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The Ordeal Of William Penn
Long before he founded his Quaker commonwealth in America, he stood up for religious freedom against the awesome power of the Crown—and put the entire English-speaking world in his debt
April 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 3
The son was out in time to be present at his father’s death on September 16, 1670. Sir William made him his residuary legatee and sole executor, and bequeathed to him the gold chain and medal that had been bestowed upon him by Cromwell.
William Penn left many memorials behind him: a reputation for fair dealing with all kinds and conditions of men, a clear call to religious liberty, and the “Holy Experiment” in America that became the great proprietorship, colony, and commonwealth of Pennsylvania. But not the least of his accomplishments was recorded in London, in a tablet erected in the Sessions House to the memory of two brave defendants, Penn and Mead, and two stout jurymen, Veer, the foreman, and Bushell. A hundred and fifty years after the trial, the Marquis de Lafayette gave a toast in Philadelphia to the memories of Penn and Franklin—“the one never greater than when arraigned before an English jury, or the other than before a British Parliament.”
And so we leave William Penn, “the wild colt,” who had just begun his long career of protest. A few months after the trial he would again be arrested for preaching and brought by the soldiers before a huddle of magistrates, this time without jury. Again he would be sent to the Tower. But now the soldiers were friendly and polite. “Send thy lackey,” Penn said to the lieutenant, “I know the way to Newgate.” There, as usual refusing to pay for special quarters, he wrote several tracts, among them The Great Case of Liberty of Conscience , discussing the recent trial; protested to Parliament with the other Quaker prisoners about the stiffening of the Conventicle Act; and dispatched a letter to the sheriffs of London giving them the details of their “common stinking jail.”
He was out again in six months.