PENN, William (1621-70), of the Navy Office, London and Wanstead, Essex.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1660-1690, ed. B.D. Henning, 1983
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1661 - 16 Sept. 1670

Family and Education

bap. 23 Apr. 1621, 2nd s. of Giles Penn. merchant, of Bristol by Joan Gilbert of Som. m. 6 Jan. 1644, Margaret, da. of Hans Jasper of Rotterdam, Holland, wid. of Nicasious van der Schuren of Kilconry, co. Clare, 2s. 1da. Kntd. 9 June 1660.1

Offices Held

Capt. (parliamentary navy) 1642-4, rear-adm. [I] 1644-8, v.-adm. [I] 1648-50; c.-in-c. southern fleet 1650-2; v.-adm. 1652; gen. of the fleet 1653-4; c.-in-c. W. Indies fleet 1654-5; gov. of Kinsale [I] Aug. 1660-9; capt. of ft. [I] by Nov. 1660-9; great capt.-cdr. to the Duke of York. 1665.2

Freeman, Portsmouth 1646, 1653, 1662, Bristol Mar. 1660; j.p. Essex., Mdx. and Surr. 1654-5, Essex, Hants, Kent and Mdx. July 1660-d.; member of council and v.-adm. Munster [I] Aug. 1660-d; commr. for oyer and terminer, Norfolk circuit 1661.3

Commr. for Admiralty 1653-5, Mar.-July 1660, navy July 1660-9; elder bro. Trinity House Nov. 1660-d., master 1667-8; comptroller of victualling 1667-9.


Penn’s grandfather was forced to sell his small estate in Wiltshire, and his father became a merchant, serving as consul in Morocco before the Civil War. Penn himself was apprenticed in 1638 to (Sir) William Batten, under whom he served in the parliamentary navy. When Batten went over to the Royalists in 1648, Penn came under suspicion; but he was quickly reinstated in the Irish fleet. Clarendon asserts that he offered his services to Charles II in 1655, when in command of the West Indies fleet, but it is doubtful whether his royalism took him beyond drinking the King’s health in private. He was knighted by Henry Cromwell in 1658 in Ireland, where he held an estate in right of his wife. In 1659 he crossed over to England, and offered his services to the Rump, which were refused, though George Monck undertook to support his application. Penn was unsuccessful in his approaches to Bristol and Rye for the honour of representing them in the Convention. Monck, however, not only secured his election for Weymouth, but gave him the opportunity of performing conspicuous service in the Restoration by entrusting to him the getting to sea of the fleet which under Edward Montagu I was to bring Charles II over from Holland. Of the three professional seamen of flag rank who transferred their services from the Commonwealth to the monarchy at the Restoration, according to Clarendon, ‘Penn, with much the worst understanding, had a great mind to appear better bred and to speak like a gentleman’; nevertheless, in the presence of real gentlemen, even one so ill-educated as Sir George Carteret, he found himself longing for ‘a grain or two’ of the self-confidence of the tailor’s son, Samuel Pepys. Penn was named to two committees in the Convention, those to consider the public debt and the rules for disbandment.4

With the aid of a letter of recommendation from the Duke of York Penn was re-elected in his absence at the general election of 1661, being proposed by his erstwhile colleague, Henry Waltham. Although with Batten he was the only professional seaman in the Cavalier Parliament, he was inactive, even allowing for his absences on duty, his visits to his Irish estates and his frequent crippling attacks of gout. His four committees comprised that to provide carriage for the navy and ordnance in 1662, and in 1664 one to give further powers to the navy board, another on the Wey navigation, and a third on the conventicles bill. Listed as a court dependant, he voted for the repeal of the Triennial Act only out of respect for the King’s wishes. He never acted as a government spokesman, though possessing some of the qualifications. ‘He had got many good words, which he used at a venture. He was a formal man, and spoke very leisurely but much, and left the matter more intricate and perplexed than he found [it].’ Penn served as chief of staff to the Duke of York in the 1665 campaign, putting his commander under obligations that he was never able to repay in Penn’s lifetime. It was his good fortune that, being laid up with the gout, he could not be held liable, with Henry Brouncker, for the failure to follow up the victory off Lowestoft; but he was principally responsible for the irregular distribution of prize goods. He was not employed in 1666 till Monck’s obstinacy and over-confidence had shattered the English fleet.5

When peace was restored Monck’s friends spread charges against Penn of cowardice, falsity and ‘bringing roguish fanatic captains into the fleet’, and on 3 Dec. 1667 he was summoned to attend the parliamentary committee of miscarriages. He defended Harman from the imputation of sole responsibility for slackening sail in pursuit of the Dutch fleet in 1665. On 16 Apr. 1668, he delivered from his place in the House ‘a well-argued and convincing defence’ on the prize issue, though doubtless, according to his custom, ‘with so much leisure and gravity as was tiresome’. Unfortunately he could hardly exculpate himself without inculpating Montagu (now Lord Sandwich); and the hostility of Sandwich’s friends, added to the distaste felt by the Cavaliers for a survivor of the Interregnum, resulted in an unanimous vote for his impeachment. It must have been widely understood that this was merely a formality to prevent Penn from commanding the fleet again; for he had powerful friends on both sides of the House who laboured to save him, notably (Sir) William Coventry, his patron since 1660, who had learned from Penn all he knew of seamanship, and Henry Coventry, the secretary of state. (Sir) John Nicholas considered, however, that Penn ‘hath ill luck to be one of our Members, for he is likely by it to fare far worse than his companions, who are as guilty as himself’. A committee under Sir Robert Howard was appointed to draw up articles of impeachment, which were duly delivered to the Lords on 24 Apr. Meanwhile he was suspended from sitting for the duration of the session. A few days later he gave Pepys in confidence the benefit of his political experience. The King, he thought, should dissolve Parliament as soon as the supply bill was passed, for it would never vote him any more; he had ‘great opportunity of making himself popular by stopping this Act against conventicles’; and he should replace Ormonde, whose administration of Ireland was corrupt and oppressive, by Orrery ( Roger Boyle). Such opinions at this juncture are perhaps predictable in an Irish Cromwellian landowner still under sentence of the House, who was also the anxious father of a notable and headstrong dissenter. They follow fairly closely the policy ascribed to Buckingham; nevertheless Penn continued to be reckoned a member of the court party. His health, however, further deteriorated, and in 1669 he resigned from all his offices. He had already laid by considerable wealth for a man of his modest origins; he was reported to have given £4,000 to his daughter on her marriage with Anthony Lowther and his Irish estates grew in value from £300 p.a. in 1654 to £1,500 p.a. at his death, when in addition he was owed £12,000 by the crown. It is hard to see how this wealth can have been acquired except by a very broad interpretation of official perquisites. For the rest, Penn’s character has suffered from the persistent denigration of Pepys, who ill requited his neighbour’s constant kindness and respect. The charge of ‘falsity’, so frequently repeated, probably arises from Penn’s lack of confidence; that of ‘cowardice’ seems to be baseless. Penn had the highest ambitions for his son, and was long ‘put off the hooks’ by his earlier religious vagaries. But these were as nothing to the young man’s open defiance of the Conventicles Act and of conventional manners in the autumn of 1670, when the doctors had already told Lady Penn that her husband would not ‘live beyond the fall of leaf or winter’. Indulgent to the last, Penn paid his son’s fine and died a few days later on 16 Sept. 1670. He was buried at St. Mary Redcliffe, Bristol. His son, though very active politically under James II, was as a Quaker debarred from Parliament, but after the traditional three generations his great-grandson Richard conformed and entered the House as Member for Appleby in 1784.6

Ref Volumes: 1660-1690

Author: John. P. Ferris


  • 1. DNB; HMC Portland, ii. 84; Pepys Diary, 6 Jan. 1662.
  • 2. G. Penn, Mems. ii. 580; HMC Portland, ii. 64, 66, 70, 83; CSP Dom. 1648-9, p. 286; 1650, p. 237; CSP Ire. 1666-9, p. 764; 1769-70, p. 384.
  • 3. R. East, Portsmouth Recs. 353, 355, 357; J. Latimer, Bristol in the 17th Cent. 293.
  • 4. Gen. Mag. xiii. 116; CSP Dom. 1637-8, p. 42; Merchant Taylors apprentice bk. 1635-9, f. 187; Penn, i. 550-6; Pepys Diary, 21 Aug. 1660, 1 May 1662, 21 May 1667; Clarendon, Rebellion, vi. 5; D. Underdown, Royalist Conspiracy, 125; HMC Portland, ii. 98, 100; Latimer, 293; HMC 13th Rep. IV, 235; Clarendon, Life, ii. 354-5.
  • 5. Adm. 2/1745, f. 30; Weymouth minute bk. f. 272