The Last Days of William Penn

Folk artist and Quaker minister Edward Hicks created this oil-on-canvas scene of Jordans Meeting House and Penn's grave site in 1847.  Photo courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery  

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of Pennsylvania Heritage.

By Linda A. Ries 

“My poor Dearests last breath was fetchd this morning between 2 & 3 a Clock.”

So wrote a distraught Hannah Penn to longtime friend and advisor Thomas Story on July 30, 1718. The remains of her husband were taken to Jordans Meeting House in Bucking- hamshire and buried there on Au- gust 5 beside his first wife Gulielma. Quakers and non-Quakers alike attended the funeral. Jordans is a quiet place, a peaceful place. In a grassy meadow surrounded by tall hedgerows, the burial ground beckons you to contemplate its occupants. The Quaker meeting house next to it equally welcomes you to enter and engage in thoughtful reflection. That’s as it should be. This is a special place, because the cemetery holds the remains of William Penn (1644–1718), founder of Pennsylvania and a seminal figure in English and American history. The year 2018 is the 300th anniversary of his death.

Commemorations will be held  in America, notably at Pennsbury Manor, Penn’s Pennsylvania home near Morrisville in Bucks County, and in England at Jordans Meeting House. I recently made a pilgrimage to Jordans as a student and ardent advocate of William Penn. While working as an archivist with the Pennsylvania State Archives, one of my responsibilities was to care for his 1681 Charter from King Charles II for the land that became Pennsylvania. I gained an appreciation for the founder by studying that document and other Penn-related items at the archives, such as the December 1682 Great Law, the first set of statutes he presented to his legislators, and his October 1681 List of First Purchasers, containing the names of Quakers who bought land in his colony.

Pennsylvania, Penn’s self-proclaimed “Holy Experiment,” was a model for religious toleration in the New World, a place where people of different faiths could worship privately without government intervention. Penn also incorporated his Quaker principles of pacifism, freedom of consciousness, and the right to peaceably assemble into the government of his new colony. Visiting Penn’s grave to pay tribute to him was for me a fulfilling moment in a lifetime of studying this eminent man.

I’ve learned a lot about Penn over the years, especially how he was born wealthy, the son of Admiral Sir William Penn (1621–70); how he defied his father, rejected conventional English ways, and became a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers); and how he petitioned King Charles II for land in the New World for his persecuted sect. Penn visited his colony twice, in 1682–84 and 1699–1701. As Pennsylvania was a land grant from the king to an individual, Penn was constantly beleaguered by interests in England who wanted to place it under direct royal control as part of a Parliamentary effort to impose more uniform British authority and order in its North American colonies. In the fall of 1701, he hastily left for London to defend his lands. Before doing so, he wrote a new constitution for Pennsylvania, the Charter of Privileges, a watershed document. This liberal constitution reorganized authority between three branches of government (executive, legislative and judicial), guaranteed religious freedom, and strengthened the separation of church  and state.

The founding of Pennsylvania and the Holy Experiment, its population by many religious and ethnic groups, and the Charter of Privileges is usually where the story of William Penn ends in most American history classes. What happened to Penn when he left Pennsylvania for the last time? I knew he had a debilitating stroke in 1712, eventually dying in 1718, but not much more. Was he able to defend his colony from a takeover by royal factions? How did he manage Pennsylvania from afar? Where did he live? What was his life in England like after 1701?

With these questions in mind, I stepped off a train in Burnham, Buckinghamshire, about 25 miles from London. I was greeted by members of the Chilterns Area Quaker Meeting (Jordans is one of seven meetings in the region). I enjoyed a short drive through a suburban part of England steeped in history. On deep ancient roads, we passed Burnham Beeches, an extensive woodland area since the last Ice Age, occupied by humans since the Iron Age, and purchased by the City of London in 1880 to protect and preserve it. It’s easy to see why Chilterns has been officially designated by England as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Our car then turned off Welder’s Lane in Beaconsfield and on to the Jordans Meeting House grounds.

The Society of Friends, founded around 1647 by visionary George Fox (1624–91), initially met in members’ homes, because it was illegal for non-Anglicans to have meetinghouses. Mainstream English society regarded the sect with derision, calling them “Quakers” for the way they trembled when filled with the spirit of God. Chilterns-area Friends met in the kitchen at “Old Jordans,” the farmhouse of Friend Thomas Russell, who had purchased the property in 1618. Old Jordans dates to the Middle Ages and is possibly named for Jordan De Ran, an ancestor of William Gardiner, the original landowner. The farmhouse is just a few hundred yards from the meetinghouse.

After King James II’s Declaration of Indulgence in 1687, permitting Quakers and other Protestant nonconformists to legally worship, the local Friends built Jordans, one of the oldest meetinghouses constructed specifically for that purpose. In continuous operation since 1688, the small brick building is of Flemish bond, sensible and unadorned. English law prohibited  the interment of Friends and other nonconformists in the consecrated ground around churches. The land’s use as a burial ground dates to 1671, with the funeral of Russell’s granddaughter Elizabeth.

I immediately walked to Penn’s gravestone. It is plain and carved with just his name and death year. The stone also includes the death year of his second wife Hannah Callowhill (1671–1726), buried directly above him. His first wife Gulielma Springett (1644–94) and her mother Margaret Penington (1624–82) lie to the right. Further on are the graves of 10 Penn children of both wives, most of whom died in infancy, a testament to the high child mortality of the times. Penn begat a total of 14 children; only five, two from Gulielma and three from Hannah, reached past age 21. His male line has since died out, and only a few of his descendants are alive today. Behind the children lies one of the few who did reach adulthood, John (1700– 46), William and Hannah’s first son. Known as “the American,” he was born at the Slate Roof House in Philadelphia (at Second and Walnut, demolished in 1867), just after the Penns arrived in the colony for the last time.

The tombstones are not original, but date from the mid-1800s. I learned the first markers were removed in 1766, when Quakers felt that it was a sign of vanity to have one’s grave marked. Visitors, however, kept asking where Penn and his family were buried. Fortunately for Jordans, an elderly Friend, Prince Butterfield, recorded the grave locations from memory in 1798. By 1862 new markers had been erected. Penn’s remains even survived an 1881 attempt by the Pennsylvania government to move them to Philadelphia. The Friends refused, horrified: “The removal of his remains to a trans-Atlantic home, amid the pomp and circumstance of a state ceremonial . . . would be utterly repugnant to his known character and sentiments.”

I would learn that Penn’s final years in England were troublesome. His challenges included the attempts by royal interests to end his ownership of Pennsylvania, along with personal financial woes involving embezzlement, extortion, and a protracted lawsuit by his advisor Philip Ford and later Ford’s family. There was additional bickering and deceit across the Atlantic in the government of Pennsylvania. William and Hannah also witnessed personal tragedy, from the deaths of their children to the scandalous behavior on the part of his son to Gulielma, William Penn Jr.

Upon their return to England in December 1701, the Penns lived at various places near Bristol and London and at the family home in Warminghurst, Sussex. Penn wanted to be close to the royal government to actively lobby for his colony. England itself was undergoing a period of transition, including involvement in the War of the Spanish Succession beginning in 1701, the death of King William III, and the coronation of Queen Anne (1665–1714) in early 1702. Anne’s reign was marked by bitter contention between Whigs and Tories in Parliament, especially over choosing her successor. Penn’s advocacy for Pennsylvania would seem petty to the new queen and Parliament.

For centuries, English monarchs often granted lands to loyal subjects, usually aristocrats, as payment for service to the crown. The grantee, or proprietor, owned the land outright and had the authority to manage it as he wished. In the 17th century, Charles I and Charles II continued this practice with England’s lands in the New World. This included Maryland (1632), the Carolinas (1663), New Jersey (1664), New York (1664), and Pennsylvania and Delaware (1681). New York returned to royal control in 1685 and New Jersey in 1702. By the 1690s Parliament felt that all English lands in America should be under direct royal control for ease of management.

The 1701 threat sending Penn back to England was largely instigated by the Royal Board of Trade and, in particular, Robert Quary (1644–1712), surveyor general for the customs of New Jersey and Pennsylvania (and in 1703 surveyor general of all of British America). In this capacity, Quary served on the provincial councils of several colonies simultaneously-New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. Quary charged, among many  other things, that Quakers dominating Pennsylvania’s legislature refused to create a militia to defend the colony by land or sea, that trade with pirates was carried on at the port of Philadelphia, and that the assemblies of the “three lower counties” of Delaware managed by Penn complained that they wanted independence from Pennsylvania. These charges were essentially true. Penn fought back by presenting a proposal to the Board of Trade to create a confederation of the proprietary colonies utilizing a common militia administered by the crown. Civil authority would be left to the individual colonies. He also permitted Delaware to become a separate colony in 1704. Parliament, occupied with more critical matters, ignored the Board of Trade, Quary and Penn. Quary and the board gave up after Penn, in a conference with Queen Anne at Bath in October 1702, persuaded her to his point of view. Attempts to take over Penn’s colony would continue well after his death.

We entered Jordans Meeting House. The interior is warm, intimate and welcoming. Ancient wood paneling is everywhere. The building survived a serious fire in 2005, taking part of the original 1688 roof. Fortunately, the roof’s original inner plaster layer remained largely intact and was easily repaired. I chatted over a cup of tea with the staff about William Penn, his legacy, and the Quakers of today. A fundamental belief of the Friends is that there is a spark of God present in all human beings, male or female, and they must listen to his spirit in their hearts to lead them to truth. This truth serves to guide their daily lives. Friends are also tolerant of other religions and are pacifists. Penn is a revered figure in Quaker history, for his writings and teachings on how one should conduct one’s life have remained relevant to them. Chief among his works is No Cross, No Crown, a 1669 essay espousing his Christian philosophy, written while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London for his Quaker beliefs. In 1693 he published Some Fruits of Solitude, a series of useful epigrams. He was a key figure and spokesperson for the Friends, especially after leader George Fox died in 1691.

The original meeting room is small, about 27-by-18 feet, with wooden benches on all four sides surrounding a table in the center. The brick floor is original, and I got goosebumps hearing that Penn himself walked on those bricks. Friends, then as now, do not have formalized religious services. Rather, they meet at an appointed time and sit in the main room of their meetinghouse until the spirit of God moves them to speak. These spoken contributions to the group, referred to as “ministry,” were frequently Bible-based in former times. More often these days, members draw upon a wide variety of sources to offer guidance for their daily lives and dealing with current affairs.

The interior of Jordans reflects the simplicity of Quaker life. Photo by Linda Ries.  

When he inherited his father’s fortune upon the admiral’s death in 1670, William Penn became a wealthy man. He also sought to earn money from his colony through land sales and quitrents, but land sales were scarcely profitable and quitrents brought only resentment and resistance from his colonists. In any case, management of money and finances was not Penn’s strong point. He naively trusted others to do this, often signing legal papers without reading them first. Beginning in 1669, he hired Philip Ford, a fellow Friend, to manage his inherited lands in Ireland. Ford kept the accounts and charged Penn exorbitant amounts for his work. By the time Penn received his colony in 1681, he was already heavily in debt to Ford. In an attempt to redress this in the 1690s, he secretly mortgaged Pennsylvania to the accountant, making Ford in effect the colony’s legal proprietor. Ford died in January 1702; in his will he had named his widow Bridget and two other Quakers as trustees of Pennsylvania. Penn attempted to persuade Bridget to not probate the will and continued to act as the colony’s proprietor. Confusion occurred in Pennsylvania when the provincial assembly learned of the founder’s financial woes - and more  so when Philip Ford Jr. wrote to them claiming to be proprietor. In April 1705 an exasperated Penn declared to James Logan (1674–1751), Pennsylvania’s secretary of the Provincial Council and one of the few he could trust, “My head & heart are filled sufficiently with trouble.” The matter was at a standstill until October 1705, when the Fords took Penn to Chancery Court for nonpayment. For several years, a number of legal actions ensued between both parties. Penn tried several strategies to gain funds, among them the idea to approach Queen Anne to sell his colony to the crown.

Things were not much better across the sea. Quaker David Lloyd (1656–1731), whom Penn sent to Philadelphia in 1686 to serve as attorney general (he was also a member of the General Assembly and later first chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court), openly criticized Penn’s abilities to manage his government. He led a faction within the colony to return Pennsylvania to the crown, declaring he was Philip Ford’s agent. In addition, there was trouble with William Penn Jr., a rebellious child born in 1681 just after Penn received his charter. Sent by his father in late 1703 at age 22 to represent him in the colony and serve on the Provincial Council, young Penn openly renounced Quakerism, dressed extravagantly, and freely spent his father’s money carousing at a tavern in Philadelphia. He returned home within just a few months. After failed attempts to get his son into the military or elected as a member of Parliament, Penn gave up, their relationship thereafter strained. After his father’s death, young William petitioned the Pennsylvania Assembly to claim himself the rightful owner of Pennsylvania, but failed, as his stepmother Hannah Penn became the colony’s proprietor according to the terms of her husband’s May 1712 will. The colony would pass on to her children, not Gulielma’s. William Penn Jr. died in 1720, supposedly in France.

In 1707, desperate for funds, Penn sold his family home, Warminghurst. This gained him only a pittance in the face of mounting debts. Finally, in early 1708, unable to pay his creditors, Penn entered Fleet Prison, the notorious London jail for debtors. He spent about 10 months there, an embarrassing situation no doubt for the renowned Quaker leader and proprietor of Pennsylvania. In October of that year, he settled with the Ford family. In exchange for 7,600 pounds, the Fords gave up all rights to the colony. Though Penn kept Pennsylvania, it increased his indebtedness.

After selling Warminghurst, the Penn family moved to a small but comfortable home in Ruscombe, near Reading in Berkshire. From Ruscombe, they would attend Friends meetings in Reading, often visiting Jordans as well. And there at Ruscombe in December 1712, as Penn prepared again to approach Queen Anne about selling his colony to the crown, he suffered the first of several apoplectic strokes rendering him an invalid the rest of his life. He could speak a few coherent sentences and walk, but he could not write well and had memory problems. Penn slowly got worse over the next several years, and he quietly slipped away in the early morning of July 30, 1718. He was 73 years old. Hannah shouldered the burden of dealing with his debts and assembled a team of Friends who helped her through legal matters. She also worked closely with James Logan across the sea to manage the colony.

 After Hannah’s death in 1726, Penn’s sons John, Thomas (1702–75) and Richard (1706–71) became the proprietors. They were Anglicans and did not share Penn’s vision of the “Holy Experiment.” They viewed Pennsylvania as a money-making scheme through land speculation and sales, choosing to try and pay off Penn’s debts and not return the colony to the crown. They overcame several more attempts during the 1700s to move Pennsylvania under direct rule. It remained under the family’s control until the American Revolution. With the Divestiture Act of 1778, the new state’s General Assembly relieved the Penn family of all of its rights to Pennsylvania and compensated them.

At Penn’s death, both sides of the Atlantic mourned and praised him. The minutes of the Reading Quarterly Friends Meeting in April 1719 possibly put it best: “He was a Man of great Abilities; of an Excellent sweetness of Disposition, quick of Thought, & ready utterance: full of the Qualification of true Discipleship, even Low without dissimulation as Extensive in Charity as Comprehensive in Knowledge & to whom Malice & Ingratitude were utter Strangers so ready to forgive Enemies that the Ungrateful were not excepted. . . . A Man, A Scholar, A Friend; A Minister. Surpassing in Superlative Endowments whose memorial will be value’d by the wise and blessed with the just.”

I quietly sat on one of the benches in the meeting room at Jordans, imagining the spirit of Penn next to me. I would be moved to tell him how badly I felt about the final years of his life. At a time when he should have been enjoying the accomplishments of his “Holy Experiment,” he suffered from sickness, financial problems, and attempts to take over his colony. What would he be moved to tell me?

I thanked the Jordans staff and we left the peaceful grassy meadow with one last look at Penn’s tombstone, my pilgrimage over. On the train, reflecting on all I had witnessed, I was humbled. I had renewed my appreciation for Penn’s humanitarianism and had a better understanding of his tragic final years. I then realized what William Penn would be moved to tell me. No doubt he would quote a passage from Some Fruits of Solitude: “The truest end of Life is to know that Life never ends. . . . Tho' Death be a Dark Passage it leads to Immortality. . . . And this is the Comfort of the Good, that the grave cannot hold them, and that they live as soon as they die. . . . For Death is no more than a Turning of us over from time to eternity.” He would kindly assure me that his many troubles were but earthly and remind me that his spiritual ministry to the Friends, the legacy of Pennsylvania, and the “Holy Experiment” transcend his death.

As a Pennsylvanian, I am grateful Jordans is preserved largely intact through the loving care of generations of meeting members. The historic site is a tangible and powerful reminder of William Penn — truly “A Man, A Scholar, A Friend; A Minister.” Today his legacy lives on at his resting place at Jordans, in Pennsylvania, and wherever his contributions have helped shape our world today.

The graves of William Penn, his two wives, and other Penn family members were marked at some point in the mid-19th century. Photo by Ira Beckerman 

More on William Penn’s Final Years

The first place to begin when studying the original records of William Penn is the five volume The Papers of William Penn, 1644– 1718, edited by Richard S. Dunn and Mary Maples Dunn (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982–1987). The collection brings together for the first time all known letters and documents relating to the founder, each rigorously researched and annotated. The fifth volume consists of Penn’s published writings, such as No Cross, No Crown and Some Fruits of Solitude. Also edited by the Dunns, The World of William Penn (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986) contains 20 essays about Penn and his times by noted scholars on both sides of the Atlantic.

The most recent book exploring Penn’s religion and politics is Andrew R. Murphy’s Liberty, Conscience and Toleration: The Political Thought of William Penn (Oxford University Press, 2016). Similarly, Rosemary Moore’s The Light in Their Consciences: Early Quakers in Britain, 1646–1666 (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000) examines founding principles and philosophies of the Friends. Lorett Treese’s The Storm Gathering: The Penn Family and the American Revolution (Pennsyl- vania State University Press, 1992) picks up the story after Penn’s death and follows  the fortunes of his sons John, Thomas and Richard.

Jordans Meeting House and the cemetery in which William Penn and his family are interred are located on Welders Lane in Chalfont St. Giles, Buckinghamshire, England. For information on visiting the site, see

Visit  Pennsbury Manor

Reconstructed on the remains of William Penn’s country estate along the Delaware River in Bucks County, Pennbury Manor  interprets the life and career of Pennsylvania’s founder and first proprietor. Living history programs, guided tours, award-winning exhibits, buildings, furnishings, artifacts, gardens and animals offer an informative glimpse into Penn’s world and early Colonial life in Pennsylvania, reflecting  the ethnic and cultural diversity of the colony. In 2018 Pennsbury Manor will be holding special events and exhibits commemorating Penn’s legacy for the 300th anniversary of his passing.

Linda A. Ries is editor of Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies. She previously worked at the Pennsylvania State Archives, retiring in 2014. This is her fifth article for Pennsylvania Heritage.


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