Penn, Gulielma Springett (1644–1694)
Penn, Gulielma Springett (1644–1694)
English Quaker, first wife of William Penn, who was a leading figure of early Quaker women's meetings in England. Name variations: Guli or Guly. Pronunciation: Goo-lee-EL-ma. Born Gulielma Maria Springett in February 1644, probably in London (the exact date and place are undocumented); died in Warminghurst, Sussex, on February 23, 1694; daughter of Sir William Springett (a lawyer) and Mary (Proude) Springett Penington; stepdaughter of Sir Isaac Penington, son of the mayor of London; married William Penn, on April 4, 1672; children: Gulielma Maria (b. 1673); William and Mary (twins, b. 1674); Springett (b. 1676); Laetitia (b. 1678); William (b. 1681); Gulielma Maria (b. 1685); and an unnamed infant (b. 1683).
Joined Quakers at age 15 with her mother and stepfather; was active in Quaker women's meetings in London, Buckinghamshire, and Sussex.
In the 1943 English film Courageous Mr. Penn, William Penn falls madly in love with the beautiful Quakeress Gulielma Springett, marries her, is nearly devastated by her early death, and dies while reading her love letters. As her final letter floats from his limp hand to the ground, a middle-aged servant named Hannah looks sadly on. This film fantasy is, of course, far from reality, for William Penn married a second time (Hannah Penn ), but historians, like filmmakers, have focused on his first marriage as the romance of his life, even though the documentary evidence for Gulielma's relationship with him is sparse.
Born in 1644, Gulielma Maria Springett was the posthumous daughter of Sir William Springett, a lawyer and a knight who died while fighting on Oliver Cromwell's side during the English Civil War. Gulielma was born a few weeks after her father's death; about ten years later, her mother Mary married Isaac Penington, Jr., the eldest son of Isaac Sr., the Puritan lord mayor of London. Both Isaac and Mary Penington thought of themselves as Seekers, searching for religious truth, and they were part of the in-gathering of like-minded people who constituted the early Quaker movement when it took hold in London in the 1650s. The family estate in Buckinghamshire served as a gathering place for Friends, overseen by Mary and Gulielma during Isaac Penington's several imprisonments, and Gulielma became a leading figure in Quaker women's meetings.
Gulielma probably met William Penn soon after he became a Quaker, in 1667; they were married five years later in proper Quaker fashion and settled at Rickmansworth, outside London. In 1677, they moved to a larger house at Warminghurst Manor in Sussex. The couple had eight children, but only three lived past infancy: Springett, William, Jr., and Laetitia Penn . Except for making one journey with her husband immediately following their marriage, Gulielma seems to have remained at Warminghurst while William Penn traveled to Germany and Holland, throughout England, and to Pennsylvania in 1682–84. After his return and a brief period of prominence as a friend of King James II, William was forced into hiding when the Glorious Revolution sent the king into exile and the government of Pennsylvania was taken over by the crown. In February 1694, just as her husband was being cleared of charges and regaining control of the colony, Gulielma died of a lengthy illness at the age of 49.
The mythologizing of Gulielma Penn began with her husband's publication of the account of her death. "I never did, to my knowledge, a wicked thing in all my life," she said on her deathbed, according to William. In the succeeding centuries, her image has remained that of a Quaker saint.
Dunn, Mary Maples, et al., eds. The Papers of William Penn. 5 vols. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981–87.
Hirsch, Alison Duncan. "A Tale of Two Wives: Myth-making and the Lives of Gulielma and Hannah Penn," in Pennsylvania History. Vol. 61. 1994, pp. 429–456.
Hodgkin, L.V. Gulielma: Wife of William Penn. London: Longmans, Green, 1947.
Majority of papers located at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; Library of the Society of Friends and Public Record Office, London.
Alison Duncan Duncan , Assistant Professor of American Studies and History, Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania