Founding a US state and being jailed in the Tower of London – the amazing life of William Penn

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In 1976 there was much rejoicing over the pond in the good old U S of A.

Every man, woman and child was celebrating the 200th anniversary of their country’s independence from the evil overlords of the UK.

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In return, the evil overlords – who had calmed down quite a bit since 1776 – were keen to point out how much of the USA’s way of life was down to people who had left Blighty to find adventure in the new world.

One such man was the devout quaker William Penn, of Warminghurst and Coolham.

In 1976, Ken Costigan wrote the following article for the County Times.

This being the bicentenary of America’s independence, Sussex can review its early US connections along with the best of them. And who better than the illustrious William Penn?

The devout Quaker colonist was living in Warminghurst before he went out to found Pennsylvania and returned to the Blue Idol, the Friends’ Meeting House converted for his use in Coolham 10 years after his initial success in the colonies.

Penn himself did not live to see American independence, but his grandson John Penn, governor of Pennsylvania when the War of Independence broke out, was in the thick of it.

While John Adams and Ben Franklin were cudgelling Thomas Jefferson into writing the Declaration of Independence at the 1776 Continental Congress in Philadelphia, governor John was among those who needed no cudgelling to sign it.

William Penn was, above all, a strict Quaker. His father, Admiral William Penn, was horrified at his son’s conversion to Quakerism which caused him to be sent down from Oxford, and packed him off to Paris, hoping for a ‘cure’.

When this did not work, he was sent to Cork to manage his father’s estates there, and was imprisoned for attending a Quaker meeting.

Back in England, he was jailed in the Tower of London for publishing one of this many tracts (this one attacking the doctrines of the Trinity) and in 1671 went to Newgate for six months for preaching.

The Blue Idol and the Friends’ Meeting House in Ifield were two of the earliest Meeting Houses in Sussex.

One wing of a half-timbered cottage, the Meeting House at the Blue Idol is a beautiful example of the character of the first of such buildings, the idea of which was to make them as much like private dwellings as possible.

In common with other Quaker buildings of the period, it has a very strong aura of the plain, honest, wholesome values which Quakerism stands for.

Before he had the Blue Idol, Penn and his first wife Guilema Marie, daughter of Sir William Springett of Brayle Place, Ringmer, were said to have held Quaker meetings at their home in Marminghurst.

An entry in the quarter sessions book at Chichester for 1684 reads: ‘William Penn, being a factious and seditious person...doth frequently entertain and keepe unlawfull assemblye and conventicle in his dwelling at Warminghurst...usually there are assembled to number of one or two hundred unknown persons and sometimes more to the terror of the King’s liege people.’

During this same period, some 200 Quakers were imprisoned in Horsham jail.

Guilema Penn, as devout as her husband, died after bearing him three sons and four daughters.

Penn’s second wife was Hannah Callowhill, whom he married four years after the Blue Idol was converted for his use in 1691.

Penn and Hannah had two daughters and four sons, the third of whom, Richard, was the father of governor John Penn of Philadelphia.

It was 10 years before coming to the Blue Idol that Penn obtained a grant of land in North America in return for some claims his father had against the Crown.

His grant was an area of 45,000 square miles - one and a half times the size of Scotland - and he set sail for the Delaware intent on establishing a home for Quakers to which all religious denominations could also turn for sanctuary.

He had his famous confrontation with the Indians on the site of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania’s largest city, in November 1682, and so won them treaty with them by sheer force of personality and character that they entered into a frained from attacking settlers for the next 50 years.

During this first visit to America, Penn planned the city of Philadelphia and after two years he returned to England to fight for his persecuted Quaker brothers.

Through the goodwill of James II, who had been friendly with his father, Penn was able to help many people who were being persecuted for their religious beliefs.

In 1681, by the King’s intervention, all people held in prison for religious reasons were released, 1,200 Quakers among them.

Although his declining years were taken up with bitter wrangles over boundaries in Pennsylvania, Penn died a contented man in 1718.

He had achieved far more than most men managed in a lifetime, both in his struggles against religious persecution and in providing a rich heritage for those who followed him in Pennsylvania.

And how proud he would have been had he known what sort of men would follow in his footsteps.

I think he would have been particularly delighted with his grandson’s association with John Adams who, in the correspondance that passed between him and his Abigail during the Continental Congress of 1776, is revealed as very much a man after Penn’s heart.

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