Freedom of speech and freedom of worship - two fundamental rights expected in modern-day democracies - were privileges which William Penn risked his life for in an age of intolerance.
One of the great forward-thinkers of his time, Penn was hounded for both his ideas and his faith. He held to his principles so firmly that five terms of imprisonment failed to shake his resolve.
Famed today as the founder and first governor of Pennsylvania, Penn arrived in America hoping to establish a community in which liberal-minded people could flourish. Having been the frequent victim of persecution in England, one of his first moves was to draw up a Frame of Government which guaranteed religious freedom for all.
William Penn was born on October 14, 1644 close to the Tower of London, the fortress prison where he was to spend nine months in solitary confinement in later life. Although the exact site of his birthplace is unknown, a letter written in his lifetime places it 'on the east side of Tower Hill, within a court adjoining to London Wall.' He was baptised at the nearby church of All Hallows, Barking.
The son of an important Admiral, Penn was heir to the wealth and influence of nobility. Instead of using his position to his own advantage, he launched into a tireless campaign against injustice. His family connections gave him access to the courts of Charles II, James II, William III and Queen Anne where he argued persuasively for the underdog.
Penn had become a Quaker while studying at Christ Church, Oxford. He was thrown out of university and driven from home by his father because of his beliefs. Undeterred, he travelled Britain, Holland, France, Italy and Germany attracting crowds of two and three thousand with his speaking. Although he was arrested several times, he continued to clash with the authorities and refused to stop even when in jail. To the annoyance of several monarchs, he simply used the time writing books which explained his point of view. The most famous of these, 'No Cross, No Crown', and 'Innocency with Her Open Eyes ' were written in the Tower of London in 1669.
With his erudite arguments and out-spoken ways, Penn was something of an embarrassment to the English establishment. So when he went to Charles II to ask for a grant of land in the New World for himself and his followers in 1681, the King was more than happy to oblige. For one thing, the deal discharged a debt of £16,000 that the crown had owed Penn's father, for another it rid the country of a troublesome sect.
Penn sailed for North America in 1682. In October that year, his ship, the 'Welcome', reached Delaware Bay where the small settlement of New Castle was already established. Although he owned the land outright because of the king's grant, Penn bought it from the existing occupiers again at its full value. In a typically even-handed gesture, he went on to reimburse the native American tribes for the land as well.
The new colony prospered under Penn's administration but foundered when he was forced to return to England in order to protect its interests at Court. When he went back to Pennsylvania in 1699, Penn found that his deputy had let him down. Having restored peace and order, he sailed for England again in 1701 but he was dogged by political and financial difficulties. Sadly, when he died on July 30, 1718 at Ruscombe in Berkshire, the old crusader was virtually ruined.
Copyright © Jan Collie 2002
Published on Britannia by permission of the author.
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