Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
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Source: April 1991 Volume 29 Number 2, Pages 77–82

The Many William Penns

Henry B. Thomas

Page 77

We would like, in this article, to have William Penn come down from his pedestal atop City Hall in Philadelphia and share with us a few of the less-well known facets of his many-sided career.

William Penn lived for almost 74 years. Like most people who have lived a long and productive life, he became several quite different people at the various stages of his life.


1644-1666: Youth, Student, Rebel

The first William Penn we will meet is the "youth, student, rebel", who was born in London, close by the Tower, in the year 1644. He was baptized a short time later, in the Anglican faith, at All Hallows Barking Church. At the age of three he had small pox, from which he recovered; it would prove to be most fortunate for the history of Pennsylvania, as we shall see later.

He attended Chigwell Public School until the age of twelve. At about this time his father, Admiral Sir William Penn, was assigned command of the Irish Squadron, and the family moved to Macroom Castle in the south of Ireland. While in Ireland his education was continued by private tutors and members of the family. When the family returned to England, young William, at the age of fifteen, entered Oxford. Within a year, however, he was expelled for his "anti-establishment religious activities".

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His father, Admiral Penn, turned him out of his house, after a rather stormy session between father and son. At the behest of his wife, however, the Admiral quickly relented, and decided that William should spend some time on the continent at the French Court. For the next two years William Penn had a variety of experiences on the continent. On his return to England, Samuel Pepys, in his famous diary, described him as "a young dandy effecting the mannerisms of the French Court".

He now enrolled at the Lincoln Inn, to read for the law. He stayed less than a year because of the on set of the Great Plague, and the Great Fire of London which occurred the following year.

William Penn is now 24 years old, polished by his experiences on the continent, and his father arranges to have him join the Duke of Ormandy's court in Ireland. He becomes part of the British forces of occupation, and seriously considers entering the military as a career.

It is at this point that he came under the influence of the Quaker preacher Thomas Lowe, and embraced the Quaker faith.


1668-1681: Quaker and Dissenter

We now meet and get to know William Penn, the "Quaker and Dissenter". As a Quaker, he very quickly goes to jail for his attendance at and participation in a Quaker Meeting. While committed in prison, he wrote No Cross, No Crown for the first time. The Admiral, much upset, uses his influence to have William freed from jail, and demands that he return to England at once.

Title page from No Cross, No Crown, one of Penn's several religious tracts

After a very stormy meeting, William Penn was then turned out of the house for the second time. He was again jailed, for a period of eight months, during which time his father became gravely ill. He was released shortly before the Admiral's demise, but was shortly there after jailed for the third time. This stay was followed by the Penn-Mead trial, which not only resulted in his being exonerated but also helped to establish the principle of the independence of juries in court cases.

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William Penn is now in his 27th year, and marries Guliema Springett. His wife was from a well-to-do family. They ultimately had eight children, of which only three survived to adulthood.

A year following his marriage, Penn met and spent time with George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, who had just returned from a two-year missionary trip to the new world colonies. A few years later William Penn became one of three trustees for the colony of West Jersey, and was instrumental in settling 1400 Quakers there. He also undertook a missionary mission to the continent.

In addition, much of his voluminous writings pertaining to the Quaker faith were done during these years. This period can best be described as that in which Penn gave unstintingly of himself in the propagation of the Quaker faith.


1681-1685: Founder and Dreamer

Now William Penn comes to us primarily as a "Founder and Dreamer", for it is during this period that his "Holy Experiment" is established. He is now in his 35th year, and applies to the Crown for a charter to establish a colony west of the Delaware River, between the colonies of New York and Maryland. In 1681 Charles II grants 26,000,000 acres to William Penn, thereby cancelling a £20,000 debt owed to Penn's father, the late Admiral.

Penn's charter became effective when the King signed it on March 4, 1681.(The colony was named, incidentally, after his father, the Admiral, at the King's insistence. William Penn's choice would have been New Wales.)

Penn dispatched his cousin, William Markham, as the first acting governor of Pennsylvania. He instructed Markham and Thomas Holmes, his first surveyor, to establish his capital at Upland [the present day Chester], but they found that land grants already in existence prevented the location of the capital at this site. It was, however, the site of the first temporary capital of Pennsylvania.

Penn then left the location of the capital to their good judgment. They selected the site that was to become Philadelphia. He also instructed them to lay out an 8500-acre manor for his personal use; this would become our Pennsbury Manor.

In the year 1682 William Penn, now in his 38th year, boarded the ship Welcome, arriving at New Castle after a voyage of two months. During the voyage, one-third of the people aboard were lost to small pox, to which Penn was immune.

This visit, Penn's first, lasted two years. Many necessary actions were taken during this period to insure that the colony would get started on a sound basis. Among them were the setting up of a court system, and the adoption of a frame of governance for the colony. He also secured the rights to the "lower colonies", the present state of Delaware, along with

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the purchase of a tenth of West Jersey from Major John Fenwick. These latter actions assured Pennsylvania of access to the sea.

In the latter part of 1684 this period of his life ended when William Penn boarded the ship Endeavor for his return to England.


1684-1699: Politician and Statesman

The next William Penn we meet is the "Politician and Statesman". The over-riding reason for his return to England at this time was his dispute with Lord Baltimore over the southern boundary of his colony. This dispute, along with other disputes with several other colonies concerning the boundaries of the province, would drag on for the rest of the eighteenth century.

A short time after Penn's return, James II fled the throne of England in the face of the invited army of William of Orange, and was succeded by William and his wife Mary, James' daughter. Soon thereafter William Penn became persona non grata at the Court, due primarily to his close relationship with the Catholic monarch who had fled. His only recourse was to go into hiding for the next several years. During this period he was very active in his Quaker ministry, and traveled widely in England and on the continent in the propagation of his faith.

In 1690 he was caught and committed to the Tower of London for two weeks because of his supposed activities against the Crown. As a result of these charges, Penn also lost his governship of Pennsylvania for the next two years.

In 1694 Guliema, his first wife, died, and two years later he married Hannah Callowhill. She was a member of a prominent Bristol merchant's family, and a practicing Quaker. They had a family of seven children, four of whom survived to adulthood. It was in this same year that Springett, his oldest son from his marriage to Guliema and the one he had groomed to take over as proprietor of Pennsylvania, died suddenly.

While all this was happening, Penn also learned that his affairs in connection with his Irish estates necessitated a trip to Ireland the following year.


1699-1718: Proprietor -- and Bankrupt

The last of the William Penns we will meet is the "Proprietor--and Bankrupt". The news from his colony has been of such a disturbing nature that it is necessary for Penn, Hannah, and Letitia, a daughter from his first marriage, to board, in 1699, the ship Canterbury for his second visit to his colony. (Shortly after their arrival, "John the American", the only Penn born in this country, is delivered by Hannah at the Slate Roof House on Second Street, above Walnut.)

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Drawing of Pennsbury Manor, made by the firm of R. Brognard Okie prior to its restoration

It was during this visit, which also lasted for two years, that the Penns occupied Pennsbury Manor. Accompanying the Governor and his family were John Sotcher, who was to be the Steward of Pennsbury for the next twelve years, and James Logan, who acted as Penn's secretary and was to start along commercial and political career.

Much to the dismay of William Penn, he found his colony at this time to be in a state of extreme political and financial disarray. Not even Penn, with all his good intentions and farsightedness, was able to untangle the mess before he returned to England again.

During this visit to the colony Penn granted his Charter of Privileges to the colony. Although it was received with mixed emotions by some of the inhabitants, this document was to remain the "constitution" of the province until the time of our revolution.

In 1701 William Penn and his family boarded the ship Dolmahoy for their trip back to England. This visit would prove to be the last time William Penn would see his colony.

Shortly after their return Philip Ford, Penn's trust agent in England, died. His death would have far-reaching effects on the fortunes of the Penn family. William Penn's financial situation, in fact, was deteriorating rapidly at this time, to the extent that he unsuccessfully petitioned the Crown to buy back Pennsylvania. Finally, in 1705 the family of Philip Ford instituted legal action against Penn for debts owed them.

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As a result of this action, and others on the part of his many creditors, Penn became insolvent and was committed to debtors prison. In an effort to get his financial affairs in order, he again offered to sell the colony back to the Crown.

In the meantime, to add to his troubles, William Penn Jr. had visited the colony and conducted himself in a manner which proved upsetting to many of the citizens of Pennsylvania.

In 1712 Penn suffered the first of a series of strokes which finally ended in his death in the year 1718. He is buried at the Quaker burial ground adjacent to the Jordan Meeting, outside London.

After his death, his wife Hannah, working through James Logan, became, if not in law, in fact the governor of the province until her death in 1726.

I hope this short review of "the many William Penns" has, to some small degree, been successful in adding flesh and bones to a man who might too easily be remembered only as the Gentle Quaker who founded Pennsylvania.



Other articles pertaining to William Penn, appearing in earlier issues of the Quarterly, include

"The Re-Creation of Penn's Manor", by R. Brognard Okie. April and June 1941 [Vol. IV, Nos. 2 and 3]

"William Penn", by George Norman Highley. April 1973 [Vol. XVI, No. 2]

"The Three Worlds of William Penn", by Eva D. Noll. October 1981 [Vol. XIX, No. 4]


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