I have had a little journey to Utopia, today.
It was a snow-covered, simple, centuries-old relic of a utopia which survives in pockets, here and there. I have experienced the simplicity and kindness of a group of people whose philosophy once so irked the English establishment that mass emigration seemed the only way forward.
And I have stood at the graveside of the man whose fair-mindedness, whose stubborn refusal to compromise, led him to found a place where man could be free to worship and conduct his life as he chose.
A trailblazer, this man. And not without his connections.
His father, William Penn the elder, was a mover and a shaker, who, despite his roundhead sympathies, helped bring King Charles II back to England for Restoration. And King Charles never quite forgot that. That, and a matter of some £16,000 Charles owed him.
Penn was a Navy man, through and through. But his son, from a very early age, was a dreamer.
At 15, a visitor to his father’s Ireland household struck the young Penn deeply: Thomas Loe, a Quaker missionary, spoke of his ideals and William listened, profoundly moved.
When William went to Oxford, the Quakers were already being ostracised there, and though the young man was ostensibly a Cavalier because of his father’s aid to the crown, he hated to see them set apart. He withdrew into his studies; but when rules at Oxford became stringent, and students were forced into Anglicanism, he rebelled openly.
His father, expediently, sent him to France, where he learnt fabulous dress sense but balked at the excess. And soon he was back, studying law, acting as emissary between his father and the king; and lamenting at the suffering cased by the plague of 1665. On his return to the family estates in Ireland, he declared himself openly, at the age of 22, to be a Quaker: a member of the Religious Society of Friends.
His fight for the right to worship freely is well documented. It is a stirring tale which culminates in the unimaginable: the mass emigration of English Quakers to a huge tract of land in America. It was Penn who carved a deal with Charles II to allow the Friends to travel away, across the ocean, to a fairer place.
“I never had any other religion in my life,” Penn once wrote, ”than what I felt.”
Yet his feel for what was fair and just fuelled the Frame of Government for Pennsylvania, which in turn influenced the United States Constitution.
Whilst his values helped found a state, they did not guarantee security for himself. His son was a dissolute gambler,running up debts; Penn himself had loaned generously without always giving thought to the money’s return; and his financial manager in Ireland, Philip Ford, had diverted funds from Penn’s Irish lands. Ford’s widow even launched a court case aimed at snapping up Pennsylvania, though it floundered.
Unthinkably, this giant died penniless, in a village in Berkshire, England.
He was buried at the Quaker cemetery in Chalfont St Giles in Buckinghamshire.
I arrived at Jordan’s Meeting House to find it white. Snow had fallen heavily in Buckinghamshire. And though it was not open, I rang the bell and someone welcomed me warmly and showed me the meeting house where, surely, Penn must have stood and worshipped. It was simplicity itself, without pulpit or ornament: a plain place for people to meet and pray.
And once I had seen the quaint 17th century interior, I stepped outside and crunched across virgin snow to find the stone where Penn sleeps.
Every stone is the same, there in the glade outside. There are no angels or monuments. Was it the unassuming, snow-capped markers whose very humility whisked the breath away? Or perhaps it was just the freezing wind which whipped the fingers and face as I stood in something like awe.
Here was fair-minded equality, perfect democracy, even in death.
Mr Penn, for your breathtaking endeavours, and your fair-minded audacity, on a white-blanketed English February morning, across the centuries: I salute you.