Friday, July 23, 2010

Men Behaving Boldly: William Penn & Charles II

Friday, July 23, 2010
Susan reports:

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."

Crisis averted!

Above: William Penn, copy of a portrait by Sir Peter Lely
Below: Charles II, by James Wright

13 comments:

Eliza Martin said...

That has to be one of the best stories I've ever heard on Charles II. I love witty monarchs.

Polly said...

What an excellent story! Can you imagine what Henry the Eighth would have done to poor William Penn??

Lady Burgley said...

I don't care if the tale's apocryphal or not. It's fabulous. What a shame that more kings (and presidents) don't possess Charles's talent for defusing a delicate situation with a little self-deprecatory wit.

Jane O said...

I have always loved that story about Charles II. He seems to have been the only English king with a sense of humor.

But that portrait of Penn must be a pretty poor copy. Surely Lely was better than that!

Danielle Thorne said...

What a fantastic story. Thank you so much!

Felicity Flower said...

While I can admire William Penn being so eager to stand up for his religious beliefs, this does seem as if he's making his statement for statement's sake. True young man's high-risk folly. He's fortunate the king took it so well. No wonder the admiral was in despair!

Susan Holloway Scott said...

I love this story, too. It really does show the best side of Charles, and I agree, it's a shame more world leaders can't realize that a bit of humor can go a long way.

I also agree, Felicity Flower, that this story shows William Penn full of the brave idealism that, while not entirely wise, will in time serve him better. But oh, how I do sympathize with his father! The poor admiral must have thought his son had clearly gone off the deep end.

Jane O, yes, that's a pretty awful portrait of Penn. The caption says it's an 18th c. copy of a Lely portrait, and the pursey rosebud lips are particularly, um, strange. But I was looking for a portrait of him as a young, impulsive man, not the older one we know much better, and that was all I could find on the 'net.

Finegan Antiques said...

I wonder if this a true story. Its quite a tale. Can you imagine the tension in that room when the two men basically faced off. Sort of like an old time Western gunfight.
Charles must have been in a really good mood that day.

Donna

Monique said...

I love Charles II. The book by Antonia Fraser is excellent! :)

Jean-François de Buren said...

Wonderful Story.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Donna, yes, I can easily imagine the tension in that room! Also the collective gasps and eye-rolling as all those courtiers waited to see what the king would do. The whole scene would have made for great 17th c. twitter-gossip, wouldn't it? *g*

Monique, how can you NOT love Charles? (Gosh, must be why he's appeared in every one of my historical novels.) As kings go, he's quite unique. Not perfect as a ruler, but very charming, and charm is rare in kings. I love the Fraser bio, too. It's considered "old scholarship" now, but I still like it much better than the new Uglow bio from last year. Fraser seems to have a much better grasp of what made Charles tick as a man.

Shannon said...

Ahh, wit. There should be more of it.

Anonymous said...

One of Charles' mistresses had a sense of humor too. During a period of anti-Catholic sentiment in his reign, an angry mob surrounded a coach, thinking it to contain one of his Catholic mistress, shouting "Papist whore!", etc. In fact, the occupant was Nell Gwynn, who stuck her head out of the coach crying, "Pray good people, be civil, for I am the Protestant whore!" The crowd cheered, and sent her on her way.

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