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September 29, 2005

the trial of William Penn

I was looking for a quote (which I didn't actually find), and I ended up reading an entire account of William Penn's trial in 1670. I believe the account--available with modernized English spelling on a University of Texas website--was written by Penn himself, so it is not unbiased. In fact, I find it somewhat hard to imagine that the wicked judge would actually mutter to himself, "Till now I never understood the Reason of the Policy and Prudence of the Spaniards, in suffering the Inquisition among them: And certainly it will never be well with us, till something like unto the Spanish Inquisition be in England." Nevertheless, the story makes gripping theater and has contemporary resonance. (I recommend skimming until p. 4, where the action really starts.)

For background: Penn (a Quaker) had been preaching in violation of the Conventicle Act, which forbade "all meetings of more than five persons beyond a household, if any, for worship other than that prescribed by the Liturgy." The Sheriff of London and other authorities were afraid to charge Penn under the Act, lest it be overturned. Instead, they arrested him and William Mead on undisclosed charges. The two Friends were subjected to Newgate Prison's "Bale-dock, and Nasty-hole, nay, the menace of a Gag, and Iron Shackles too." They were brought before a Middlesex (London) jury. The trial itself shed no light on whether the defendants had broken any law, but it did (according Penn's account) involve such entertaining exchanges as the following:

Clark: Bring William Penn and William Mead to the Bar.
Mayor: Sirrah, who bid you put off their Hats? Put on their Hats again.
Observer [Penn himself]: Whereupon one of the Officers putting the Prisoners Hats upon their Heads (pursuant to the Order of the Court) brought them to the Bar.
Recorder: Do you know where you are?
Penn: Yes.
Recorder: Do not you know it is the King's Court?
Penn: I know it to be a Court, and I suppose it to be the King's Court.
Recorder: Do you not know there is Respect due to the Court?
Penn: Yes.
Record: Why do you not pay it then?
Penn: I do so.
Record. Why do you not pull off your Hat then?
Pen: Because I do not believe that to be any Respect.
Record: Well, the Court sets forty Marks a piece upon your Heads, as a Fine for your Contempt of the Court.
Penn: I desire it might be observed, that we came into the Court with our Hats off (that is, taken off) and if they have been put on since, it was by Order from the Bench; and therefore not we, but the Bench should be fined.

The judge demands that the jury find Penn guilty, although without stating the charges. Penn makes a stirring defense of the jurors' rights as Englishmen. I won't spoil the suspense by relating the conclusion, in case you don't happen to know what happened. The official US Court system website provides a summary of the whole event that concludes--rather surprisingly--with a positive account of jury nullification.

Posted by peterlevine at September 29, 2005 07:19 AM

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