Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Penn, William (1621-1670)

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PENN, Sir WILLIAM (1621–1670), admiral and general at sea, baptised in the church of St. Thomas in Bristol on 23 April 1621, was the second son of Giles Penn, a merchant and sea-captain trading to the Mediterranean, a younger son of a family settled for many generations at Minety in Gloucestershire. In early boyhood he served under his father, and afterwards on board the king's ships, being—it is stated on his monument—a captain at the age of twenty-one. There is, however, no distinct record of his having any command in the navy before 1644, when he was appointed to the Fellowship of 28 guns, one of the Irish fleet in the service of the parliament, under the command of Captain Richard Swanley [q. v.] On 14 April 1648 he was suddenly superseded from his command, and ordered to be ‘brought up in safe custody,’ on suspicion, it would seem, of his being engaged in the king's interest. The suspicion passed away, and a month later he was in the Assurance as rear-admiral of the Irish fleet, and in 1649 in the Lion as vice-admiral, but always on the same service, which during the civil war was one of extreme importance, involving the defence of the western ports of England and Wales, as well as of the protestant interests in Ireland. Through 1650 he seems to have been at Deptford, superintending the building and fitting out of a new ship, of 250 men and 52 guns, which was launched in the autumn as the Fairfax. In November he received a commission to command the Fairfax, and also a squadron of eight ships on a cruise to the Azores and in the Mediterranean. As, however, the Fairfax was not ready, he sailed in the Centurion, and towards the end of January 1651 was joined by Lawson in the Fairfax, to which he then moved, and after cruising for some weeks between the Azores, Lisbon, and Cadiz, passed through the Straits on 29 March, with instructions to seek out Prince Rupert, and destroy him and his adherents.

In this search he ranged through the western basin of the Mediterranean, along the coast of Spain, touching at Minorca and Iviça, then south to the African coast, north again, along the coasts of Sardinia and Corsica to Leghorn, thence to Trapani and across to Biserta, thence to Algiers and Gibraltar, where, having intelligence that Rupert had gone to the Azores, he anchored on 9 Sept. to await his return. And so, for the next four months, he kept a close watch on the Straits, sometimes at anchor, more commonly under way, his ships covering the whole space, so that nothing could enter or leave the Mediterranean without his knowledge. By the end of the year reports reached him from different quarters that several of Rupert's ships had been lost, and his squadron completely broken up; and in February he sailed for England. On 18 March he landed at Falmouth, when he noted in his journal that he had not put foot on land since his departure from Falmouth ‘last December was twelve months.’

On 1 April he anchored in the Downs. The war with the Dutch was on the point of breaking out, and on 19 May 1652 Penn was appointed captain of the Triumph, and vice-admiral of the fleet under General Robert Blake [q. v.] In June he moved into the James of 60 guns, in which he was with Blake during the summer, and in the action near the Kentish Knock on 28 Sept. It is probable that he was afterwards in command of the squadron sent north for the protection of the Newcastle colliers, and that he was thus absent from the unfortunate action near Dungeness on 30 Nov. He seems, however, to have rejoined Blake shortly after; and on 25 Jan. 1653 he was again appointed captain of the Speaker and vice-admiral of the fleet. In that capacity he would, in ordinary course, have had command of the white squadron; but when the fleet was collected, Monck took command of the white squadron, Blake and Deane being together in command of the red. It was thus that, in the battle off Portland on 18 Feb., Penn commanded the blue squadron, and, by tacking to the support of the red squadron, rescued Blake from the effects of his blundering gallantry, and redeemed the fortune of the day.

Penn afterwards moved into the James, and in April was sent north for the protection of the Newcastle trade. By May he was again with the fleet, and this time in command of the white squadron, the generals Monck and Deane being together in command of the red. He had thus a very important share in the victory of 2–3 June, and again in that of 29–31 July, when Tromp was killed. On 6 Aug. Penn was ordered a gold chain of the value of 100l., together with the large medal; on 2 Dec. he was appointed one of the generals of the fleet, jointly with Blake, Monck, and Disbrowe; and on the 8th one of the ‘commissioners for ordering and managing the affairs of the admiralty and navy.’

So long as the war with Holland lasted Penn had acquiesced in Cromwell's usurpation of the supreme power. But when peace was happily concluded, he resolved to address the legitimate sovereign; and in the summer of 1654 wrote to the king, offering the services of the fleet about to be placed under his command, if he could name any port in which it might assemble. Charles could not then dispose of any such port, and directed him to proceed on his voyage and wait for a more favourable opportunity (Penn, ii. 14). On 9 Oct. he was formally appointed general and commander-in-chief of the fleet designed and prepared for America, and was directed, in conjunction with General Robert Venables [q. v.], in command of the troops embarked in the fleet, ‘to assault the Spaniard in the West Indies,’ either in St. Domingo, Porto Rico, Cartagena, or in such other places as, after consultation with those ‘who have a particular knowledge of those parts,’ shall be judged more reasonable. The fleet sailed from Spithead on 25 Dec. 1654, and arrived at Barbados on 29 Jan. 1655. There they remained for two months, regulating the affairs of the island, enlisting additional men as soldiers, and forming a regiment of seamen, of which the vice-admiral, William Goodsonn [q. v.], was appointed colonel. The expedition sailed from Barbados on 31 March, and, after touching at Antigua, Montserrat, Nevis, and St. Christopher's, came on 13 April in sight of the city of St. Domingo, and landed about thirty miles to the westward of it. After a delay of ten days the army, numbering in all about seven thousand men, marched against the city, and on the 25th was ‘shamefully repulsed.’ With that, however, Penn seems to have had nothing to do. He had brought the soldiers to the landing-place, had reinforced them with a regiment of seamen one thousand strong, and had kept them supplied with provisions and military stores. For the delay, the repulse, and the determination to re-embark, Venables and his staff were alone responsible; and though a persistent attempt was afterwards made to throw the blame on Penn, and the want of cordial co-operation, which has led to much misrepresentation (Burchett, Transactions at Sea, p. 392), the original letter of Gregory Butler (Penn, ii. 50), one of the commissioners, and the ‘Journal of the Swiftsure’ (ib. ii. 88), conclusively disprove the injurious statements.

On 3 May the fleet sailed from Hispaniola, and on the 10th entered the harbour of Jamaica, Penn leading in the Swiftsure; for after the miscarriage of Hispaniola he was heard to say ‘he would not trust the army with the attempt if he could come near with his ships.’ The troops landed the same night, and the next day took possession of the town without opposition. On the 17th the whole island surrendered, and Penn, after waiting a month for the establishment of order, sailed for England on 27 June with the principal part of the fleet, leaving the command of the remainder with Goodsonn. On 31 Aug. he arrived at Spithead, on 3 Sept. was ordered to take the ships round to Chatham, and on the 11th to attend the council the next day. He accordingly attended on the 12th, delivered a narrative of the proceedings of the fleet, and was examined touching its state and condition and the natural qualities of Jamaica (Thurloe, iv. 28). On the 20th, having examined Venables, who had also returned to England, the council advised that they should both be committed to the Tower, which was done at once.

The cause of this arrest has never been made clear. On the face of it, it was for returning home without leave. It has been said that they were sent out expressly to capture Hispaniola and had not done so. But their instructions show that this was not the case. It has been said that Cromwell was furious at a comparatively small island being the only result of a costly expedition; but this is improbable, for his proclamation regarding it shows that he was well aware of its value. Granville Penn thinks that the Protector had information of Penn's having written to the king, but the arrest was made on the advice of the council, who certainly had no such information, and it does not appear that Venables had made any overtures. It is, perhaps, most likely that the council gathered from their evidence that the relations between them had not been so cordial as the good of the service demanded, and judged that a short imprisonment would correct the bitterness of their tempers. It was only for a few weeks, and on Penn's making an abject submission (Cal. State Papers, Dom. p. 396) he was released on 25 Oct., and retired to the estate in Munster, which had been conferred on him in 1653, and there he remained in secret correspondence with the royalists until the eve of the Restoration.

In May 1660 he was with Mountagu in the Naseby at Scheveling (Pepys, 22 May), though in what capacity is not apparent. That he was not a mere passenger, as is supposed by Granville Penn, is clear from the fact that he received an advance of 100l. for his service (Penn, ii. 221); but it is not known what the service was. On 23 May, when the king came on board the Naseby and changed her name to Royal Charles, he knighted Penn, who was afterwards appointed a commissioner of the navy. In this capacity he was closely associated with Pepys, whose ‘Diary’ overflows with terms of vituperation. According to this, Penn was ‘a rogue,’ ‘a counterfeit rogue,’ ‘a cunning rogue,’ ‘a very cowardly rogue,’ ‘a mean rogue,’ ‘a hypocritical rogue,’ ‘a coward,’ ‘a coxcomb,’ ‘a very villain,’ ‘the falsest rascal,’ ‘as false a fellow as ever was born,’ all which, when read by the light of other entries, would seem to mean that Penn, as Pepys's official superior, had sometimes to give him orders, sometimes, perhaps, to find fault with him; sometimes, it may be, to interfere inconveniently with some little scheme for Pepys's pecuniary advantage (cf. Pepys, 17 March 1666). We must believe that there was no affection between the two; but Pepys kept his expressions of disgust for the ‘Diary,’ and was always ready to dine with Penn or to enter into a speculation in partnership with him (ib. 26, 29 Sept. 1666).

On 10 March 1665 Penn obtained a grant from the king confirming him in the possession of his Irish estates, and on the 24th he accompanied the Duke of York to the fleet, and served with him during the campaign, on board the Royal Charles, with the title of Great Captain Commander, which afterwards became first captain, and, still later, captain of the fleet. There is, however, this difference, that no first captain or captain of the fleet has ever been an officer of the high rank that Penn had held under the Commonwealth. On the other hand, no other commander-in-chief has had the high rank of the Duke of York, at once lord high admiral and next in succession to the crown; and as James was without any knowledge or experience of the sea, it may well have been judged fitting to assign him the most experienced officer of rank as his chief of the staff. In this way there can be little doubt that Penn's share in the conduct of the fleet was exceptionally great, and that the code of instructions then issued, and long known as ‘The Duke of York's Sailing and Fighting Instructions,’ were virtually, if not absolutely, drawn up by him.

It was in this capacity that Penn was present in the battle off Lowestoft on 3 June. He is said to have been suffering at the time from a severe attack of gout, and to have gone to bed in the evening quite exhausted with the labour and excitement of the day. He was thus ignorant, till afterwards, of the orders to bring to, which were given or brought to Harman by Brouncker, although necessarily he did not escape the lash of public opinion. Officially he was held guiltless; but when the Duke of York was relieved from the command, Penn came on shore with him, and was not again employed afloat, though he continued at the navy office till his death on 16 Sept. 1670. His remains were taken to Bristol and buried there in the church of St. Mary Redcliffe, ‘where his flags and trophies are still carefully preserved, and where his monument records briefly and chronologically the dates of his several commissions and appointments, both under the parliament and under the king.’ So wrote Granville Penn sixty years ago. The flags are still there, but defaced by time and damp; one of them seems to be charged with Penn's arms (Penn, ii. 567–8).

Penn married, about 1639, Margaret, daughter of John or Hans Jasper of Rotterdam—an ‘old Dutchwoman,’ Pepys calls her—and by her had two sons, the elder of whom, William [q. v.], the founder of Pennsylvania, is separately noticed; and a daughter Margaret, who is frequently mentioned by Pepys. It was reported that on her marriage to Anthony Lowther, her father gave her a portion of 15,000l. Pepys says that he gave her only 4,000l. The marriage was very quiet—‘no friends but two or three relations of his and hers; borrowed many things of my kitchen for dressing their dinner … no music in the morning to call up our new-married people, which is very mean, methinks’ (Pepys, 15, 16 Feb. 1667). Penn's meanness is the subject of frequent remark in the ‘Diary.’ But compared with the opportunities he had had both under the Commonwealth and under the corrupt administration of Charles II, Penn was a poor man, and may be supposed to have exercised a rigid, perhaps narrow, economy, anxious to increase his estate in view of a promised peerage, the hope of which was frustrated by his son's becoming a quaker. Notwithstanding his economy, Penn is described by Pepys as a jovial companion, fond of his glass and telling a good story or singing a song, quite unrestrained by any puritanical scruples. According to one of his old shipmates, he was a mild-spoken man, fair-haired, of a comely round visage (Penn, ii. 616). His portrait by Lely is in the Painted Hall at Greenwich.

[The principal authority for the Life of Penn is Granville Penn's Memorials of the professional Life and Times of Sir William Penn—a valuable but crude compilation of materials rather than a Life. Besides this, Hepworth Dixon's Life of William Penn; Pepys's Diary; Cal. State Papers, Dom. The Penn MSS. (Sloane 3232) have no biographical interest.]

J. K. L.