Edwin Lerner

300th Anniversary of William Penn’s Death

This year sees the three hundredth anniversary of the death of William Penn and London’s Blue Badge Tourist Guides are conducting tours themed on the great Quaker and one of the few individuals to have an American state named after him – Pennsylvania. The name comes from that of the Penn family combined with the word ‘sylvania’, which means ‘woodland’. There is also an English village of that name which tour groups pass through when returning from one of the most popular day trips from London to Bath and Stonehenge.

Oil on canvas portrait of William Penn at age 22 in 1666. Photo Credit: © Public Domain/WikiMedia Commons. Oil on canvas portrait of William Penn at age 22 in 1666. Photo Credit: © Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons.

There were actually two William Penns, father and son. The father was born in Bristol and became a sea admiral in the Royal Navy. He had originally supported the parliamentary side in the English Civil War but, like many men of the day, changed his loyalties when the monarchy was restored in 1660. He lent King Charles II £16,000 (over two million pounds today) and the king granted him 45,000 square miles in America to pay the debt. Kings could do that sort thing then if they were short of money – which Charles always was.

The younger William Penn was born in 1644 near the Tower of London and baptised at All Hallows Church. He is portrayed wearing a suit of armour as a young man but, while studying at Oxford University, he became a Quaker and was not only sent down from the university but later imprisoned for his beliefs. Father and son had fallen out but later reconciled and it was the young Penn who founded Pennsylvania on Quaker principles on land left to him by his father. He even drew up treaties with native American tribes which were never broken.

William Penn: Blue Idol Quaker Meeting House. Photo Credit: © Edwin Lerner.
William Penn: Blue Idol Quaker Meeting House. Photo Credit: © Edwin Lerner.

Penn lived in America from 1680 to 1684 and from 1699 to 1701, but he returned to England, living first in Sussex where he founded a famous Meeting House called the Blue Idol, which still has a Quaker Meeting every Sunday. After the death of his first wife, he remarried and moved to Berkshire nearer to London. His later years were blighted by money problems and the death of several of his children but he lived to the age of seventy-three and is buried at the Jordan’s Meeting House in Buckinghamshire.

As they were not allowed to attend university because of their non-conformist beliefs and they would not join the armed services because of their pacifism, Quakers often set up businesses. These usually proved successful as they were hard-working and had a reputation for honesty and integrity. The two famous chocolate-making companies, Cadburys and Rowntree, were founded by Quaker families and the most enduring image of a trustworthy, reliable and cheerful Quaker – who looks very like William Penn – can be seen on a box Quaker Oats.

The logo for the Quaker Oats line of products. Photo Credit: © Fair use / Wikimedia Commons. The logo for the Quaker Oats line of products. Photo Credit: © Fair use / Wikimedia Commons.

Edwin Lerner

Named Edwin (name of an early king of Northern England) but usually known as ‘Eddie’, I conducted extended tours around Britain and Ireland for Trafalgar for many years but now work as a freelance guide and tour manager. I specialise in religious, music, theatre and literary themed tours and…

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