Here in Pennsylvania where I live, William Penn (1644-1718) is a venerable figure. As the founder of the state, he is usually portrayed as a Quaker elder, wise, peace-loving, considerate, and just: everything a leader should be.
But that all came later, after 1682 and after he received the sizable grant of land that he would help colonize. The younger William Penn was the despair of his father, a career naval officer and administrator. To Admiral Penn, William was a rebellious idealist who stubbornly refused to take advantage of the family's connections at the court of the newly-crowned Charles II. Instead William chose to follow his own course, including becoming a member of the Society of Friends. The Friends – Quakers to the rest of the world – held many beliefs that infuriated the Admiral; most disturbing was the Friend's insistence that God had created all men equal, and that the concept of absolute monarchy (that kings had been determined directly by God) was rubbish. Friends did not curtsy or bow or remove their hats before their betters, because no one was better than anyone else. This was not only heresy to Anglican Englishmen like the Admiral, but also came perilously close to treason. Yet William was determined in his new faith, and refused to be shaken from it, eventually becoming one of its leaders.
Charles II, the king that William refused to acknowledge, was not a monarch who enjoyed public displays of conflict. Unlike many other rulers, Charles never indulged in petty tyranny or intemperate rages simply because he was king and everybody else wasn't. He saved his anger for important battles (like those with Parliament), and instead led his day-to-day life with mild and gentlemanly manners.
All of which makes the following, often-repeated story more fascinating. It may be apocryphal, but it rings so true to the characters of the two men that there must surely be more than a kernel of truth to it. This version comes by way of Royal Charles by Antonia Fraser.
One day Charles entered a crowded chamber in Whitehall Palace. As was the custom, every lady curtsied and every gentleman bowed and removed his hat. Except for one: William Penn, the Admiral's embarrassing Quaker son. Determined to make his point for his faith, William remained upstanding, his hat firmly on his head.
Charles stopped before him, pointedly taking note of what could be considered treasonous defiance, and could, too, be rewarded with quick trip to the Tower.
Then the king slowly removed his own hat. This was not what anyone expected, including William himself.
"Friend Charles," William said, with even more daring. "Why dost thou not keep on thy hat?"
Unperturbed, the king answered. "Because it is the custom of this place that only one man should remain uncovered at a time."
Above: William Penn, copy of a portrait by Sir Peter Lely Below: Charles II, by James Wright
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.