this was only for those in holy orders, which Penn was not. He was sent to Newgate prison for six months and occupied his time writing more pamphlets. He also sent a protest to the sheriffs of London about prison conditions and an address to Parliament against the Conventicle Act.

In 1673 Penn went to court to secure a writ of habeas corpus to release George Fox from Worcester prison. Fox had been in prison for more than a year; but Judge Matthew Hale found so many errors in the indictment that he discharged Fox. Probably because of Penn's influence with the last two Stuart kings, Fox was never arrested again. Penn wrote "A Treatise of Oaths" in 1675 so that Quakers would not be imprisoned for refusing to take an oath of allegiance or to swear in court. He cited 122 authorities from Pythagoras to William of Orange on the folly of exacting oaths.

Penn's many pamphlets arguing for religious tolerance such as "The Great Case of Liberty of Conscience Debated," "Examination of Liberty Spiritual," and "A Persuasive to Moderation" finally bore fruit in 1689 when the Toleration Act was passed. Many believed that his writings brought about the release of 1300 Quakers from jail.

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