A Brief Look into the Life of William Penn and His Relationship with the Stuart Kings
English Legal History, Fall Semester
December 7, 2007
paper is designed to deal with two cardinal personalities of the modern era;
authoritative men who redirected the political current of their time and left
lasting influences that still can be felt on both sides of the
Nothing else in the life of William Penn has puzzled the biographers and historians so much as his persistent loyalty to James II. Because of this relationship, some biographers and historians such as Thomas Babington Macaulay might have been unfair in their historical treatment of William Penn. Macaulay does recognize the positive aspects of Penn’s life, but he is especially critical of the relationship between the Quaker and the Stuart’s. It should be acknowledged that Penn did lay himself open to suspicion; he is a controversial and unique figure in history. The reasons for Macaulay’s unfairness are chiefly two; fist his strong prejudices, which made it difficult for him to see any good in those he disliked. Second “his marvelous memory to which he trusted far more than any historian should.”
The antithesis between Catholic Monarch and Quaker subject would seem to make any real understanding between the two men improbable. Yet Penn was not only a courtier throughout this reign but also a friend, possibly the best friend of the King. Lord Macaulay notes that James and Penn had long been acquaintances. “[T]he Quaker had become a favorite courtier of James.” James II is one of the most reviled figures of modern history; William Penn is one of the most revered. How is their steadfast friendship to be explained?
fully understand the relationship between William Penn and James II, it is
critical to examine the roots of the Penn-Stuart connection. There are reasons
why it is not completely shocking that there was a Penn at court. It was
already a family tradition when James II came to the throne. The Penn’s had
served the Stuarts and been favored by them, for at least two generations. It began with Giles Penn, a trader of the
early seventeenth century who acted on behalf of Charles I as a diplomat in
The exact date of Admiral William
Penn’s birth is unknown, but his baptism occurred on 23rd April,
1621. Admiral Penn served in the parliamentary navy
during the Puritan Revolution (1647), when the royal forces of King Charles I
(1600–1649) fought with those of
Admiral Penn had led the Penn name to one of status and stature. At the age of 39 Admiral Penn was a Knight, Commissioner, Member of Parliament and standing in high favor of Charles II, with even more accolades to come. Admiral Penn’s relationship with James, Duke of York truly began at the Restoration. The Duke of York later became Lord High Admiral of the Navy. Once he received the position, he immediately set out to find someone to help and advise him; someone who had seniority, experience and knowledge. “The first mad to come to his attention was that renowned seaman with a pro-Stuart background and a fighting reputation, Admiral William Penn.” Thus, began the bond between them. Their relationship grew and strengthened through their working together. Soon Admiral Penn became a close friend of James Stuart. This relationship is critical; it must be established that the close relationship between the Duke of York and Admiral Sir William Penn led directly to the subsequent relationship of James II and William Penn. James, becoming King, naturally welcomed to his Court the son of his friend and colleague.
Background of William Penn
Penn was a rebel with a cause. He was born in
In late 1667 William Penn Attended a
Quaker meeting. He took to the ideals immediately. Despite high social position
and an excellent education, at age 23, Penn joined the Religious Society of
Friends (the Quakers), who at the time were considered religious zealots. Penn's
conversion marked a crucial point in the path towards furtherance and
consolidation in Quaker principles. Although the exact time of his conversion
to Quakerism is not certain, it roughly coincides with his involvement at the
Quaker meeting in
Penn was convinced that this
religion held the truth that had eluded him for so long, and he joined George
Fox’s Society of Friends. He began to appear regularly. Soon, William Penn
became increasingly open about his relationship with The Friends. His conversion to Quakerism was inspired by the simple
piety and religious devotion of their religion and the need to provide relief
for victims of persecution. Soon he openly joined them as a preacher and
missionary, touring through
Finally, his marriage in 1672 to
Gulielma Maria Springett, of a well-known Quaker family, completed his
religious commitment. Penn and his wife
had known each other since the 1660s and their marriage seems to have been a
love match. One of their earliest known letters shows an affection that went
beyond mere friendship. At the same time their relationship was based upon
shared interests and background. Both were Quakers and both came from families
of good standing—Gulielma held considerable lands in
Eventually he came forward as one of
the major figures of the Quaker movement. He preached to the faithful, he
defended them from their enemies in public and at Court; and he began to write.
Toward the end of 1668 he published a work called The Sandy Foundation Shaken. It was a strong assertion of certain
cardinal doctrines of Quaker theology, which many believed amounted to a denial
of the Trinity. He published it without a license, and as a result he was
arrested and thrown into the
Penn was misunderstood and jailed several times because of his association with the Quakers. To fully understand the situation, it is important to understand who the Quakers were. Quakers are a religious following who were persecuted and harassed in the seventeenth century for their beliefs. Generally, there was not a high opinion of the Quakers in those times. Macaulay speaks of them during that era, saying the Quakers were generally considered a gang of crazy heretics. However, Macaulay also acknowledges that the Quakers had been cruelly persecuted by some of the revolutionary governments.
Plain and simple, the Quakers were different. They refused to dress like the rest of society. They deliberately rejected the courtesies of “refined” society. They keep their hats on their heads no matter who was present, including the King. When they spoke they used the archaic “thee” and “thou” for the second person singular instead of “you” which was conventionally being used at the time.
However, Penn along with many Quakers benefited from the Penn-Stuart relationship. Penn used his inherited wealth and rank to benefit and protect his fellow believers. Despite the unpopularity of his religion, he was socially acceptable in the King's court because he was trusted by the Duke of York, later King James II. Penn's background and political connections were important resources for the persecuted Quakers. Macaulay, speaking of William Penn notes that “the Quakers had a powerful and zealous advocate in court…who lived in the highest circles and had constant access to the royal ear—this was the celebrated William Penn.”
Penn's networking certainly paid
dividends, for he established valuable contacts with several prominent English
politicians. One of the most useful of his friends was Robert Spencer, now
second earl of Sunderland, with whom he shared a similar viewpoint on religious
The Relationship Between William Penn and the Stuarts
Admiral Sir William Penn died on September 16, 1670. His funeral was conducted in the traditional Anglican rights and he received the military honors due to one of his rank. Admiral Penn drew up his will and named his son William Penn his executor. But Admiral Penn suffered from doubt and agony as to what would happen to his family estate after his death. He was not sure that his family estate would be allowed to descend to an heir who happened to be a Quaker. Admiral Penn wrote an urgent letter to King Charles and the Duke of York, commending his son to them, requesting that they not condemn his son for his Quaker antics. They both assured Admiral Penn that they would look take care of his son. With that Admiral Penn could die in peace.
The death of his father left William Penn on unstable footing with regard to the Court. To his advantage there was the enduring friendship between Admiral Penn and the Duke of York and the pledges given to the Admiral by both Charles and James. However, the royal brothers were aware of his committed Quakerism with its uncouth conduct, his bizarre moralist principals and his prison record.
What made Penn’s position remarkable is the fact that he did not curry favor. He went his own way in both religion and politics, doing what he considered right without pausing to ask how it would look to the royal Stuarts. The relationship between Penn and the Stuarts is an interesting one. The Quakers never removed their hats, no matter the occasion. One story tells about how William Penn meet with Charles II and the King took off is hat for Penn. “Friend Charles,” said William Penn, “why dost thou remove thy hat?” The King responded, “Friend Penn, in circumstances such as these it is customary for only one man to keep his hat on.” This encounter reveals that Charles II had a good sense of humor.
Much harder to understand is the
fact that Penn was known to be hostile to the religion preferred by Charles and
practiced by James—Catholicism. William Penn published a furious attack on
Catholic doctrine in 1670, his Seasonable
Caveat against Popery. It is not easy to understand why Charles and James
did not take offense at such rough handling of the creed they cherished. The mystery does not end there. During the
1670’s religion became a thorny practical problem in
At the height of the madness Penn
had given credence to the absurd plot. In
However there was more to the relationship between Penn and the Stuarts. True, Penn boldly opposed them when he thought it necessary, by the same token he could be trusted when he said things they wanted to hear. Also, when we consider the political climate of the time, we see that Penn’s views were moderate. In several ways he actually defended Catholics. On moral grounds, Penn thought that Catholics had as much right as any one to practice their religion without penalties. Overall, what is certain is that Penn never lost his place with either Charles or James. In fact he strengthened his relationship with the Court from one reign to the next. Of course the King gained something by having a Quaker leader to speak for him on issues like religious toleration and the rights of the Crown. Penn’s voice would be heard by dissenters who would not listen to Catholics or Anglicans. Perhaps one of the best pieces of evidence of James’ toleration is the fact that one of his most wholehearted supporters was the Quaker William Penn.
In all of this, Penn had no official status. An enemy of the Stuarts could make the King accept him by force of political circumstances, however, with Penn, the only thing which he could rely on was personal friendship (a fragile bond where royalty is concerned). That he never lost favor with the Kings is a tribute to his character, intelligence and ability as well as the magnanimity of his royal friends. They enjoyed his company, and he enjoyed theirs—which could be the basic motive behind the Penn-Stuart relationship. Penn’s gain from the relationship is obvious. Repeatedly he went to court to get justice and mercy for the afflicted members of his faith. Repeatedly he got both.
Penn and the Court of James II
Charles II died in 1685. By that time, Penn and James had known one another for a quarter century. They had been good friends for quite some time. Consequently they both assumed that when James became King, Penn would come to Court. It is important to note that Penn had not been a courtier during the reign of Charles II. With James II he was a courtier from the beginning of the reign until its collapse.
Penn and James had many things in common; one being that they both accepted religion with the total commitment of converts. Both freely judged and then adopted the tenets of a particular faith. Both obeyed the injunction to make those tenants effective in their everyday lives, uniting belief and practice despite the hostility of the world around them.
James and Penn shared many common
values, especially when it came to religion.
Penn was willing to admit some good in Catholicism, as when it produced
Magna Carta. James admired the Quaker way, if not the theology of the Friends.
Also, they were completely united in their hope of religious toleration in
Throughout the reign of the James II
we see that William Penn is a good friend and unofficial advisor to the King.
Penn was close enough to express his disapproval, frankly and forcefully, but
he was in no position to speak as one formally bound by an office to do so.
William Penn remained loyal to the King. At no time did he lose faith in James
II or consider abandoning him. He was sure in his own mind that James remained
an essentially good ruler and the best for the people of
Another area where Penn and James could find common ground to establish their friendship came with the idea of toleration. It is debatable whether James II truly believed in religious toleration. However, it is commonly understood that William Penn did. Penn, like most of the men in his country had an ill feeling towards Catholicism. Nevertheless, whatever ill feelings Penn had about Catholicism, was outweighed by his solid belief in men being able to practice their own religion in the way they saw fit.
For Penn, religion and politics
should always be viewed as interacting when penal laws affect one religion in
favor over another. No doubt this view was advocated by Penn in part, because
of the religious discrimination experienced by the Quakers in both society and
in the courts. Catholicism was the most
hated religion in
During the time, it may have seemed that Penn was a defender of the Catholics. However, Penn was not Pro- Catholic, Pro-Anglican or Pro-Dissenter. “He denounced those in power and backed those out of power, but by no means was hopeful of seeing them change places.” He wanted to see the end of this type of ecclesiastical domination. In the context of English politics that could only be achieved by curtailing the authority of the Church of England. Penn wanted toleration and universal religious freedom, one to include Dissenters and Catholics. In essence, the position taken by James and Penn comes down to the same thing. Both would preserve the rights of the Church of England; both would support certain privileges and not others; both would eradicate its power to oppress non-Anglicans.
It is widely speculated that William Penn had a hand in the creation of the “Declaration of Indulgence.” No one knows whether he actually wrote the document or any part of it, but several clauses echo his thoughts if not his words. The measure separated an Englishman’s religion from his nationality, and incidentally brought the Quakers into full citizenship for the first time. It therefore embodied the main goals Penn had worked so hard and long for.
The Quakers were particular grateful
to the King. They were among the first to express their appreciation for the
mercy extended to them by the King through the Declaration of Indulgence.
William Penn had led a delegation of Friends to
Penn had known James for more than 15 years. In 1673 James, as Duke of York, told Penn he advocated religious toleration short of a breach of the peace. After 1685 James as King, repeated the same sentiment on many occasions, and released crowds of dissenters from their prison cells. In the eyes of Penn, the Declaration of indulgence simply extended the sentiment and codified it, and made it principal of practical politics.
Penn’s Theory of Government and the
No one can pinpoint where William
Penn’s derived his theory of the state. The major influences however, can be
guessed with reasonable certainty. Penn’s aspirations are from Plato and
The Glorious Revolution
James II reign ended in chaos.
William of Orange landed in
Many people associated with James were questioned. Typically, James’ associates had three options; (1) they would either betray James, (2) they could flee into exile, or (3) they could manipulate the revolutionary circumstances in their own favor. One man refused to do any of these things. That man was William Penn.
Penn did not leave
Mistrusted because of his past friendship with James II, he was accused of conspiring for James to return to the throne. He was said to have been corresponding with the Stuart, advising him to come back and undo the Glorious Revolution. Penn’s position in court on cross examination was that “he did freely admit his friendship with James; moreover he would not say that he had been wrong or that he thought any less of James for what happened. But he did most strenuously deny conspiring in any way for a return of the exiled Monarch.”
It is unlikely that Penn was conspiring for a return of James, if there was any correspondence then it was likely words between old friends. Some historians (including Macaulay) give credence to the belief that there was something more sinister than mere correspondence. Ultimately, there was no reason to question Penn’s words when he calls himself a “true and faithful servant to King William and Queen Mary.” Penn believed that he could express gratitude to James II and defend James’ reign without being opposed or faithful to the current reigning King.
Penn had practical and theoretical
reasons for acknowledging the new order. Retirement to be with James II would
mean to live in exile, ruin his private affairs, hurt his family and lose his
American province (
Penn is the best defense of James
II. He was the ideal man for the task. No one else has such a realistic view of
the Kings acts and intentions. Penn was neither Catholic like Petre, nor an
anti-Catholic like Halifax, nor a suspect convert to Catholicism like
Penn will be remembered by history as being
one of the most zealous advocates for toleration in
One author had this to say of Penn; “
The Final Years
Penn's major achievement was the new
charter of 1701. Under its terms
Penn's last years were filled with
disappointment. After the death of his first wife in 1694, on 5 March 1696 Penn
married for the second time.
His wife was Hannah Callowhill (1670–1726), daughter of Thomas Callowhill, an
Penn's last years were overshadowed
by illness and financial worries. Hampered by debts, colonial disaffection, and
the general poor relationship with the King's ministers toward private
colonies, Penn almost completed the sale of
Beddard, Robert. A Kingdom Without a King: The Journal of
the Provisional Government
in the Revolution of 1688.
Buranelli, Vincent. The King & The Quaker.
Geiter, Mary K. William Penn. Longman Publishing Group, July 2000.
Geiter, Mary K.Penn, William (1644–1718), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, Jan2007 http://www.oxforddnb.com.proxyremote.galib.uga.edu:2048/view/article/21857
Accessed 5 Dec 2007
Macaulay, Thomas Babington. The History of
Street Corner Society. Online. 5 December 2007.
Street, Lucie. An Uncommon Sailor.
William Penn Biography. Online. 5 December 2007.
“William Penn, Macaulay, and Punch.” Bulletin of Friends’ Historical Society. May 1927
 Vincent Buranelli, The King & The Quaker. (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1962) at 7
 William Penn, Macaulay, and “Punch.” Bulletin of Friends’ Historical Society. (May 1927)
 Thomas Babington Macaulay,. The History of
 Later he would inherit the throne and become King James II
 Vincent Buranelli, The King & The Quaker. (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1962) at 23
 Thomas Babington Macaulay,. The History of
 Vincent Buranelli, The King & The Quaker. (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1962), at 46.
 Vincent Buranelli, The King & The Quaker. (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1962), at, 206
 Buranelli at 128
 Buranelli at 169
Babington Macaulay,. The History of
 William Penn Biography. Online. 5 December 2007. < http://www.notablebiographies.com/Pe-Pu/Penn-William.html>