Penn, Hannah (1671–1726)

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Penn, Hannah (1671–1726)

Acting proprietor of Pennsylvania (1713–26) who successfully balanced competing interests of creditors, colonists, and crown to insure that her sons would inherit the proprietorship and that Quaker interests would be preserved in the colony. Name variations: HP. Born Hannah Callowhill in 1671 in Bristol, England; died in London in December 1726; daughter of Quakers Thomas Callowhill (a linendraper) and Hannah (Hollister) Callowhill; married William Penn (Quaker and founder of Pennsylvania), in 1696; children: John (b. 1700), Thomas (b. 1702), Hannah Margarita (b. 1703), Margaret (b. 1704), Richard (b. 1706), Dennis (b. 1707), Hannah (b. 1708).

Traveled to Pennsylvania with her husband (1699–1701); was active in Quaker women's meetings in Bristol, Berkshire, Sussex, and London; managed Pennsylvania proprietary affairs in secret for nearly six years after her husband suffered a stroke (1712), and openly for eight more years following his death (1718).

In December 1712, at the age of 41, Hannah Penn became the virtual proprietor of Pennsylvania, a position she maintained until her death in December 1726. For the first five and a half years, she managed the colony's affairs discreetly, using the proprietor's name as if she were merely conveying his instructions. William Penn, her husband of 16 years, had suffered a series of apoplectic strokes, which left him severely incapacitated, unable to speak or write clearly. After his death in July 1718, Hannah Penn was openly in charge as the guardian for her minor sons, the heirs to the proprietorship.

Born on February 11, 1671, Hannah Callowhill, Jr., was the sixth of nine children and the only one to survive to adulthood. She was named after her mother and in memory of her parents' third child, an earlier Hannah, who had died in infancy. Her father Thomas Callowhill was a buttonmaker and linendraper, or cloth merchant. Her mother Hannah Hollister Callowhill was the eldest daughter of a wealthy Bristol grocer and property-owner; the grocer and his wife, among the first Quakers in the city, had donated the land for the Quaker meetinghouse. From her parents and grandparents, Hannah Penn had a rich spiritual as well as material inheritance.

During Hannah's childhood, Bristol authorities persecuted Quakers (or Friends, as they called themselves) and sent hundreds to jail, including her father and other relatives. In 1682, so many Quakers were imprisoned that only the children were left to conduct meetings for worship, until even they were arrested. Bristol's Quaker schools were forcibly closed and the schoolmaster imprisoned when Hannah was 11, probably cutting short her formal education and leaving her with lifelong doubts about her writing competence. She was past school age when the school reopened in 1690 with Patrick Logan, and later his son James, as schoolmaster; in years to come, her friend James Logan would instruct her in Pennsylvania's proprietary affairs. Quakers believed in "instructing girls and young maidens in whatsoever things were civil and useful," and, in spite of the lack of formal education, Hannah did receive the necessary knowledge for a merchant's daughter. Her handwriting was clear and her spelling only slightly more inconsistent than that of the Oxford-educated William Penn. She also learned basic arithmetic and perhaps some simple accounting skills.

By 1689, the English government established religious toleration, and the period of Hannah's young adulthood was relatively peaceful for Quakers. The women's meeting, in which Hannah's mother was a leading member, was active in instituting poor relief, particularly for widows and children. Most of the early Bristol women's meeting records have been lost, but Hannah was probably active with her mother. (She was involved in women's meetings in Berkshire and Sussex later in life.) Quaker women's meetings were intended to give women a degree of authority separate from, but in conjunction with, the men's meeting. They were an embodiment of the Quaker heritage that upheld women's spiritual equality, the idea that, as William Penn wrote, "Sexes make no difference, since in souls there is none." Quakerism called on women and men alike to bring forth the Inner Light, the divine spark that could direct both public and private life.

Perhaps the most famous Quaker of the day was William Penn, the sole aristocrat among early Friends. A curiosity as well as a charismatic speaker, Penn drew thousands to hear him speak in town squares and open fields. When he came to Bristol on a ministering tour of the West Country in fall 1694, he was still recovering from the death of his first wife, Gulielma Penn , a few months earlier. Some Friends were scandalized when he began to court Hannah, who was less than half his age. He wrote several letters reassuring her that he loved her; she was "amiable in my eye, above many" and "my heart, from the very first, has cleaved to thee." In spite of his protestations of love, Hannah was unsure of his motivations in marrying her. She sensed some disjunction between his behavior and Quaker ideology about marriage, which held that marriage should be by mutual consent, based on "leadings" and "openings" from the Lord. Hannah had heard the gossip that William was only after her money; she feared that he believed his stature among Friends made him irresistible, and that he was forcing her into a relationship that she was not sure she wanted. She herself had planned on not marrying at all, she told him, but to dedicate herself to Quaker work. He reassured her that she could serve the Lord by marrying him: "since thou wert for liveing to the Lord, as thy Husband, thou thus marryest him in me."

After a year of such persuasion, she married him in Bristol in March 1696, and rumor had it that her parents paid a dowry of £10,000 on the condition that the couple make their married home in Bristol; if so, the money was quickly gone, for within a few years William was borrowing large sums of money. But at first he kept his part of the bargain, and for the next few years, they lived alternately at Bristol and at Warminghurst, his country estate in Sussex, with his two surviving children from his first marriage (a third, his eldest son, died a few weeks after William married Hannah, casting a pall over their early married life).

By late 1699, William had persuaded the Callowhills to allow him to take their daughter to Pennsylvania, and Hannah accompanied her husband on his second and final trip to the colony. This trip gave her firsthand knowledge of the colony and many friends there, both of which would stand her in good stead later. She gave birth to her first child, John, a month after a harrowing three-month voyage across the Atlantic. During her stay in the colony, she managed two households, a rented city house and the family estate at Pennsbury, north of Philadelphia on the Delaware River. The Penns had both European servants and African slaves (only later did Quakers oppose slavery), but managing her household was a challenge for this new mother separated from family and friends during her sojourn in what she called "this desolate land" of Pennsylvania. In addition to the usual tasks as mistress of a large household—supervising laundry, cooking, gardening, and sewing—she entertained visitors, including the governors of neighboring colonies and the chiefs of local Native American bands. When her husband became ill at Pennsbury, she conveyed his instructions to officials in Philadelphia. This pattern of alternating household tasks and affairs of state—a sort of 18th-century double shift—would continue through the rest of her life.

Although William Penn had promised colonists that he would remain in Pennsylvania, he had told the Callowhills and English Quakers that he would come back to England, and within two years the family was making the return voyage. When the Penns left Pennsylvania in 1701, colonial leaders regretted Hannah's departure as much as their proprietor's. Isaac Norris wrote: "His excellent wife as she is beloved by all … so is leaving us heavy and of real sorrow to her friends. She has … a wonderful evenness humility and freedom. Her sweetness and goodness is become her character and I believe it is extraordinary. In short we love her and she deserves it."

On their return, William resumed his lobbying activities on behalf of his colony and Quakers in England, spending most of his time in London while Hannah and their children stayed with her parents in Bristol. During his long absences, his second wife was more demanding than "sweetly consenting" Gulielma had been. In 1703, when William was in London, Hannah wrote that he was trying her "great patience," so that "I cannot with any Satisfaction endure thy absence much Longer." Throughout their courtship and marriage, William felt constrained to come to Hannah or to meet her halfway. Given William Penn's constant travels, this was an important issue. If Hannah had been intimidated at first by his self-confidence, she overcame it. Before they were married, he had a good deal of pedantic, paternalistic advice for her, about how to manage servants, about what kind of coach to drive, about what medicine to take. But she and her family had the final word about servants and the house the couple rented. Increasingly in their marriage, he came to rely on her for emotional support. The need to be together was not only on her side; he too expressed regret at his separation from "my ould & beloved bedfellow."

In addition to being an affectionate husband, William Penn was a talented politician and determined advocate, but he was not a very astute businessman. Throughout his life, he lived far beyond his means, borrowed money indiscriminately, and signed loan documents without reading them carefully. These weaknesses came to the fore in 1708 when he was imprisoned in the Fleet jail for failure to pay his debts to the heirs of his former steward, to whom he had mortgaged Pennsylvania. (He had kept the mortgage a secret from Pennsylvanians as well as from English Friends, including perhaps his own wife.) Hannah moved to London to be near her husband during his imprisonment, and her father was the largest contributor among the English Quakers who bought up the mortgage and secured William's release. When Friends in the colony, disgusted with their proprietor, refused to contribute, William Penn became so exasperated that he began to negotiate the sale of the Pennsylvania government to the crown.

Hannah returned to her parents' home in Bristol while her husband searched for a new one, and in 1709 they moved with their five surviving children—John, Thomas, Richard, Dennis, and Margaret Penn —to Ruscombe House in Berkshire, a convenient location on the road from London to Bristol. The family settled down happily in the first real home they had known together since the visit to Pennsylvania. Three years later, while still in the middle of negotiations to sell Pennsylvania's government to the crown, William suffered a series of strokes and was severely incapacitated. He eventually recovered some of his ability to walk and to speak, but continued to be unable to do any business or even to write, except for signing his name with great difficulty.

During the final years of William Penn's life, most of Hannah's time was spent caring for her invalid husband and her children. She dispatched her two eldest sons to apprenticeships, John in Bristol and Thomas in London, where they could also serve as her business agents in those two cities. With their assistance, and the help of a few selected advisors, she took on the responsibility of managing all the family affairs, including the Pennsylvania proprietorship. Initially, she expressed reservations in her own ability; she hesitated to act "for fear of mismanagement," she said, because she was "but a woman." James Logan expressed his confidence in her: "As she is blest with a strong judgement and excellent good sense to a degree uncommon to her sex, I doubt not but she will endeavour for the best and surest methods to bring all to a perfect settlement."

She learned quickly, mastering the various skills needed and demonstrating that, whatever the inadequacies in her formal education, she possessed a lively intellect. After her husband became incapacitated, she quickly absorbed the knowledge she needed to protect not only her own family's legal interests but also those of Pennsylvania Quakers. She learned enough about geography to understand the Pennsylvania-Maryland boundary dispute. She learned the rudiments of double-entry bookkeeping and used it in keeping her accounts from 1715 to 1719, when her son John took over the family books. (She dropped the double-entry method quickly, perhaps because she only needed one column: her accounts consist almost entirely of money going out, with almost nothing coming in.) She even found time to make observations of a solar eclipse, demonstrating an interest in natural science shared with her husband and with her friend James Logan.

She is blest with a strong judgement and excellent good sense.

—James Logan, proprietary secretary of Pennsylvania

Hannah continued to manage family affairs after her husband's death, as executor of William Penn's will and guardian of their children, all minors. Her initial reaction to his death was one of grief and anxiety: "Wo is me," she wrote a friend, "that I have lived to see this day of striping, this most desolate day." But as Logan commented, she now had the advantage of being able to act openly as executor and guardian. Until her own death in 1726, Hannah Penn remained involved in proprietary affairs. Although she had been afraid she might mismanage things, she came to manage quite well. During her tenure as acting proprietor, she presided over two changes of deputy governors; handled negotiations over the longstanding Pennsylvania-Maryland border controversy; resolved conflicts with the English government over laws passed in Pennsylvania; and battled in the courts with her stepson, William Penn, Jr., over the terms of William, Sr.'s will. The will was settled in her favor just weeks before she died, and her sons and grandsons remained proprietors of Pennsylvania down to the American Revolution.

Although she was never a Quaker minister or elder, as her husband had been, Hannah's letters speak of participation in Quaker activities such as collecting clothing or money for poor relief and preparing food and lodging for visiting Yearly Meeting representatives. Caring for a large household and managing a colonial proprietorship left little time for the usual Quaker activities. But Quaker values were all-important. Hannah spoke to her children of "the hapiness of silence in meetings" and of the need to keep to plain dress. She feared that her children were succumbing to the temptation of fashion instead of following her plain example. In 1717, she urged 15-year-old Thomas to make sure his hat was "tack[e]d up in a very fr[ien]d like way, for the fantasticall cocks in thine, & thy brother Johns hats, has burthened my spirritt much." Simple dress symbolized an entire way of life to her. "I have a multitude of toyls and cares," she told Thomas, "but they would be greatly middigated if I may but behold thee & thy brother, persuing hard after virtue, and leaveing as behind your backs the toyish allurements & snares of this uncertain world." (Quaker simplicity did not mean buying inexpensive goods, however; as did other well-to-do Friends, Hannah often purchased expensive fabrics in simple shades of tan or gray.)

As it had for her husband, Pennsylvania represented a merging of family interest and Quaker values. Legal documents show that Hannah personally held to the Quaker testimony against oaths, and her letters to Pennsylvanians show a concern that the colony's laws continue to be in accord with Quaker principles.

Hannah Penn may have reached the upper limits of political power for women in early 18th-century Anglo-America, with her special status as "proprietress." A product of a society that unquestioningly assumed that men were the heads of households, and therefore a family's only direct political participants, Hannah Penn never sought the position of proprietor for herself. Yet once she became the acting proprietor, she quietly but consistently asserted her authority in order to balance the competing interests involved in the colony's management. Her management preserved the family's economic and political power and insured the continuation of Quaker authority in Pennsylvania for the next three decades. What was still most important to her, in the end, was living "to the Lord." Her marriage changed the way in which she did so, but the purpose of her life remained the same.


Drinker, Sophie. Hannah Penn and the Proprietorship of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia, PA: Society of Colonial Dames, 1958.

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.

suggested reading:

Bacon, Margaret Hope. Mothers of Feminism: The Story of Quaker Women in America. San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1986.

Mack, Phyllis. Visionary Women: Ecstatic Prophecy in Seventeenth-Century England. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1992.


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

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Penn, Hannah (1671–1726)

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