Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

The tombstone of Wil­liam Penn’s daughter bears the name Letitia Penn – not her mar­ried name, Letitia Aubrey. One historian, given to conjecture, wondered, “Had she wished it so, remembering her hus­band’s bitter quarrels with her father, and the many other unhappinesses her husband had brought her?”

What this woman “wished” on her tombstone no one knows. She left no instructions and the tombstone itself was erected by her half-brother’s son in the century following her death. Her identification as a Penn family member may have resulted more from the avid nineteenth century anti­quarian interest in the found­ing family than from Letitia Penn Aubrey’s own desires. Indeed, she consistently signed her letters as Letitia Aubrey even after her hus­band’s death.

Little is known about Letitia Penn Aubrey, but what can be gleaned from the voluminous Penn family correspondence indicates nothing remarkable about her. Apparently she suffered no particular crises or afflictions, leading a normal life for a woman of the land­owning gentry from the late seventeenth to mid-eighteenth century. Biographers of Wil­liam Penn, the Quaker founder of Pennsylvania, mention Letitia only occasionally as the daughter he affectionately called “Tishe.”

In 1699, at the age of twenty-one, she accompanied her father and his second wife, Hannah Callowhill, to Amer­ica. When William Penn had to return to England in 1701, he wrote, “I cannot prevail on my wife to stay, and still less with Tishe.” Before returning, Leti­tia Penn asked the Philadel­phia Women’s Meeting to write a letter of “clearness,” explaining, “she is free from any engagement on the ac­count of marriage, as far as we know.” This, too, was unre­markable. Meetings of the Society of Friends frequently supplied such credentials, designed to prevent bigamy, to members relocating over long distances.

The Philadelphia Women’s Meeting dated Letitia Penn’s letter September 27, 1701; the Penns sailed on November 3 and arrived twenty-eight days later. A letter William Penn wrote to James Logan, his secretary in America, on June 21 the following year, first mentions his daughter’s im­pending marriage to London merchant William Aubrey. Their wedding took place August 20, 1702.

There are no direct accounts of the wedding, but several allusions in Penn correspon­dence offer reasons for much conjecture. That summer James Logan wrote William Penn that it had been “liberally discovered” that Letitia Penn “was under engagement of marriage … to William Mas­ters.” Masters followed her to England, claiming they were engaged. In fact, the Friends who had signed her letter of clearness wanted to rescind their affirmation.

This charge was serious. Before Lord Hardwicke’s Mar­riage Act of 1753, there was little consistency about what actually constituted marriage in the English-speaking world. Engagements or “spousals” were considered verbal con­tracts and could be as legally binding as marriage itself. English Quakers publicly investigated the matter, but allowed Letitia Penn to marry William Aubrey.

Letitia’s brother, William Penn, Jr., mentioned the affair in a letter to Logan dated Au­gust 18, 1702. “I was much surprised at what you told me about my sister’s engagement to W. Masters, but we find little in it, for she has been at the meetings and he was here, but could prove no engage­ment, for it passed the meet­ings, and she is to be married the day after tomorrow.” In a later letter he added, “William Masters, whatever grounds he had for it in Pennsylvania, made a mighty noise here, but it lasted not long.”

Nevertheless, problems surrounding the wedding apparently caused a Penn family squabble. In September 1702, William Penn sent Logan an unclearly worded message which seems to name relations of his first wife, Gulielma Maria Springett, Letitia Penn Aubrey’s mother. “But S. Pen­nington’s, if not S. Harwood’s, striving for William Masters, against faith, truth, and righ­teousness, will not be easily forgotten, though things came honourably off to his and the old envy’s confusion, his fa­ther’s friends nobly testifying against the actions of both.”

Letitia Penn Aubrey and the scant – and often ambigu­ous – reference to her wed­ding have been interpreted, sometimes rather creatively, in a wide variety of ways throughout the history of the Penn family. Because the Penns owned vast tracts of land in the New World and practiced proprietary govern­ment, they were not always popular with the Pennsylvania citizenry. Although the first American biography of Wil­liam Penn did not appear until 1822, Penn biographies prolif­erated between 1830 and 1850, as American history increas­ingly attracted readers. They reached a peak between 1880 and the turn of the century, perhaps due to bicentennial celebrations of Penn’s first visit to America in 1682. The 1930s proved to be the truly golden age of Penn biography and a boon for biography in general. Penn biographies have since leveled off, and perhaps two or three are published each decade.

One of the earliest charac­terizations of Letitia Penn appears in John F. Watson’s quaint Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania in the Olden Time, a self-proclaimed mid­-nineteenth century attempt to record the “memoirs, anec­dotes and incidents of the city and its inhabitants.” Watson sweetly characterized Letitia Penn as “gay,” “sportive” and “full of girlish spirits.” On a farm in Gwynedd, “seeing the men at threshing, she desired to try her hand at the use of the flail, which, to her great surprise, brought such a racket about her head and shoulders, she was obliged to run into the house in tears, and expose her playful freak to her father.” Poor Letitia Penn: an ambi­tious girl trying her hand at men’s work, of which she is justly proven incapable. Wat­son, ironically, did not men­tion her problematic engagement.

In a Penn family biography published in 1899, Howard M. Jenkins repeated Watson’s flailing incident to establish Letitia Penn’s demeanor, but characterized her as victim. He accused William Penn of “nip­ping” his daughter’s associa­tion with William Masters (“some intimate acquaintance – of whatever degree”) and arranging her marriage to William Aubrey.

In a 1907 article devoted to William Penn’s children by D.K. Turner, Letitia Penn’s character is again elucidated through the flailing incident, and her role as victim reaches tragic proportions. William Penn “put down his iron heel” on Masters’s suit and “soon the wide ocean parted the lovers.” Turner then gave Leti­tia Penn Aubrey an inharmoni­ous marriage to a shiftless husband who habitually sponged off the Penn family.

By the 1930s, interpreta­tions of Letitia Penn’s character had changed. Fewer authors quoted the flailing incident while she was given a more active role in her choice of husband. Arthur Pound, in a Penn family biography of 1932, dismissed Letitia Penn as a belle who “soon forgot her American beau” for an affluent widower. Forty years later, Hans Fantel, in a popularly-written Penn biography of 1974 viewed her as a colonial debu­tante who wanted to “escape a romantic entanglement” and enjoy a “social whirl” before settling down. In another biography written the same year, Harry Emerson Wildes had Letitia Penn yearning for William Masters, “the catch of the city.” When William Penn takes his family to remote Pennsbury, Wildes depicted a petulant Letitia Penn thinking that Masters had forgotten her. He also interpreted “S. Pen­nington” and “S. Harwood” mentioned in William Penn’s 1702 letter as Letitia’s rivals whom she will not forgive for “striving for William Masters.”

By 1979, in an article enti­tled “Tishe,” by John F. Reed, Letitia Penn again loomed as a tragic heroine. The flailing incident reappeared and she “captures the heart of young William Masters.” Reed gave her an “unfortunate marriage” and ended by speculating on the name on her tombstone: Was it an “eternal reprimand to the man who had caused her frequent pain?”

Historians’ interpretations are diverse, conflicting and unfounded. But what sort of character emerges from Leti­tia’s own correspondence?

“I am not much in words and less in writing,” she wrote in 1695 to Hannah Callowhill, her father’s prospective second wife. Yet she filled her letter with welcome and acceptance. “How happy and easy I shall be in the enjoyment I promise my self of thy company.” After returning to England, she warmly congratulated an American friend Hannah Fishbourn on her marriage and sent a gift, writing, “I hope this will find thee for­ward for a little one, therefore something to put it in may not, I hope be unacceptable, in order to which I herewith send thee a small present, shall be glad if it pleases thee.”

Besides acceptance and affection, Letitia Penn’s letters also displayed a keen sense of duty. In her letter to Cal­lowhill, she asked, “Please give me leave to salute thee with that true love and esteem which I am sure thou deserves from me and which I hope I shall be always ready to pay thee.” To Fishbourn she wrote, “I am very sensible of how I am in debt to thee … and shall be glad if at any time I can be serviceable on this side of the water.”

In their letter of clearness, the Philadelphia Women’s Meeting described Letitia Penn as “sober” – along with “orderly,” a frequently used word in these documents – noting that she was “courte­ously carriaged and sweetly tempered in her conversation among us.” These women would have known Letitia Penn and their language makes it difficult to imagine her engaged in Watson’s flail­ing incident.

Later in life, Letitia Penn Aubrey proved she was no milquetoast. She suffered financial problems when the lands her father deeded to her proved less profitable than expected, forcing her and her husband to beseech the Penns for money. In 1727, she wrote Logan, demanding, “where­fore desire thee to do what thee canst to assist wherein and end ye dispute which is neither profitable on ye one side nor on ye other,” and “from what is due to me pray remit to my own hands as soon as possible.” She wrote to her half-brother in 1735. “I am very glad I may expect my money so soon, altho’ I cannot have it at better interest, nor security any where, I am sensi­ble of.” Letitia Penn Aubrey was not entirely consumed by her business affairs – most letters concerning her land­holdings in Pennsylvania were between James Logan and William Aubrey, who legally owned and controlled his wife’s property.

But how would such a woman regard marriage? Leti­tia Penn Aubrey never men­tioned the matter. Most of her letters were practical and pur­poseful. She did not dwell on her own feelings; a letter Leti­tia wrote Hannah Fishbourn just two days before her mar­riage to William Aubrey never even mentioned the wedding. Nevertheless, she must have been aware that the situation was a topic of much discussion and debate, for even Logan wrote to her, “We exceedingly long, dear mistress, to hear of you, and especially to be put out of doubt about thy mar­riage, which is commonly reported here, if so, I wish thee happiness, and shall say no more.”

Letitia’s later surviving letters also failed to mention her relationship with her hus­band. She did, however, tend to close by sending “my hus­band’s kind love” to the recipi­ent. Letitia Penn Aubrey was not rebellious, and it is safe to conjecture that she viewed marriage as most conventional people of the day viewed it.

During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the English-speaking world publicly debated how much freedom the individual should have in marriage. Previously, bride and groom had been bought and sold by their fami­lies for purely economic rea­sons. People married without high expectations for personal happiness, which was not important as married couples spent little time in each other’s company. Religious dissenters then embraced the concept of holy matrimony, seeing mar­riage as a bond of companion­ship, rather than as a financial matter, but not yet incorporat­ing modern concepts of sexual or romantic love.

Marriage customs among the Quakers were imported virtually intact from England to America. In Pennsylvania, early laws forbade marriage without parental consent, and Quaker custom required a man to inform a woman’s parents he intended to engage her affection before speaking to her himself. Once the parents gave consent, they could not rescind it. If the couple de­cided to marry, they posted their intentions on the court­house or meetinghouse door, then announced their plans before the local women’s and men’s meetings.

In 1667, a young WilliamPenn wrote against purely arranged marriages. He be­lieved the parents’ consent should be sought but was not strictly necessary as inspiration should come from the Lord. Conversely, he did not believe the Lord would inspire or bless unsuitable marriages. However radical his views of matrimony, William Penn held no such attitudes toward women. He praised conven­tional female traits and favored women playing a more active role only within the Friends women’s meetings.

Marriage was such a public affair among English and American Quakers, it seems likely that a formal engage­ment between Letitia Penn and William Masters would have come to light. Whether affec­tion existed between the two remains unknown; Penn wrote that his daughter did not want to remain in America, so it is reasonable to speculate that she desired no marriage with William Masters.

There is also no evidence that William Penn arranged his daughter’s marriage to William Aubrey. If he did, it may have been possible his dutiful, accepting and practical daugh­ter recognized a match in her own financial interests and complied. That she failed to mention her impending mar­riage in a letter to her friend disturbs social historians. Was she being aloof and unemo­tional about what she saw as a business matter? Or was she embarrassed by the attention her private life was attracting? Letitia Penn left no word.

What she failed to record about her marriage has been provided by Penn biographers and historians; minimal refer­ences have spawned a whole spectrum of interpretations. The only certainty is that histo­rians will continue to write of the Penn family, each devising different interpretations as mores and attitudes evolve.

But Letitia Penn Aubrey’s secret will continue tantalizing historians from the grave.

 

For Further Reading

Dunn, Mary Maples and Richard S., eds. The Papers of William Penn, 1644-1713. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981.

Fantel, Hans. William Penn: Apostle of Dissent. New York: Morrow and Company, 1974.

Ford, Linda. “William Penn’s Views on Women: Subjects of Friendship.” Quaker History, 72 (1983), 75-102.

Frost, J. William. The Quaker Family in Colonial America. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1973.

Jenkins, Howard M. The Family of William Penn, Founder of Pennsylvania, Ancestry and Descendants. Philadelphia: Privately Printed, 1899.

Pound, Arthur. The Penns of Pennsylvania and England. New York: Macmillan and Com­pany, 1932.

Reed, John F. “Tishe.” Picket Post (1979), 25-30.

Stone, Lawrence. The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800. New York: Harper and Row, 1977.

Trussell, John B.B. William Penn, Architect of a Nation. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Histor­ical and Museum Commission, 1980.

Turner, D.K. “William Penn’s Children.” Bucks County His­torical Society Collection. 3 (1907), 89-96.

Vining, Elizabeth Gray. William Penn, Mystic, As Reflected in His Writings. Wallingford, Pa.: Pendle Hill Publications, 1969.

Watson, John F. Annals of Phil­adelphia and Pennsylvania in the Olden Time. Philadelphia: Privately Printed, 1850.

Westcott, Thompson, et al. His­tory of Philadelphia, 1609-1884. Philadelphia: L. H. Everts and Company, 1884.

Wildes, Harry Emerson. William Penn. New York: Macmillan, 1974.

 

Lorett Treese, a resident of Paoli, received her bachelor of arts degree from Bryn Mawr College, and is presently pursuing her master of arts degree in American history, with emphasis on the Revolution­ary War period, at Villanova University. A frequent contributor to Pennsylvania Magazine, her articles have appeared in Susque­hanna, the Chester County Daily Local News and the Philadelphia Inquirer. She is currently working on an exhaus­tive study of the Penn family during the American Revolution.