Edmundson, William (1627–1712), quaker leader, was born c. 4 October 1627 in Little Musgrave, Westmorland (Cumbria), England, youngest of six children of John Edmundson (d. 1635), a well-to-do yeoman, and Grace Edmundson (d. 1632). Orphaned at an early age, he was reared by a maternal uncle who mistreated him. Apprenticed about 1640 to a carpenter and joiner in York, on completion of his tenure he joined the New Model Army of Oliver Cromwell (qv); serving in England, Scotland, and the Isle of Man, he fought in the battle of Worcester (1651). Shortly after leaving the army, he married (1652) Margaret Stanford, of Derbyshire; they would have seven children. Following a brother stationed with the parliamentary army in Ireland, he opened a shop in Antrim town. While on a business trip to England to purchase wares (1653/4), he was inspired on hearing the testimony of quaker preachers, and was convinced to embrace the precepts of the Friends. On his return to Ireland, he endured a period of profound spiritual anguish and crisis of conscience, tormented by perceived conflict between his newly found beliefs and his mode of life. Moving to Lurgan, Co. Armagh, he began joining in his home with his wife, brother, and several others whom he had convinced, in ‘silent waiting’ on God, thereby initiating the first regular quaker meeting in Ireland (1654). He visited England in 1655 to meet the founder of the movement, George Fox, who urged him to contact isolated quakers resident in other parts of Ireland.
For the remainder of his career Edmundson travelled regularly and extensively throughout Ireland, visiting fellow quakers, seeking to ‘convince’ converts by preaching in market places and fairs, and ‘settling’ quaker meetings in various locations. In common with early quaker leaders in England, he was many times imprisoned, fined, or had goods distrained for his preaching, public testifying, attendance at banned gatherings, impudence towards authority, or refusal to pay tithes. He was placed in the stocks at Belturbet, and held for fourteen weeks in a dungeon in Cavan town to the detriment of his health. Determining to abandon shopkeeping for farming, because it afforded both the opportunity to make a clearer testimony against tithing, and greater time to devote to the work of the movement, he leased a farm in Co. Cavan (1656–9); amid persecution by civil and ecclesiastical authorities, and the refusal of the landlord to renew the lease, he moved with other quakers to Queen's Co. (Laois), taking a farm at Rosenallis, near Mountmellick. Edmundson was the principal figure in the propagation of quakerism in Ireland, his home the effective headquarters of the movement in the country; he accompanied Fox on part of his three-month journey in Ireland in 1669, organising disparate meetings into district bodies to conduct the business affairs of the Religious Society of Friends. Throughout his ministry, he resolutely defended the civil liberties of fellow quakers; after suffering imprisonment for twenty weeks in 1682, he successfully argued in the bishop's court that the act imposing incarceration for refusal to pay tithes did not apply to those whose objections were conscientious.
In 1671 Edmundson toured the English colonies of the West Indies and the North American mainland with Fox and others. He was among several quakers to engage in a bitter theological debate with Roger Williams in Rhode Island. Described by Williams as having ‘a face of brass, and a tongue set on fire from the hell of lies and fury’, Edmundson dismissed his adversary as a ‘bitter old man’ baffled by the quakers’ arguments. He made two further journeys to the new world (1675–7 and 1683–4). In 1680 he wrote a widely circulated epistle counselling Friends not to be married by professional clergy, and urging quaker parents to disinherit children who married non-quakers. He joined in a petition to James II (qv) for redress of quaker grievances, and helped draft a statement of gratitude and loyalty after the issuing of a royal declaration of indulgence (1687). During the ‘war of the two kings’, he met several times with James to protest against maltreatment of quakers and other protestants by Jacobite soldiers, and after the battle of the Boyne intervened to prevent reprisals against catholics by advancing Williamite troops. His home, which had been plundered several times by retreating Jacobites, was burned by rapparees (December 1690), who threatened the lives of him and two of his sons, and took them prisoner. His wife was left stripped naked by the raiders, and walked two miles seeking assistance; her health broken from the effects of exposure, she died on 15 July 1691. As persecution of quakers abated under William III (qv), Edmundson warned against complacency and ‘covetousness’ in the movement, and led the widespread opposition of Irish Friends to the practice of affirmation, regarding it as essentially an oath. He married secondly (1 December 1697) Mary Strangman (c.1648–1732), a widow. Described as a portly man with a big voice, he continued his extensive travels in Ireland and England, despite enduring constant illness and pain during his last decade. He died 31 August 1712 in his home at Rosenallis and was interred in the quaker burial ground at nearby Tineel, leaving an estate worth £33 5s. 4d. His journal, published posthumously in Dublin (1715), and widely reprinted in England and America, is one of the classics of early quaker literature.