"The Oldie is an incredible magazine - perhaps the best magazine in the world right now" Graydon Carter, founder of Air Mail and former Editor of Vanity Fair

Subscribe to the Oldie and get a free cartoon book


Overlooked Britain: Lucinda Lambton - An American corner of Buckinghamshire

Blog | By Lucinda Lambton | Nov 29, 2023

Above: Jordans Friends Meeting House, Bucks, first built in 1688.

What a joyful surprise it is to realise that William Penn (1644-1718), one of the first Quakers and a great and glorious hero to boot, is buried but a mile or two from where I live in Buckinghamshire.

Never, ever will I forget searching for proof of his burial place in Philadelphia, where he had planned ‘a greene Countrie Towne which will never be burnt and always be wholesome’. There, so great was his importance, it had been decreed that he should be honoured on high; higher than any building in sight, with nothing allowed, whatever it was, built higher than his hat.

Penn’s Treaty with the Indians by Benjamin West, 1772

And what about the five-acre grandeur of the City Hall on Penn Square with its wild wealth of decoration – all designed by Scots-born Alexander Milne Calder? Despite its gargantuan proportions, this too proudly displays the great man on its highest point. With its caryatids, bas-reliefs, mansard roofs and statues galore, it soars skywards, with Penn holding forth atop its multiplicity of decorative delights.

To return to England, most particularly to Jordans, where the enchanting-to-this-day little brick Meeting House has survived since 1688. There, among the many gravestones, beneath a wealth of apple trees and beside the pretty-as-a-picture little building, is a small group of Penn family graves. Here is William Penn’s modest representation, alongside ten of his children and his wife, Gulielma Springett. After such a magisterial progress though the great American city that he had founded, what sheer magic it was to find his grave in England, beneath the apple trees. Also there are his two wives, in such modest surroundings.

The gravestone of the founder of Pennsylvania is in long, green, English grass, in the shadow of a meeting house in the English home counties. His had been not just another colony, but a ‘Holy Experiment founded on Quaker values of freedom and toleration and peaceful approaches to conflict’.

What he did in Pennsylvania was what he would have liked to have seen happen in his home country, but which had seemed impossible at the time. Aspects of Pennsylvania later influenced governance in many other US states and indeed in the US constitution itself.

What a tale and a half to spring forth from a gentle wood in Buckinghamshire. As for the 385 burials between 1671 and 1845 that were embraced by these turfs, the details of their names’ survivals make the most heart-stirring reading.

Here lies John Giggler, a mealman from Eton. Springett Penn was the ‘pious son of William and Gulielma Penn, who died in Lewis’. Joseph Rule who died in 1770 sounds a good man, celebrated as ‘the White Quaker’. John Wesley says that he was ‘a calm, loving sensible man and much devoted to God’.

Another character worth knowing was John Smith, who died in 1684. He was a labourer from Farnham Common who was imprisoned in Aylesbury jail for ‘simply attending a Friends meeting near Woburn and sealed his testimony with his blood in prison’.

Jordans.Penn’s 36ft-statue by Alexander Milne Calder atop City Hall, Philadelphia

William Penn had been first imprisoned for his Quaker beliefs in 1668, when he was 24. He had published a religious work without getting the obligatory approval from the Bishop of London. He was charged with blasphemy and dispatched to the Tower of London for seven months.

While there, he wrote No Cross, No Crown, one of his best-known works which explains the sacrifices he and others had made when they became Friends.

In 1670, he was in court again, along with another Friend, William Mead. They were on trial for preaching outside a Quaker Meeting House in Gracechurch Street in the City of London.

This contravened the Conventicle Act, which forbade religious gatherings of more than five people, apart from services in the Church of England. Penn defended himself so ably that the jury refused to find him guilty. This was a landmark case in English law, which established the independence of the jury.

Three cheers for William Penn! His religious and political ideas continued to develop as he struggled forth with religious toleration and freedom of conscience, until he decided to emigrate to the New World. There he felt that he would find the answers and the freedoms that he sought.

The true founder of Quakerism was in fact George Fox, a charismatic and revered friend of William Penn. He had long hair hanging in ringlets and ‘always had to wear a hat of the largest size’. His features were most glowingly shown off in his journal at Jordans.

At Jordans, this most magical building still has a quantity of the original furniture, including deal benches and three most moving coat- hanging pegs of ancient lineage.

Stirring to say, it is still used, with regular meetings throughout the week, as befits such a remarkable survival.