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William Penn and the Blue Idol

The Blue Idol

William Penn is among Horsham’s most notable historical characters

He is certainly the only former resident to have founded an American state, and if it is true that Penn was the inspiration for the Quaker Oats cereal box, well that’s something to boast about too. We’ll talk about Pennsylvania later. We’ll also talk about his imprisonment, his expulsion from Oxford, the impact he would have on religion in England, the historic documents he would draw up at Warminghurst and his long association with The Blue Idol at Coolham. But we’ll start with some background material...

The 17th century saw significant social and religious change

We had executed our King, Charles I, for treason, and there was great unrest as Oliver Cromwell became the country’s first Lord Protector. During this time, a man called George Fox toured England preaching a simpler, more reflective faith, still within the Christian family, but outside the Church of England, which he believed was corrupt. He rapidly built up a following known as the Society of Friends. In March 1655, he held a meeting in Steyning and  recorded in his journal that he ‘journeyed into Sussex and came to a Lodge near Horsham’.  He would end up staying longer than anticipated - in April he was imprisoned in Horsham Gaol for three months. That same year, the Baptist Matthew Caffyn debated with Fox in Bryan Wilkinson’s house, Sedgwick Lodge.

The Society of Friends didn’t make many friends, particularly at other churches

The Society was renowned for attending local churches and disrupting services. Before the people had time to leave, they would evangelise to the congregation. Thomas Leycock attacked John Chatfield, the Horsham  Minister "before he was come out of the pulpit and poynting to him sayd Thou lyar and that he was a ravening wolfe in sheepes cloathing". A judge used the term ‘Quaker’ as a term of abuse for the Society of Friends and that is what they came to be known as. Some believe the term relates to Fox’s injunction to ‘quake at the Word of the Lord’. Either way, Quakers would hold open air meetings, waiting for a member to speak when they felt the need to do so - a form of worship that they continue to this day.

Despite their reputation, Quakers were relatively strict Christians

They refused to bow or take off their hats to social superiors, believing all men equal under God, and they also refused to swear oaths of loyalty to the King. Quakers followed the command of Jesus not to swear, reported in the Gospel of Matthew, 5:34. Chris Knott, a current member of the Blue Idol Meeting Group, says: “Our form of worship is peaceful, so we sit in silence and we only speak when we feel led to speak. We can and do sit here for
an hour in silence. If I stand up and speak I feel it’s something that I have to do, and I call it a prompting. Quakers believe there is ‘that of God’ in us all and for me it’s the ‘that of God’ element that brings me to my feet. There
is no structure to the meetings. It is very peaceful and our basic beliefs around peace, equality and simplicity
appeal to some people. It works for some and not for others.”

Back in the 17th Century, such beliefs could get you in hot water

In 1656, the Quaker Thomas Leycock was imprisoned in Horsham, but Major-General Geoff reported that people flocked to see him. He distributed copies of a Quaker book, before he attacked the local gentry on the Bench at
his trial. The local JPs often used the law to keep in goal Quakers whose influence threatened the social and religious stability of the shire. One famous local Baptist was Matthew Caffyn who preached in 1656 a sermon called 'the deceived and the deceiving Quakers discovered'.

Quakers were filling up the local gaol

In 1662, Ambrose Rigge was sent to Horsham goal and would stay there for ten years and four months for refusing to take the oath of allegiance, with the monarchy now re-established under the reign of Charles II. A prolific author, he published pamphlets from his prison cell and even married a fellow inmate, Mary Luxford, in 1664. During his imprisonment, a certain William Penn distributed some of Ambrose’s pamphlets in Ireland.

William Penn’s dad was a much admired man

 As the son of an Admiral, Penn was in so many ways an ‘establishment’ figure. After the death of Oliver Cromwell, Admiral Penn was sent on a secret mission to bring back the exiled Prince Charles. For his role in restoring the monarchy, the Admiral; was knighted and gained a powerful position as Commissioner of the Navy. He had high hopes for his son, William, who was sent to Oxford University. There, he found that the student body was a volatile mix of Cavaliers, Puritans, and Quakers. Because of his father’s high position and social status, young Penn was firmly a Cavalier but his sympathies lay with the persecuted Quakers. When William was 15, his family had become friends with Thomas Loe, a Quaker missionary, and he had left an impression on young Penn.

What followed was a classic case of youth rebellion

Now under favour of the King, The Admiral had great hopes for his son’s career. But at Oxford, when the Dean was fired for his free-thinking, Penn and other open-minded students rallied to his side. Penn was reprimanded, and the despairing Admiral pulled his son away from the University, sending him back to a school which imposed stricter religious requirements including daily chapel attendance. Penn rebelled against enforced worship and was expelled. His father, in a rage, attacked young Penn with a cane. The Admiral’s career was being threatened by their son’s behaviour, so at 18, young Penn was sent to Paris to get him out of view and improve his manners.

The Prodigal son returned a different man

Penn presented to his parents a mature, sophisticated gentleman and enrolled in law school, before joining his
father at sea for a time. Their relationship improved. In 1665, London was gripped by the plague, and Penn observed how Quakers on errands of mercy were arrested by the police and demonized by other religions, even accused of causing the plague. He was sent to Ireland in 1666 to manage the family landholdings, but during his time away King Charles further tightened restrictions against all religious sects other than the Anglican Church. The Quakers were especially targeted and their meetings were deemed as criminal.

But that was not to put off Penn

A chance second meeting with Thomas Loe confirmed Penn’s attraction to the Quakers, and a short time later he was arrested for attending meetings. Rather than state that he was not a Quaker to dodge any charges, he publicly declared himself a member at the age of 22. His family’s rank meant he was quickly released, and was immediately recalled to London by his father. The Admiral was severely distressed by his son’s actions and took the conversion as a personal affront. He felt he had no option but to order his son out of the house and to withhold his inheritance. Penn became homeless and began to live with Quaker families.

During these times many new sects besides Quakers were founded

There were the Seekers, Ranters, Antinomians, Soul Sleepers, Adamites, Diggers, Levellers, Antibaptists, Behmenists, Muggletonians, and many others. The King responded with harassment and persecution of all religions and sects other than Anglicanism. Penn became the first theorist and legal defender of Quakerism but it was his branding of the Catholic Church as "the Whore of Babylon" and Puritans as "hypocrites and revelers in God" that really got him into hot water. The Bishop of London ordered that Penn be held indefinitely in solitary confinement in an unheated cell until he publicly recanted his written statements. Threatened with a life sentence, he responded "My prison shall be my grave before I will budge a jot: for I owe my conscience to no mortal man.” He was released after eight months of imprisonment and his religious views effectively exiled him from high society.

But he proved to be a resilient character

He was arrested again in 1670, but the jury found him ‘not guilty’. When the judge asked them to reconsider their verdict, the jury refused and were sent to a cell over several nights to mull over their decision. The Lord Mayor sent Penn to Newgate Prison and the full jury followed him! The members of the jury fought their case from prison in what became known as Bushel's Case, and managed to win the right for all English juries to be free from the control of judges. This case shaped the future concept of American freedom.

The Admiral respected the integrity of his son

But he knew that after his death, young Penn would become more vulnerable. His own personal favour with the King could not save William after he was gone. So, in an act which would not only secure his son’s protection but
also set the conditions for the founding of Pennsylvania, the Admiral wrote to the Duke of York, the successor to the throne. Following Admiral Penn’s death, William did indeed inherit his fortune and, following another stint in jail, wrote to the King with a solution to the problem of continuous religious turmoil. He planned a mass emigration of English Quakers. In 1677, a group of prominent Quakers that included Penn purchased the colonial province of West Jersey, half of the current state of New Jersey, and in 1682, they bought East Jersey too.

In 1682, Penn set sail for America

He was aboard a ship called ‘Welcome’ with around 100 ‘Friends’ including at least 16 from the Billingshurst area. It would be a place where they could escape persecution at home. Warminghurst Place had by now become a centre for Quaker activity, with famous visitors such as George Fox and Robert Barclay visiting Penn’s home. On the 12th July 1677, a huge open air meeting was held there attracting several hundred people. It was here that Penn drafted a constitution with Algernon Sydney for their new state. This would eventually form the basis of the Constitution of the United States. As legacies go, it’s not bad. 

Penn first called the area New Wales

But then he thought about Sylvania, which is Latin for ‘forests’ or ‘woods'. It was King Charles II who changed it to Pennsylvania in 1681, in honour of Admiral Penn. The King, surprisingly, granted Penn more land west of New
Jersey and north of Maryland to make Penn the world’s largest private non-Royal landowner, with over 45,000 square miles to his name, and he gained sovereign rule of the territory. In return, the Crown was freed of a debt to Admiral Penn of £16,000. To attract settlers in large numbers, he wrote a glowing prospectus, and within six months assigned 300,000 acres to about 250 prospective settlers.

Penn returned to Warminghurst two years later 

He spent the following years writing and promoting his faith. In 1691, he helped set up a Quaker meeting house attached to a farmhouse in OldhouseLane, Coolham. The building today is known as ‘The Blue Idol’. In 1693, Penn received assurances from the King that he could preach without persecution so he became an itinerant preacher and an author. In 1696, he remarried and brought his second wife to Warmnghurst Place. Penn sold his estate in 1707 and today nothing exists of the house, as the purchaser, James Butler, was determined ‘not to leave a trace of the old Quaker’.

But the Blue Idol is still going strong

The Blue Idol Group meets every Sunday and infrequently have other meetings too. In terms of numbers, there are about 30-40 members, with typical attendance around 20 people. The meeting lasts for an hour. Chris Knott,
co-clerk for the Blue Idol group, said: “I’m personally very proud to be a Quaker. It has a wonderful history and the values really matter to me. I wasn’t born a Quaker, I became one in my thirties and I’m nearly 70 now. I went to my first meeting at University as one of our lecturers, a social historian, was a Quaker. When I married, my husband had a Pentecostal background and I had a Church of England background and we wanted to try something different, so we thought we would try a Quaker meeting.”

There are other Quaker groups in the area

In addition to the Blue Idol group, there is a Horsham Quaker group too, and they meet in Worthing Road. Other Quaker groups exist in Ifield, Capel, Dorking, Reigate, Oxted and at Claridge House near East Grinstead. The Blue Idol was initially a farm house called Little Slatters but has been used by the Quakers since 1691. The building is owned by the Quakers, but Allan and Pauline Cook, who are not members of the group, are wardens of the Blue Idol. They are employed by the Quakers to look after the building and grounds. Chris said: “I think this building shows what we are about. It is simple but has integrity.”

Just occasionally, people are married at the Blue idol

Chris said: “A Quaker marriage will be a meeting in silence but of ourse, the couple have to go through the vows. We say ‘In the presence of God and these our Friends, I take thee to be my wife or husband, promising with Divine assistance to be unto thee a loving and faithful wife or husband as long as we both shall live.” They are not held here very often but we did have two last year. That was a bit of a miracle, as before then we hadn’t held a wedding for years. Everybody ho attends signs a wedding certificate. We have one framed on the wall which
has William Penn’s signature.” 

The Quakers can still cause a stir

“The latest issue to come up concerning marriage is same sex marriage,” said Chris. “Quakers are at the forefront of that. We are pushing for same sex marriages to be celebrated in a religious setting. The issue has been around
for years amongst Quakers and you have to wait until members feel it is the right thing to do. We don’t vote – we agree. We find, in religious terms, the will of God. So the will of God amongst Quakers at the moment is that there should be same sex marriages. I think one or two have felt they couldn’t go along with that, but mostly Quakers can as it is basic equality.” 

Lots of people do not know the Blue Idol exists

The Quakers host an open week in October and welcomes new members. Chris said: “I think dwindling numbers is a major concern for most non-evangelical Christian groups. We are pretty buoyant to say the meeting house is in the back of nowhere. Lots of people do not know we are here. We get people who say ‘I’ve driven by that sign for years and didn’t know what it was’. I don’t think Quakers, as aSociety, are very good at promoting our ideas and marketing ourselves. But if you wanted to talk to us we are here.”

There is an issue with the roof

It is leaking. Having been patched up over the years, the Trustees felt it was time permanent repairs were made. English Heritage was willing to provide £47,000, but the estimate for the project was £152,000, meaning that the Quakers had to raise the rest. Chris said: “We have been in fundraising mode and have just about done it. The response to the campaign has been very humbling. We sent a leaflet out to all of the Quakers, and as individuals they have donated to the cause. We set up the Blue idol Runners and we raised quite a bit through that too. We are nearly there, and we will get a new roof. There are some issues with the far wall as it’s a bit rocky. William Penn took the beams out to make it a two story room and 300 years ago that’s causing a problem!”

Don’t mention the bats…

The Quaker meeting room is decorated with bats drawn by children from the William Penn School in Coolham village. Two groups of protected bats reside in the Blue Idol and the roof work cannot be carried out until they have moved on.

William Penn is gone, but not forgotten

The Blue Idol has its own William Penn Memorial Garden, with information about his life. There are also many
letters and information boards about his life in a small barn in the front garden. The Quakers there are linked to the Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting and Quakers from America have visited the Blue Idol. Chris said: “We’ve even had people come in with the name Penn, from America and Britain, wanting to find out more about the family history.” 

William Penn died penniless in 1718.

He died at his home in Berkshire and was buried in an unmarked grave next to his first wife in the cemetery of the Jordans Quaker meeting house near Chalfont St Giles. Horsham Museum  does though have a  couple of works by William Penn in its collection. 

AAH would like to thank Jeremy Knight and the staff of Horsham Museum and Art Gallery for providing historial information on William Penn, Quakers and Religion in the 17th Century. We also thank Chris Knott, Allan and Pauline Cook for their time and patience!

A room dedicated to Quakers and William Penn
The Quakers Meeting Room
Allan and Pauline Cook
Chris Knott of the Blue Idol Quakers

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