William Penn Speech

This is how a jury confirms civil rights.

WILLIAM PENN — (1644-1718)

In 1670 William Penn and his fellow-Quaker, William Mead were arrested on the charge  that “he the said Penn, abetted by the said Mead  did take upon himself to speak and preach upon the streets” of London without permission. At their trial before the Mayor, Samuel Starling, and the recorder Penn attempted to defend himself by summing up the inalienable rights of Englishmen. He was repeatedly interrupted, the mayor finally saying, “Stop his mouth jailer. Bring fetters and stake him to the ground.” 

Penn afterwards published the speech he would have made if allowed to proceed. 

The jury were instructed by the mayor to convict. And when, disregarding the instructions, they acquitted Penn and Mead, each juryman was fined forty marks for contempt. Penn’s speech shows he had a most remarkable intellect.


He was born at London, October 14 1644, and educated at Oxford, where he acquired the learning he shows in this address. His connection with the Quakers began in 1688. The grant of Pennsylvania was made to him in 1681, and except when he was deprived of it for a short time ( from 1692-1694) the control of that colony remained with him until his death, July 30 1718.  His works were collected and published in 1726, but as they are largely controversial they are seldom read, and he has almost ceased to be suspected of the ability shown in the construction of the Old Bailey Address.


We have lived to an age so debauched of all humanity and reason as well as faith and religion that some stick not to turn themselves to their own privileges and conspirators against their own liberties. For however Magna Charta had once the reputation of sacred unalterable law, and few were hardened enough to incur and bear the  long curse that attends the violations of it, yet it is frequently objected now , that the benefits there designed are but temporary, and therefore liable to alteration as other statutes are. What game such persons play at may be read in the attempts of Dionysius, Phalaris, etc, which would have will and power to be the peoples law.

But that the privileges due to Englishmen, by the Great Charter of England , have their foundations in reason and law; and those of the new Cassandrian ways to introduce will and power deserve to be detested by all persons professing sense and honesty, and the least allegiance to our English Government. We shall make appear from a sober consideration of the nature of those privileges contained in that Charter.

  1. The ground of alteration of any law in government (where there is no invasion) should arise from the universal discommodity of its continuance, but there can be no profit in  the discontinuance of liberty and property, therefore there can be no just ground for alteration.
  2. No one Englishman is born slave to another, neither has one the right to inherit the sweat and benefit of the other’s labour, without consent; therefore the liberty and property of an Englishman cannot reasonably be at the will and beck of another, let his quality and rank be never so great.
  3. There can be nothing more unreasonable than that which is partial, but to take away the liberty and property of any, which are natural rights, without breaking the law of nature (and not of will and power) is manifestly partial and therefore unreasonable.
  4. If it be just and reasonable for men to do as they would be done by, then no sort of man should invade the liberties and properties of other men, because they would not be served so themselves.
  5. Where liberty and property are destroyed there must always be a state of force and war, which however pleasing it may be unto the invaders, will be esteemed intolerable by the invaded, who will no longer remain subject in all human probability that while they want as much power to free themselves as their adversaries had to enslave them; the troubles, hazards, ill consequences and illegality of such attempts as have by the most prudent in all ages, so have they proved most uneasy to the most savage of all nations, who first or last by a mighty torrent freed themselves. To the due punishment and and great infamy of their oppressors; such being the advantage , such the disadvantage which necessarily do attend the fixation and removal of liberty and property.

We shall proceed to make it appear that Magna Charta  (as recited by us) imports nothing less than their preservations:–

Magna Carta 1297 Statute

Clause 29: [29] No Freeman shall be taken, or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any otherwise destroyed; nor will we pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful Judgment of his Peers, (or by the Law of the Land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right. )

Clause 14: [14] A Freeman shall not be amerced for a small fault, but after the manner of the fault; and for a great fault after the greatness thereof, And none of the said amerciaments shall be assessed, but by the oath of honest and lawful men of the vicinage.

  1. It asserts Englishmen to be free.
  2. That they have freeholds; that’s property.
  3. That amerciaments or penalties should be proportioned to the faults committed, that’s equity.
  4. That they shall lose neither , but when they are aadjudged to have forfeited them , in the judgment of their honest  neighbours, according to the law of the land, which is lawful judgment.

It is easy to discern to what pass the enemies of the Great Charter would bring the people.

  1. They are now freemen: but they would have them slaves.
  2. They have now right unto their wives , children and estates , as their undoubted property but they would rob them of all.
  3. Now no man is to be amerced or punished but suitably to his fault; whilst they would make it suitable to their revengeful minds.
  4. Whereas the power of judgment lies in the breasts and consciences of twelve honest neighbours, they would have it at the discretion of mercenary judges. To which we cannot choose, but that such discourses strike at this present constitution of government; for it being founded upon the Great Charter, which is the ancient common law of the land, as upon its best foundation, none can design the canceling of the charter, but they must necessarily intend the extirpation of English Government; for where the cause is taken away the effect must consequentially cease.  And as the restoration of the Ancient English laws, by the Great Charter, was the sovereign balsam which cured our former breaches. So doubtless will the continuation of it prove an excellent prevention of any future disturbances.

But some are ready to object that “The Great Charter consisting as well of religious as civil rights, the former having received an alteration, there is the same reason why the latter should have the like”.

To which we answer that the reason of alteration cannot be the same; therefore the consequence is false. The one being a matter of opinion, about faith and religious worship, which is as various as the unconstant apprehensions of men; but the other is a matter of so immutable rights and justice, that all generations, however differing in their religious opinions, have concentrated and agreed to the certainty, equity, indispensable necessity of of preserving these fundamental laws; so that Magna Charta  hath not risen and fallen with the differing religious opinions that have been in this land, but have ever remained the stable right of every individual Englishman, purely as an Englishman. Otherwise if the civil privileges of  the people had fallen with the pretended privileges of the popish tyranny, at the first reformation, so must needs be suggested by this objection, our case had ended here, that we had obtained a spiritual freedom, at the cost of a civil bondage; which certainly was far from the intention of the first reformers, and probably an unseen consequence, by the objectors to their idle opinion.

In short, there is no time in which any man may plead the necessity of such an action as is unjust in its own nature, which he must unavoidably be guilty of, that doth deface or cancel that law by which justice of liberty and property is conformed and maintained to the people. And consequently, no person may legally attempt the subversion or extenuation of the force of the Great Charter. We shall proceed to prove from instances of both.

  1. Any judgment given contrary to the said charter is to undone and holden for none: 25 Edward 1 Chap ii
  2. Any that by word, deed or counsel ,go contrary to the Charter are to be excommunicated by the bishops; and the Archbishops of Canterbury and York are bound to compel the other bishops to denounce sentence accordingly., in case of their remises or neglect, which certainly hath relation to the State rather than the Church, since there was never any necessity of compelling the bishops to denounce sentence in their own case, though frequently in the peoples. 25th Edward 1 Ch 4.
  3. That the Great Charter and Charter of the Forest be holden and kept in all points , and if any statute be made to the contrary, it shall be holden for naught: 42nd Edward III Chap 1.  Upon which Coke, that famous English lawyer said:
    “Albeit judgments in the King’s courts are of high regard in law,  and judicia are accounted as juris dicta  yet it is provided by Act of Parliament that if any judgment be given contrary to any of the points of the Great Charter it should be holden for naught.”

    He further said:–

    ”That upon the Statute of the 25th of Edward 1, Chap I, that this Great Charter  and the Charter of the forest are properly the common law of the land, or law in common to all the people thereof.”
  4. Another statute runs this:–
    ” If any force come to disturb the execution of the common law, ye shall cause their bodies to be arrested and put in prison; ye shall deny no man right by the King’s letters, nor counsel the King anything that may turn to his damage or disherison. 18th Edward III Chap Vii. Neither to delay right by the Great and Little Seal.  This is the judges charge and oath. 2nd Edward III Chap viii; 14 Edward III Chap xiv; 11th Richard II Chap x.

Such care hath been taken for the preservation of the Great Charter that in the 25th Edward I it was enacted:
” That commissioners should issue forth that there should be chosen in every shire court, by the commonalty of the same shire, three substantial men, knights or other well disposed persons to be justices  which shall be assigned by the King’s letters patent, under the Great Seal, to hear and determine without any other writ, but only their commission, such plaints as shall be made upon those that commit or offend against any point contained in the aforesaid charters.  28th Edward I Chap i….

So heinous a thing was it esteemed of old to endeavour an enervation or subversion of these ancient rights and privileges, that Acts of Parliament themselves (otherwise the most sacred of the people) have not been of force enough to secure or defend such persons from condign punishment, who, in pursuance of them , have acted inconsistent with our Great Charter.

Therefore, it is that great lawyer, the Lord Coke doth once more aggravate the example of Empson and Dudley (with persons of the same rank) into a just caution, as well to Parliament as judges, justices, and inferior magistrates  to decline making or executing any act that may in the least seem to restringe or confirm this so often avowed and confirmed Great Charter of the Liberties of England, since Parliaments are said to err when they cross it; the obeyors of their acts punished as time-serving transgressors, and that kings themselves (though enriched by those courses) have with great compunction and repentrance left among their dying words their recantation.

Therefore most notable and true it was, with which which we shall conclude this present subject, what the King pleased to observe  in the speech to Parliament in 1662, namely: “ The good old rules of law are our best security.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

One thought on “William Penn Speech”