Penn was born in 1644, the son of a naval captain. The first year of his life was spent in cheap lodgings on Tower Hill. In 1648 the young boy developed smallpox and to aid his recovery the family moved into the country, living at Wanstead in Essex. William's first education was in a school at Chigwell where the headmaster saw that 'the buds of virtue were stirred up' and William learned the 'three Rs' and Greek and Latin. In 1654 Penn's father was sent on an expedition to San Domingo and when this was a failure, he was dismissed from all his commands.
William had a religious experience at the age of 11 which he never forgot, and which left him convinced that he was dedicated to a holy life. In 1654 the family moved to Macroom in Ireland, and it was here that they first met the Quakers. Thomas Loe, a noted Quaker Preacher, was invited to Macroom by Sir William and impressed the whole family with his preaching, although none of them were then converted.
At the Restoration of the monarchy (Charles II in 1660) Penn was sent to Oxford and was in trouble with the college authorities for attending private religious meetings rather than going to the elaborate ceremonies in the chapel. In 1661 he was sent down 'for writing a book which the priests and masters at the college did not like' and his father sent him on the 'Grand Tour' to complete his education. In France he was taught by the theologian Moise Amyraut, whose sentence "The laws of God are everywhere printed on the heart of man who is himself their true commentary" must have appealed to Penn. In 1664 Amyraut died and Penn went on to Italy but he was recalled by his father. He then studied law in London, apart from an interlude spent as courier to his father who was now Grand Captain Commander of the Fleet.
After the Plague of 1665, William was sent to manage his father's Irish estates. Here he again heard Thomas Loe preach and attended meetings of the Society of Friends (Quakers) regularly, being once sent to prison for it. As a result of this he was recalled to London by his father and when he refused to give up the Friends, he was disinherited. He spent the next months among the Friends in Buckinghamshire, preaching and writing, and it was at this time that he met Gulielma Springett who later became his wife.
In 1670 Penn was imprisoned in Newgate for preaching Quakerism. While he was in prison his father fell ill, and he died before Penn was released. During his illness he wrote a new will, making William his chief heir, and thus Penn was now a rich man. Shortly afterwards, Penn was again imprisoned for six months and spent the time writing religious pamphlets. On his release, he continued preaching and in 1671 made a missionary tour to Germany and Holland. On his return he went again into Buckinghamshire, and things were made ready for his marriage to Gulielma. A house was taken in Rickmansworth, and on Apri1 4th 1672 'they took each other in marriage at Chorleywood, at a farmhouse called King's. This is King John's farm, and Penn's Rickmansworth home is thought to be Basing House, now the council offices.
During his years at Rickmansworth, Penn continued preaching, and his home was used to accommodate many other famous preachers on their travels, notably George Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends. In the mid-1670s persecution of all non-conformists began again, and many Friends thought of emigrating to America to find security. Penn gave much thought to this, and one American writer has called Rickmansworth 'the cradle of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania'.
In 1677 the Penns moved to Worminghurst in Sussex where Gulielma had inherited an estate and the next few years were spent in preaching and writing. Another was spent on a missionary journey to the Continent but all the time the idea of a settlement in America was growing, and in 1681 Penn obtained a grant from the King of a territory in America called Pennsylvania. Penn himself had wished the name to be Sylvania but the King insisted on adding Penn's name. Penn was the owner and governor of this new state, with the power to make laws, and he drafted its constitution - it was one of the best and most reasonable ever.
The first provision was of complete religious freedom to all men believing in one god. Throughout the constitution the liberties of man were stressed, the Indians and the settlers being treated as equals. The constitution of Pennsylvania attracted many to the state; and especially appealed to the Friends. In 1684, after seeing Pennsylvania well established, Penn returned to England from which he had heard stories of the savage persecution of the Friends. Five months after his return, Charles II died, and with his successor, James II, Penn had much more influence. He was able to secure the release of 1,200 Friends from prison, and did what he could to lessen the severity of the trials following the rebellion of the Duke of Monmouth, once Penn's neighbour at Rickmansworth.
At this time there was trouble in Pennsylvania, since the principles of Penn's Governorship did not always suit the merchants who had gone there to trade, and who did not always acknowledge his authority. Further difficulties arose over the necessity of arming the colony, for although the times were troubled, it was against Quaker principles to carry arms or use violence. In 1692 Penn was dismissed from the Governorship, probably due to the intrigues against him at the court in London. In December of that year, however, he insisted on a hearing of these charges in full court before the King, and was publicly cleared.
In 1693 his wife, Gulielma, died leaving him two sons and a daughter. The Governorship of Pennsylvania was restored to Penn in August 1694. Three years after the death of his wife he married Hannah Callowhill at the Friend's Meeting House in Bristol.
Penn died in 1718 and lies buried beside his wives at the Friends Meeting House at Jordans near Rickmansworth.
HISTORICAL NOTE: It is a fact that William lived at Rickmansworth. The present Basing House was built in 1740 and it is possible that part of the house in which William Penn lived is incorporated in the present building. Although documentary evidence is scarce, the American Friends of William Penn feel that this historical event merits a commemorative plaque which they have erected in the wall by the entrance to Basing House.
BAPTISM: There is a record of Penn's baptise in the church records of All Hallows by the Tower, London, for 23rd October 1664.
- May 1989
Published by the council's information and press officer at 17/23 High Street, Rickmansworth, Telephone: 01923 776611