William Penn's Welcome Week

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Penn's letters to his father while imprisoned in Newgate, 1670

Note: After a famous trial which established after appeal that verdicts of juries could not be nullified by the court, Penn was imprisoned in Newgate Prison for contempt of court (the jurors who had found him not guilty were also imprisoned). Here are letters Penn wrote his father while in prison. The main purpose of the letters appears to be to prevent his father from securing his release and the letters show that he was actively involved in an act of civil disobedience aimed at restoring the rights of Englishmen. A transcript of the trial is on-line at www.constitution.org. Amongst the comments of the court officials in the transcripts are favorable comments about the Spanish inquisition.

5th, 7th September, 1670

"Dear Father,

Because I cannot come, I write. These are to let thee know that this morning about seven we were remanded to the sessions. The jury, after two nights and two days being locked up, came down and offered their former verdict, but that being refused as not so positive, they explained themselves in answering, not guilty, upon which the bench were amazed, and the whole court satisfied, that they made a kind of hymn, but that the Mayor, Recorder Robinson, &c., might add to their malice, they fined us to the number of about twelve of us, for not pulling off our hats, and kept us prisoners for the money. An injurious trifle which will blow over, or we shall bring it to the common pleas, because it was against law, and not by a jury sessed.

How great a dissatisfaction three of their actions have begot, may very reasonably be conjectured from the bare mention of them. 1st That the jury was about six times rejected in their verdict; and besides, vain, fruitless, illegal menaces, were kept two days and two nights without bed, tobacco, provisions, &c. 2d. That a session should be held on first-day (the design we know.) 3d. That the jury, the only judges by law, should be fined 40 marks each, and to be prisoners till they have paid it, and that without any jury to pass upon them. However, their verdict is accepted for us, because they did not dare deny it.

This is the substance. The circumstances I shall personally relate, if the Lord will. I am more concerned at thy distemper, and the pains that attend it, than at my own mere imprisonment, which works for the best.

I am, dear father, thy obedient son,
WM. PENN


Newgate, 6, 7th, 1670

"Dear Father: — I desire thee not to be troubled at my present confinement, I could scarce suffer on a better account, nor by a worse hand, and the will of God be done. It is more grievous and uneasy to me that thou shouldst be so heavily exercised, God Almighty knows, than any living worldly concernment. I am clear by the jury, and they in my place — they are resolved to lay until they get out by law; and they, every six hours, demand their freedom by advice of counsel.

They have so overshot themsleves (the court), that the generality of people much detest them. I intreat thee not to purchase my liberty. They will repent their proceedings. I am now a prisoner notoriously against law. I desire the Lord God, in fervent prayer, to strengthen and support thee, and anchor thy mind in the thoughts of the immuable blessed state, which is over all perishing concerns.

I am, dear father, thy obedient son,
WM. PENN


Newgate, 7th September, 1670

Dear Father: — To say I am truly grieved to hear of thy present illness, are words that might be spared, because I am confident they are better believed.

If God in his holy will did see it meet that I should be freed, I could heartily embrace it; yet considering I cannot be free, but upon such terms as strengthening their arbitrary and base proceedings, I shall rather choose to suffer any hardship.

I am persuaded some clearer way will suddenly be found out to obtain my liberty, which is no way so desirable to me, as on the account of being with thee. I am not without hopes that the Lord will sanctify the endeavours of thy physician unto a cure, and then much of my worldly solicitude will be at an end. My present restraint is so far from being humor, that I would rather perish than release myself by so indirect a course as to satiate their revengeful, avaricious appetites. The advantage of such a freedom would fall very short of the trouble of accepting it.

Solace thy mind in the thoughts of better things, dear father. Let not this wicked world disturb thy mind, and whatever shall come to pass, I hope in all conditions to approve myself thy obedient son.

WM. PENN


Information on this page provided by James Quinn. Visit Gwynedd (Pennsylvania) Friends Meeting.