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The mother of William Penn came from Rotterdam, in Holland. She was the daughter of John Jasper, a merchant of that city. The lively Mr. Pepys, who met her in 1664, when William was twenty years of age, describes her as a “fat, short, old Dutchwoman,” and says that she was “mighty homely.” He records a tattling neighbor’s gossip that she was not a good housekeeper. He credits her, however, with having more wit and discretion than her husband, and liked her better as his acquaintance with her progressed. That she was of a cheerful disposition is evidenced by many passages of Pepys’s Diary. That is all we know about her.

William’s father was an ambitious, successful, and important person. He was twenty-two years old, and already a captain in the navy, when he married Margaret Jasper. The year after his marriage he was made rear-admiral of Ireland; two years after that, admiral of the Straits; in four years more, vice-admiral of England; and the next year, a “general of the sea” in the Dutch war. This was in Cromwell’s time, when the naval strength of England was being mightily increased. A young man of energy and ability, acquainted with the sea, was easily in the line of promotion.

The family was ancient and respectable. Penn’s father, however, began life with little money or education, and few social advantages. Lord Clarendon observed of him that he “had a great mind to appear better bred, and to speak like a gentleman,” implying that he found some difficulty in so doing. Clarendon said, also, that he “had many good words which he used at adventure.”

The Penns lived on Tower Hill, in the Parish of St. Catherine’s, in a court adjoining London Wall. There they resided in “two chambers, one above another,” and fared frugally. There William was born on the 14th of October, 1644.

Marston Moor was fought in that year, and all England was taking sides in the contention between the Parliament and the king. The navy was in sympathy with the Parliament; and the young officer, though his personal inclinations were towards the king, went with his associates. But in 1654 he appears to have lost faith in the Commonwealth. Cromwell sent an expedition to seize the Spanish West Indies. He put Penn in charge of the fleet, and made Venables general of the army. The two commanders, without conference one with the other, sent secret word to Charles ii., then in exile on the Continent, and offered him their ships and soldiers. This transaction, though it seemed for the moment to be of none effect, resulted years afterward in the erection of the Colony of Pennsylvania. Charles declined the offer; “he wished them to reserve their affections for his Majesty till a more proper season to discover them;” but he never forgot it. It was the beginning of a friendship between the House of Stuart and the family of Penn, which William Penn inherited.

The expedition captured Jamaica, and made it a British colony; but in its other undertakings it failed miserably; and the admiral, on his return, was dismissed from the navy and committed to the Tower.

About that same time, the admiral’s young son, being then in the twelfth year of his age, beheld a vision. His mother had removed with him to the village of Wanstead, in Essex. Here, as he was alone in his chamber, “he was suddenly surprised with an inward comfort, and, as he thought, an external glory in his room, which gave rise to religious emotions, during which he had the strongest conviction of the being of a God, and that the soul of man was capable of enjoying communication with him. He believed, also, that the seal of Divinity had been put upon him at this moment, or that he had been awakened or called upon to a holy life.”

While William Penn the elder had been going from promotion to promotion, sailing the high seas, and fighting battles with the enemies of England, William Penn the younger had been living with all possible quietness in the green country, saying his prayers in Wanstead Church, and learning his lessons in Chigwell School.

Wanstead Church was devotedly Puritan. The chief citizens had signed a protest against any “Popish innovations,” and had agreed to punish every offender against “the true reformed Protestant religion.”

The founder of Chigwell School had prescribed in his deed of gift that the master should be “a good Poet, of a sound religion, neither Papal nor Puritan; of a good behaviour; of a sober and honest conversation; no tippler nor haunter of alehouses, no puffer of tobacco; and, above all, apt to teach and severe in his government.” Here William studied Lilly’s Latin and Cleonard’s Greek Grammar, together with “cyphering and casting-up accounts,” being a good scholar, we may guess, in the classics, but encountering the master’s “severe government” in his sums. Chigwell was as Puritan a place as Wanstead. About the time of William’s going thither, the vicar had been ejected on petition from the parishioners, who complained that he had an altar before which he bowed and cringed, and which he had been known to kiss “twice in one day.”

It is plain that religion made up a large, interesting, and important part of life in these villages in which William Penn was getting his first impressions of the world. All about were great forests, whose shadows invited him to seclusion and meditation. All the news was of great battles, most of them fought in a religious cause, which even a lad could appreciate, and towards which he would readily take an attitude of stout partisanship. The boy was deeply affected by these surroundings. “I was bred a Protestant,” he said long afterwards, “and that strictly, too.” Trained as he was in Puritan habits of introspection, he listened for the voice of God, and heard it. Thus the tone of his life was set. There were moments in his youth when “the world,” as the phrase is, attracted him; there were times in his great career when he seemed, and perhaps was, disobedient to this heavenly vision; but, looking back from the end of his life to this beginning, “as a tale that is told,” it is seen to be lived throughout in the light of the glory which shone in his room at Wanstead. William Penn from that hour was a markedly religious man. Thereafter, nothing was so manifest or eminent about him as his religion.