Penn, William (1644–1718), quaker leader and founder of Pennsylvania, was born 14 October 1644 in London, the elder of two sons (there was also a daughter) of William Penn (1621–70), a naval commander, and his wife, Margaret Penn (née Jasper) (1610?–1682). Penn's mother was the daughter of John Jasper, a Rotterdam merchant, and had been previously married, before 1631, to Nicholas Vanderschuren (d. 1641 or 1642), a Dutch merchant. She lived in Kilrush, Co. Clare, till the rebellion of 1641, when she fled to London. Penn senior had his first naval appointment in 1644, on a ship of the parliament's Irish fleet, whose rear-admiral he became in 1649. After 1654 his sympathies appear to have been with the exiled Charles Stuart. From 1656 to 1660 he lived with his family at Macroom Castle, Co. Cork, on estates confiscated from the MacCarthys and granted to him in 1653.
William Penn junior began to attend Chigwell Grammar School in Essex about 1653, but went to Ireland with his father in 1656. A travelling quaker preacher, Thomas Loe, was invited by Admiral Penn to address his household in Macroom in 1657, and both Penn senior and junior appear to have been deeply impressed by him. Admiral Penn returned to England in March 1660, and met and was knighted by the returning Charles II off the Dutch coast in May 1660. The commission appointing Lord Broghill (qv) as lord president of Munster in the same month named Penn as one of his council. Sir William, however, probably did not visit Ireland again; he was elected to the English house of commons and appointed a navy commissioner.
The younger Penn entered Christ Church College, Oxford, in 1660 but was expelled for religious non-conformity in 1662. He then went to France, and in 1663 was studying theology under Moses Amyraut at the protestant academy at Saumur. He returned to London in 1664, and entered Lincoln's Inn in 1665, in which year he was also with the English fleet and at Whitehall. In February 1666 the 21-year-old Penn was dispatched to Ireland to attend to his father's interests in new land settlement then being imposed on the kingdom. The Macroom estates had been restored to the MacCarthys, and the Act of Settlement (1662) compensated Penn with about 7,500 Irish acres, some in the barony of Ibaune and Barryroe in west Co. Cork, and more in the barony of Imokilly in east Co. Cork, with a house at Shanagarry. The young Penn, heir to an Irish estate and intended by his father for the life of a courtier, moved freely among the powerful and wealthy in Ireland. When the lord lieutenant, the duke of Ormond (qv), went to quell a mutiny in Carrickfergus in May 1666, he was accompanied by Penn, who distinguished himself serving under Ormond's son, the earl of Arran (qv). Ormond's desire to make the younger Penn captain of a company of foot in place of Sir William was thwarted by the father's unwillingness to resign his command. Penn stayed in Dublin with Sir William Petty (qv), and dealt with Sir Edward Dering (qv), who was a member of the court of claims.
At some point in the summer or autumn of 1667 Penn encountered the quaker Thomas Loe again in Cork and took those first steps towards becoming a quaker that were so momentous for his future career. In November 1667 he was arrested at a quaker meeting in Cork on the orders of the city's mayor. Penn appealed to Broghill, now earl of Orrery, who politely reminded him that the mayor was following the law and informed Sir William in England. Penn returned to England in November 1667 to face his father, who was horrified by his son's decision to embrace a religion that promised to blight his prospects in the world. Penn's commitment to his new beliefs only deepened and became more public; he published his first religious tracts in 1668 and was imprisoned in the Tower of London for blasphemy from December 1668 to July 1669.
In September 1669 Penn set out for Ireland to make new leases with his father's tenants, settle accounts in Kinsale, and, above all, to visit fellow quakers. He met quaker leaders such as William Edmundson (qv) and John Burnyeat (qv), spoke at quaker meetings, and addressed the lord lieutenant, Lord Robartes (qv), and the privy council on behalf of quakers, who were being persecuted by the authorities; his lobbying of the council was inconclusive at first. He also engaged in theological disputations with protestants and catholics and – a sign of his growing confidence – on occasion rebuffed hostile interruptions at quaker meetings. He mingled with Co. Cork grandees such as Robert Southwell (qv), Sir St John Brodrick (qv), and the Boyles, and formed an association with Colonel Robert Phaire (qv). On returning to Dublin he had meetings with Lord Berkeley (qv), the new viceroy, and (more remarkably) the lord chancellor, Archbishop Michael Boyle (qv); he again addressed the privy council, which now ordered the release of imprisoned quakers. He left Ireland in August 1670, having cemented enduring friendships among the quakers there.
Penn, who had written more tracts while in Ireland, continued to publish and campaign on behalf of quakers on his return to England. His talents, together with his social standing and the Irish estates he inherited on his father's death in 1670, gave him access to the politically powerful that no other quaker enjoyed. He began to work with a pioneering lobbying body, the ‘meeting for sufferings’, established by English quakers in 1675. In 1678 he became involved in whig politics, and allied himself with the republican Algernon Sidney. Despite these affiliations he enjoyed good relations with Charles II and his brother James, duke of York (qv), who had worked closely with Sir William Penn. Penn was drawn into colonial affairs in 1674 when he was asked to arbitrate in a dispute between two quakers in the colony of New Jersey, and in 1680 he petitioned the king to be allowed to establish his own colony. Having failed to achieve religious toleration in England, he hoped to establish a tolerant commonwealth. He also – as financial management was never one of his talents – needed a new source of income. In 1680, on the day he received his charter for Pennsylvania, he wrote to Robert Turner, a Dublin cloth merchant, explaining that he would have preferred not to have the name ‘Penn’ incorporated in the name of the colony – ‘I feared least it should be looked on as a vanity in me’ – but that the king insisted on it in honour of Sir William (Papers of William Penn, ii, 83). He immediately began to recruit Irish purchasers, mainly but not exclusively quaker, of land in Pennsylvania. It has been estimated that Irish quaker migration to Pennsylvania between 1682 and 1750 amounted to 440 adults, whose departure must have had a considerable impact on the quaker community in Ireland. Penn wrote in 1684 to Arran, now Irish lord deputy, pleading for Irish quakers and eulogising Pennsylvania. Arran assured him of his care for quakers, and asserted that Penn's letter was ‘so well writ that I should have ordered the printing of it, if I did not fear that the description you make of that place would invite so many from hence as to do prejudice to this country, which wants people in proportion as much as yours does’ (Papers of William Penn, ii, 589).
Penn spent the years 1682–4 in Pennsylvania, establishing its government and disputing its boundaries with governors of neighbouring colonies, including Thomas Dongan (qv) of New York. He intended to return, but a visit to England was prolonged indefinitely by the accession of James II in 1685. The new king, Penn's friend, was moving towards a policy of religious toleration and Penn found himself representing not simply the quaker interest but protestant dissenters in general. His influence was such that, in September 1688, when a group of Irish protestants were seeking a friend at court to represent their case to James, it was to Penn that they addressed their appeal. There is insufficient evidence to show whether he influenced James's Irish policy. It is notable, however, that, although Irish quakers – like other protestants – reported heavy losses during James's reign, the Jacobite parliament of 1689 did not name Penn or other prominent quakers in its Act of Attainder.
The extent of Penn's loyalty to James after William of Orange (qv) had assumed the English crown remains controversial. Penn was tainted, however, and suffered complete political eclipse for several years, enduring imprisonment, periods spent in hiding, charges of treason, and exclusion from the government of Pennsylvania. Eventually his friend Viscount Sidney (qv), with the earls of Ranelagh (qv) and Rochester (qv), obtained the king's pardon for him in December 1693. Old political friendships were now revived, and new ones formed. As always, Irishmen as well as Englishmen involved in the government of Ireland were prominent among these associates. By the late 1690s Penn was again a figure whose influence was sought, as in 1697 when Richard Coote (qv), earl of Bellomont, asked for his support in lobbying the government.
In May 1698 he went to Ireland: his purposes, as usual, included estate business and the quaker ministry, but he also wished to quash the indictment for treason made against him in Dublin in 1691 by the disgraced spy William Fuller. On landing in Dublin, Penn published (with assistance from Anthony Sharp (qv), among others) a quaker tract, and two more followed shortly after. The bishop of Cork, Edward Wetenhall (qv), was stung into publishing a rejoinder, and a pamphlet controversy between the two continued after Penn's return to England in November 1698. In the matter of the indictment, he was received with great courtesy by the Irish lords justices, the marquis of Winchester (later the 2nd duke of Bolton (qv)) and the earl of Galway (qv). Finding the country exercised by the prospect of an English ban on Irish woollen imports, he penned a memorandum to the lords justices on the state of Ireland. His proposals included a heavy tax on the estates of absentee landowners, of whom he was of course one. He travelled with his son and with Thomas Story, a rising English quaker, whose brother was George Story (qv). In New Ross, under a recent act forbidding catholics to own horses worth more than £5, the quaker party suffered seizure of their horses by unscrupulous army officers, who knew that their objection to oaths would prevent them swearing that they were not papists. Penn used his influence to obtain swift redress from the government in Dublin. A few years after Penn's visit, a new Irish quaker committee was established to lobby against laws adversely affecting quakers. While there is no direct evidence of Penn's inspiration, the committee was closely modelled on the English quaker meeting for sufferings, and among its members were many of Penn's Irish friends.
He never made another Irish visit, though he continued to contemplate one and retained a strong emotional tie to quakers in Ireland. His remaining active years were largely taken up with troubles in Pennsylvania, but even here Irish-born associates often appeared, notably his capable secretary James Logan (qv). Money troubles later overwhelmed Penn, and his imprisonment for debt in 1708 was ended in part by loans raised by Irish quakers. His powers were by now in decline, and he never recovered from a series of strokes in 1712. He died 30 July 1718 at his home in Ruscombe, near Twyford in Berkshire.
He married first, in 1673, Gulielma Springett (d. 1694), daughter of Sir William Springett, of Sussex, a parliamentary officer, and his wife, Mary, daughter of Sir John Proude. Three of the four daughters from this marriage died young, and only one of their sons, William, survived his father; William inherited the English and Irish estates. Penn married secondly, in 1696, Hannah, daughter of Thomas Callowhill, a merchant in Bristol; there was one surviving daughter and four sons from this marriage.