William Penn

The spirit of intolerance had, in the meantime, become more rampant in the government; and in 1670, parliament passed the famous act against conventicles, by which it was attempted to crush nonconformity in England. The Quakers of course were visited with the full severity of the act; and William Penn was one of its first victims. Proceeding one day to the place of meeting, which he attended in Gracechurch Street, he found the door guarded by a party of soldiers, who prevented him from entering. Others of the congregation coming up, gathered round the door, forming, with the chance loiterers, who were attracted by curiosity, a considerable crowd. Penn began to address them; but had hardly begun his discourse when he and another Quaker named William Mead, who was standing near him, were seized by the constables, who were already provided with warrants, for the purpose, signed by the lord mayor, and conveyed to Newgate, whence they were brought to trial at the Old Bailey sessions on the 3d of September, 1670. As this trial was really very important, we shall detail the proceedings at some length. The justices present on the bench on this occasion were Sir Samuel Starling, lord mayor of London; John Howel, recorder; five aldermen and three sheriffs. The jury consisted, as usual, of twelve men, whose names deserve to be held in honor for the noble manner in which they performed their duty. When the prisoners Penn and Mead entered the court they had their hats on, according to the custom of their sect. One of the officers of the court instantly pulled them off. On this the lord mayor became furious, and ordered the man to replace the hats on the heads of the prisoners, which was no sooner done, than the recorder fined them forty marks each for contempt of court in wearing their hats in presence of the bench. The trial then proceeded. Witnesses were called to prove that, on the 15th of August last, the prisoners had addressed a meeting of between three and four hundred persons in Gracechurch Street. Penn admitted that he and his friend were present on the occasion referred to, but contended that they had met to worship God according to their own conscience, and that they had a right to do so. One of the sheriffs here observed that they were there not for worshipping God, but for breaking the law. What law?' asked Penn. The common law,' replied the recorder. Penn insisted on knowing what law that was; but was checked by the bench, who called him a saucy fellow.' The question is,' said the recorder at length, whether you are guilty of this indictment.' The question,' replied Penn, is not whether I am guilty of this indictment, but whether this indictment be , legal. It is too general and imperfect an answer to say it is the common law, unless we know where and what it is; for where there is no law, there is no transgression; and that law which is not in being, is so far from being common that it is no law at all.' Upon which the recorder retorted, You are an impertinent fellow, sir. Will you teach the court what law is? It is lex non scripta; that which many have studied thirty or forty years to know, and would you have me tell you in a moment?' Penn immediately answered, Certainly, if the common law be so hard to be understood, it is far from being very common; but if Lord Coke in his Institutes be of any consideration, he tells us that common law is common right, and that common right is the great charter privileges confirmed.' Sir,' interrupted the recorder, you are a troublesome fellow, and it is not to the honor of the court to suffer you to go on.' I have asked but one question,' said Penn, and you have not answered me, though the rights and privileges of every Englishman are concerned in it.' If,' said the recorder, I should suffer you to ask questions till to-morrow morning, you would be never the wiser.' That,' replied the imperturbable Penn, is according as the answers are.' After some further conversation, or rather altercation, the mayor and recorder became enraged. Take him away, take him away,' they cried to the officers of the court; turn him into the bale dock.' This order was obeyed, Penn protesting as he was removed, that it was contrary to all law for the judge to deliver the charge to the jury in the absence of the prisoners. But now a second contest commenced - a contest between the bench and the jury. The latter, after being sent out of court to agree upon their verdict, unanimously returned the following one - ' Guilty of speaking in Gracechurch Street.' The bench refused to receive this verdict; and after reproaching the jury, sent them back for half an hour to reconsider it. At the end of the half hour the court again met, and the prisoners having been brought in, the jury delivered precisely the same verdict as before, only this time they gave it in writing, with all their names attached. The court upon this became furious; and the recorder addressing the jury, said, Gentlemen, you shall not be dismissed until we have such a verdict as the court will accept; and you shall be locked up without meat, drink, fire, and tobacco. you shall not think thus to abuse the court; we will have a verdict by the help of God, or you shall starve for it!' On this Penn stood up and said: My jury, who are my judges, ought not to be thus menaced; their verdict should be free, and not compelled; the bench ought to wait upon them and not to forestall them.