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William Penn
(1644-1718)

Born: 1644 at Great Tower Street, London
Governor of Pennsylvania
Died: 1718 at Ruscombe, Berkshire

William Penn was the son of Sir William Penn Senior, an admiral, who figures in Pepys' Diary. He was born on the east side of Great Tower Street in London and baptized in the Church of All Hallows, Barking (Essex), where there is a memorial tablet. In 1660, he went to Christ Church College, Oxford. There, his protests against the prejudices manifested against puritans and his interest in the Quakers brought upon him the disapprobation of the authorities, and of his father. In 1662, after becoming a member of Lincoln's Inn, he was sent abroad.

Returning in 1667, Penn became a leader in the Society of Friends and engaged in controversial writing. For a pamphlet, A Sandy Foundation Shaken, in which the doctrine of the Trinity was assailed. he was arrested under the Blasphemy Act and committed to the Tower of London in December 1668. He was told he must recant or remain there for life and Stillingfleet (then rector of St. Andrew's, Holborn; afterwards Bishop of Worcester) was sent to remonstrate with him. Penn said to him: "The Tower is to me the worst argument in the World. My prison shall be my grave before I will budge a jot." In July, 1669, through the intervention of James, Duke of York, he was released, having written whilst a prisoner his book, No Cross, No Crown. In 1670, he was tried at the Old Bailey for preaching in the streets, the charge being one of conspiring to address and addressing a tumultuous assembly. He pleaded “not guilty" and disputed the legality of the indictment. Notwithstanding that great pressure was brought to bear upon them by the Bench, the jury, after a trial lasting four days, acquitted Penn. He, however, went to gaol in default of paying a fine imposed for not removing his hat in court. The jury were also committed to prison. A tablet in the Central Criminal Court commemorates this event.

In 1672, Penn was preaching in Holland and Germany. In 1675, he began his connection with America. He was appointed trustee of the shares of a bankrupt Quaker who owned half the lease granted to the colonists of New Jersey. He then helped to form the Quaker Colony of West New Jersey and, in 1676, "drew up its constitution or 'concessions', remarkable for its democratic nature and claim for complete religious toleration". In 1677, he again travelled through Holland and Germany.

In 1680, in despair of securing real religious toleration in Europe, Penn began the negotiations for the creation of a Quaker settlement in America. An area of land, north of Maryland and west of the Delaware River, was granted to him by Charles II. To it he gave the name of Sylvania, which was altered at the Royal command to Pennsylvania, in honour of Penn's father. Penn was named governor of the province and set sail in 1682. "On arrival, he convened the Assembly, which accepted the constitution, the chief feature of which was complete religious freedom; founded and named Philadelphia; and made a treaty of friendship with the Indians." The last of this brief epitome of achievements has always been a classical example for pacifist propaganda though, regrettably, there is little analogy here with the problem of modern statecraft. After two years spent in organization and negotiation, Penn returned to England.

Penn was a close friend of King James II and thus managed to secure the release of many Quakers from prison. He was partly responsible for the Declaration of Indulgence which sent the famous ‘Seven Bishops’ to the Tower of London. The Glorious Revolution, therefore, made him a suspected person and he was forced to live in retirement.

He was present, in 1690, at the funeral of George Fox at the Bunhill Fields Burial Ground and narrowly escaped arrest. His last years were unhappy. His principles were flouted in Pennsylvania and, from 1692-4, he was deprived of his powers as governor. In London, he lived in poverty for some time in Norfolk Street off the Strand. "It was the last house on the south-west corner," writes G. H. Cunningham, "with a peephole in the door, through which Penn carefully scrutinized visitors before admitting them. Hawkins says that the house was chosen for its convenience in getting away by water for, at the time Penn lived here, he was in bad financial circumstances and was trying to avoid his creditors."

He died at Ruscombe in Berkshire and was buried in the Quaker Graveyard at Jordan in Buckinghamshire, where his first wife was laid in 1694, and his second in 1726.

 
 

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