Hannah Callowhill Penn saved Pennsylvania and, perhaps, doing that, she also rescued our fledgling nation from royal domination.
So said Douglas Miller, site administrator of Pennsbury Manor, the now reconstructed American home of William Penn and his brilliant second wife.
Miller spoke to a gathering of about 100 at a Lunch & Learn lecture at Graeme Park on County Line Road in Horsham. Keith House at Graeme Park was the country home of Sir William Keith, Penn’s provincial governor.
Obviously a fan of the woman who actually ran the colony from England after her husband suffered a series of strokes, Miller said Hannah’s intellect matched William’s but her business sense far outstripped his. “He chose wisely,” Miller said.
In an hour-long talk peppered with 21st-century slang and humor, Miller sang the praises of the second Mrs. Penn.
Penn’s selection of wives showed the wisdom of age. His first wife, Gulielma, died in 1694 after bearing two children, Letitia and William Jr. Miller described her as “a very beautiful woman, “the Victoria’s Secret of the 1670s.” Today, she might be considered a trophy wife.
Two years after Gulielma’s death, Penn married Hannah, the daughter of a wealthy Bristol (England) merchant, who recognized her abilities, even in childhood, educated her well above the norm for women of the day and taught her about business.
Hannah was 27 years younger than William. Before her marriage she had worked for social causes, helping the poor and assisting her father in his business.
She and William had seven children and she was, in fact, pregnant during her three-month journey to America aboard the little wooden ship, Welcome, with Penn and Letitia. (William Jr. ,whom Miller said was “not cut from the same cloth” as his father, remained in England.)
The sea-tossed baby, born in Philadelphia, was John, the only one of Penn’s children born in America. After a short stay with fellow Quakers in Philadelphia, the little family moved to Pennsbury Manor, Penn’s country estate in Lower Bucks.
Hannah took over the management of the huge estate but the family only stayed for about a year before they had to return to England because of political intrigue.
While Penn had negotiated the settlement of King Charles I’s debt to his father, Admiral Sir William Penn, acquiring the land that was to become Pennsylvania, the next king, the extravagant Charles II, cast a greedy eye toward land in the New World. Miller called him “The King of Bling.” Relations between king and subject were not cordial.
Penn’s last years were troubled. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London after he had been cheated by an associate and could not pay his debts. He later suffered a series of strokes before his death in 1718. All during his illness, it was Hannah who was dealing with his agents, the men governing Pennsylvania. Letters written by Hannah and Penn’s deputies concerning the government constantly crossed the ocean.
Some men were honest, some acted in their own interests. James Logan, Penn’s longtime secretary was a good and loyal friend, but Hannah actually fired Sir William Keith, the first provincial governor and ironically the man who built Keith House at the Horsham estate later named Graeme Park.
Penn left his colony to Hannah and their three surviving sons, John, Thomas and Richard. That caused a bitter dispute between Hannah and her stepson, William, and his son, who contested the will, but Hannah prevailed.
Through her constant in absentia management she maintained good relations with the Lenni Lenape tribes Penn had befriended.
Miller said, “After Penn died they sent her a fur robe trimmed with feathers to comfort her.” She calmed and resolved boundary disputes with Maryland and Delaware. She made sure Penn’s vision of government promising freedom of worship and safeguarding the traditional rights of Englishmen was preserved. And she saved the colony from being sold to the crown.
“Imagine what would have happened if Pennsylvania had become a royal colony,” said Miller. “She was governor in function, Pennsylvania’s first and only female governor. Her story is every bit as compelling and as interesting as William’s.”