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William Penn—Student at Christ Church Oxford, one of 13 murals illustrating the life of Penn by Violet Oakley (1874–1961), installed in the Governor's Reception Room in the Pennsylvania State Capitol.

William Penn—Student at Christ Church Oxford, one of 13 murals illustrating the life of Penn by Violet Oakley (1874–1961), installed in the Governor’s Reception Room in the Pennsylvania State Capitol.
Pennsylvania Capitol Preservation Committee

There’s an old idiom that says “the child is father of the man,” but this is complicated by the stage between childhood and adulthood – adolescence.

The usual image of William Penn is of a pious, peaceable Quaker who rejected anything loud, proud or worldly. But his upbringing took place in the extremism, violence and carnality of mid-17th-century England. By the end of his teens, the future Quaker leader was familiar with royal favor, high fashion, sword fighting and other attributes defining a man of the world from that era.

Born October 14, 1644, William Penn grew up during the English Civil War, which pitted the army of a fatally obstinate King Charles I against the forces of a radicalized Parliament, and was followed by the near-dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell. At age 15, Penn saw the demise of Puritan rule and the return of royalty to England in the person of King Charles II. Along with the reckless self-indulgence of that “merry monarch,” Penn witnessed the re-emergence of enduring English institutions ranging from Anglicanism to the theater.

Living for much of his boyhood in London, Penn had a front-row seat for these extraordinary changes. His father, Adm. William Penn (1621–70), served as a top commander in the Cromwellian navy, but was knighted for his loyalty in the restoration of Charles II. Sir William’s land job was in naval administration, and his close colleague on the Navy Board was a civil servant best known for his detailed diary, Samuel Pepys (1633–1703). Regarded as a bon vivant to the same degree that Penn has a reputation for sobriety, Pepys literally led a life of wine, women and song. He and his wife Elizabeth lived near the Penns in the Navy Board residences by the Tower of London, and occasional entries in his diary illustrate young William’s experience in the social swirl of the 1660s.

Samuel Pepys in an engraving that appeared in early published editions of the diary.

Samuel Pepys in an engraving that appeared in early published editions of the diary.
State Library of Pennsylvania

On an April morning in 1661, families from the board, including the Penns and Pepyses, gathered to watch the king’s coronation procession. Pepys wrote in his diary, “We had a good room to ourselves, with wine and good cake, and saw the show very well. . . . It is impossible to relate the glory of this day, expressed in the clothes of them that rid, and their horses and horses’ clothes . . . embroidery and diamonds were ordinary among them. . . . So glorious was the show with gold and silver that we were not able to look at it, our eyes at last being so much overcome with it.”

Penn’s later writings rarely referred to this time in his life and even less to details of the splendor, merriment, carousing and other pleasures of the royal capital that as a Quaker he shunned. Pepys, however, relished and wrote repeatedly about these luxuries, occasionally placing Penn in scenes of dining out, theatergoing and card games. One scenario took place on New Year’s Day 1662, when William was 17, involving a trip to the theater. “Up and went forth with Sir W. Pen [sic] by coach towards Westminster, and in my way seeing that the ‘Spanish Curate’ [a comedy] was acted today, I light and let him go alone, and I home again and sent to young Mr. Pen and his sister to go anon with my wife and I to the Theatre. . . . By and by came the two young Pens, and after we had eat a barrel of oysters we went by coach to the play. . . From thence home, and they sat with us till late at night at cards very merry, but the jest was Mr. W. Pen had left his sword in the coach, and so my boy and he run out after the coach, and by very great chance did at the [Royal] Exchange meet with the coach and got his sword again. So to bed.”

Behind these jolly scenes, things were not going well in the Penn household. Soon after his 16th birthday, William had entered the college of Christ Church, Oxford. At this period early in the Restoration, as the Church of England reasserted its authority over the population, nonconformity in religion was severely restricted by the college’s administrators. A year after his matriculation at Oxford, Penn was expelled for actively resisting the reintroduction of surplices in church services. Later as a Quaker, he condemned outward symbols of faith as irreligious bits of show.

Elizabeth Pepys, wife of the London diarist, whom Penn visited frequently in his youth.

Elizabeth Pepys, wife of the London diarist, whom Penn visited frequently in his youth.
State Library of Pennsylvania

Penn’s expulsion and his religious opinions in general incensed his father. Beatings and banishment from the house, however, did not dissuade Penn, whose convictions were growing more resolute as he put greater distance between himself and the social norms of Stuart England. Pepys took note of the Penns’ domestic troubles in 1662, but then made no mention of young William for two years. Sir William had sent his son to the Continent, where he met France’s King Louis XIV, studied at the Huguenot Academy, reportedly used his sword in Paris to disarm an assailant, and stayed au courant with styles of clothing and speech. Decades later, a correspondent would write to Penn, “I remember your honour very well, when you newly came out of France and wore pantaloon breeches.”

Returning home in 1664 a more sophisticated man of 19, Penn must have pleased his father, but caused his neighbor Pepys some doubt. In late August, Pepys recorded that Penn had come to visit his wife, who called him “a most modish person, grown, she says, a fine gentleman.”  Ten days after the first visit, Penn dropped by again – more than once. “Coming home it is strange to see how I was troubled to find my wife . . . expecting Mr. Pen to see her, who had been there and was by her people denied, which, he having been three times, she thought not fit he should be any more. But yet even this did raise my jealousy presently and much vex me. However, he did not come, which pleased me.” Pepys, at this point, was 31 and his wife 23.

We need not worry about Penn’s intentions, however. In his youth he struggled against hormones to the extent of penning a poem, “Ah, Tyrant Lust.” It begins:

Ah Tyrant Lust Could I thy Power stay,
And rout thy Force, that would my Soul betray
To the Infernal Fiend & thus resign
My Peace, my Joy, yea all I can call mine.

As Penn entered his 20s, he seemed able to reconcile his conscience with the obligations of the first-born son in a well-to-do military family. If a religious nonconformist, he was not pacifist, and he accepted his place in the social environment. His father sent him to Ireland to oversee the family estate in County Cork and make himself useful to England’s overlord in Dublin. That included helping to put down a soldier mutiny and agreeing to lead an infantry company (his father vetoed that). The now-lost 1666 portrait of him, dressed in armor, included the motto “Pax quaeritur bello” (“Peace is the goal of battle”).

In Ireland, however, Penn heard the Quaker Thomas Loe preach and settled on his spiritual path. Having previously encountered Loe in his early teens, Penn now began to attend Quaker meeting regularly, risking prosecution. In 1667 he and other Friends were arrested and jailed. On hearing of it, Sir William gave his son short shrift: “I have writ several letters to you since I received any from you. By this I again charge you & strictly command that you come to me with all possible speed. In expectation of your compliance, I remain Your affectionate father.”

At the end of the year, Samuel Pepys learned of Penn’s “convincement” from a neighbor. “She tells me that Mr. William Pen, who is lately come over from Ireland, is a Quaker again, or some very melancholy thing; that he cares for no company, nor comes into any which is a pleasant thing, after his being abroad so long.”


Penn Meets the Quaker Thought in the Field Preaching at Oxford, by Violet Oakley, illustrates the inspiring moment that led to Penn’s conversion.

Penn Meets the Quaker Thought in the Field Preaching at Oxford, by Violet Oakley, illustrates the inspiring moment that led to Penn’s conversion. Pennsylvania Capitol Preservation Committee

Late the following year, a few days before Penn’s 24th birthday, Pepys read a just-published 18-page religious tract written by Penn entitled Truth Exalted. He was not impressed. “So to supper, and after supper to read a ridiculous nonsensical book set out by Will. Pen, for the Quakers; but so full of nothing but nonsense, that I was ashamed to read in it.” (Pepys had substituted “ashamed” for “afeared” in his diary entry; in the University of California Press edition of the diary, the editors labeled Truth Exalted “an immature and worthless work.”)

Shaky start notwithstanding, Penn had begun his decades-long career of writing and preaching the righteousness of his new faith. The need to turn away from society’s temptations – what Pepys thought a melancholy thing – Penn now proclaimed. In his 1669 “Letter of Love to the Young,” he wrote, “I earnestly intreat you, let us no more look back upon our ancient pastimes and delights, but with holy resolution press on, press on; for they will steal away our precious souls, beget new desire, raise the old life, and finally ensnare and pollute our minds again.”

Years later, Penn reflected on what he had endured to come to this understanding and how close he came to deserting it. While visiting new friends in Holland, he described his “persecution at Oxford” and the “whipping, beating, and turning out of doors” that he suffered from his father. He went on to explain, “The glory of the world overtook me, and I was even ready to give up myself unto it. . . . It was at this time that the Lord visited me with a certain sound and testimony of his eternal word, through one of those the world calls a Quaker, namely Thomas Loe. I related to them the bitter mockings and scornings that fell upon me, the displeasure of my parents, the invectiveness and cruelty of the priests, the strangeness of all my companions: what a sign and wonder they made of me; but above all, that great cross of resisting and watching against my own inward vain affections and thoughts. . . . [I told] them of the tenderness of my father to me before and at his death; and how, through patience and long-sufferings, all opposition was conquered.”


Admiral Penn Denouncing and Turning Him from Home, Because of His Sympathy with the Despised Sect of Quakers, by Violet Oakley, recreates the dramatic scene of Penn’s expulsion by his disapproving father.

Admiral Penn Denouncing and Turning Him from Home, Because of His Sympathy with the Despised Sect of Quakers, by Violet Oakley, recreates the dramatic scene of Penn’s expulsion by his disapproving father.
Pennsylvania Capitol Preservation Committee

Though unceremonious in faith and reserved in lifestyle, William Penn was ambitious in the service of his ideals. No advocate of religious freedom, let alone founder of a major colony, could be otherwise. But in place of the aggressiveness and even violence of his father and countrymen, he substituted patience and tolerance, qualities that grew out of a philosophy and knowledge of the world he acquired starting in his teens.


Further Reading

William Penn’s early works and letters are collected in The Papers of William Penn, Volume One, 1644–1679 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981), edited by Mary Maples Dunn and Richard S. Dunn.

Other works about Penn that discuss his youth are Catherine O. Peare, William Penn: A Biography (J.B. Lippincott, 1957); John B.B. Trussell, William Penn, Architect of a Nation (Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1980); and Richard S. Dunn and Mary Maples Dunn, The World of William Penn (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986).

The Diary of Samuel Pepys is available in numerous editions. Excerpts used in this article are mostly taken from the version edited by Henry B. Wheatley and published by George Bell & Sons in 1893. It is online at pepysdiary.com. The following entries are relevant to Penn: April 22, 1661; January 1, 1662; March 16, 1662; April 28, 1662; August 26, 1664; December 29, 1667; and October 12, 1668.


Visit Pennsbury Manor

Built on the remains of William Penn’s country estate along the Delaware River in Bucks County, Pennsbury Manor interprets the life and legacy of Pennsylvania’s founder and first proprietor. Living history programs, 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.


Russ Chamberlayne holds a B.A. in history from the University of Maryland and an M.A. in American studies from The George Washington University. He counts Pennsylvania’s contribution to America’s story as an important part of his formation as a historian.