William Penn was born in 1644 in London, eldest son of Admiral Sir William Penn and Margaret Jasper. He primarily looked after his father’s estates in England, Ireland and North America.
Penn had strong sympathies with Quakers and, by the age of 22, he converted to Quakerism. He was expelled from Oxford University for being a Quaker. Penn became friends with George Fox and travelled with him in England and throughout Europe. Penn’s charm, intelligence and friendly demeanour made him an engaging character.
Penn was an avid writer defending religious freedom, democracy and opposition to war. He endured persecution for his writings and unlawful preaching for which he was arrested in 1670 with fellow Quaker, William Meade. This case led to the right for English juries to be free from control by judges.
In 1681, Charles II handed over a large piece of his American land holdings to William Penn to satisfy a debt the king owed to Penn’s father. This land included the states of Pennsylvania and Delaware.
Penn drafted a charter to protect freedom of worship and civil liberties. It also included education for children, no military outposts and fair-trading with indigenous Americans. This became known as the Holy Experiment as Penn wanted to put into practice his Quaker ideals.
He published the first printing of the Magna Carta in America.
He developed a forward-looking project to create a European assembly made of deputies who could discuss and adjudicate controversies peacefully.
William Penn died in 1718 and was buried at Jordans Meeting House in Buckinghamshire.
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