William Penn, c.1621-70

Naval officer who survived the disgrace of the failed Western Design expedition and his Cromwellian associations to become a key figure in the Restoration navy.

Portrait of William PennWilliam Penn was the youngest son of Giles Penn, a merchant of Bristol whose family owned estates in Buckinghamshire and Gloucestershire. Penn went to sea, and was a ship's captain by 1642. In January 1644, he married Margaret van der Schuren, the widow of a successful Dutch merchant who had left her an estate at Kilcorny, County Clare, to which Penn became entitled.

He served in the Parliamentarian navy during the First Civil War, supporting land forces at the sieges of Youghal (summer 1644) and Bunratty Castle (spring 1646). Penn was appointed vice-admiral of Ireland and captain of the Lion in August 1644. He remained commander of the Irish squadron during the Second Civil War and supported Cromwell's invasion of Ireland in 1649 by blockading Irish ports.

In November 1650, Penn took command of the squadron sent to relieve Robert Blake in his pursuit of Prince Rupert in the Mediterranean. Penn was also authorised to take French and Portuguese prizes. During 1651, Penn ranged from the Azores as far east as Malta. He took thirty-six prizes, but never caught sight of Rupert. With the outbreak of the First Anglo-Dutch War in 1652, Penn was appointed vice-admiral to Blake. After fighting at the battle of Kentish Knock (September 1652), Penn was engaged in convoying the coal fleet from Newcastle to London. In April 1653, he was appointed Admiral of the Blue division at the three-day battle of Portland. After Penn had distinguished himself further at the battles of the Gabbard and Scheveningen, George Monck recommended his promotion to general-at-sea, which was confirmed by the Admiralty commissioners in December 1653. In 1654, Penn was rewarded with lands in Ireland for his services in the Dutch war.

In August 1654, Penn was appointed commander of naval forces in Cromwell's cherished Western Design, which was intended to seize Spanish territory in the West Indies and secure a base of operations for English expansion. Penn shared command of the expedition with General Robert Venables, who was to lead the land forces, and with a body of civilian commissioners who were to supervise the colonisation of the captured lands. The expedition's failure to achieve its principal objective was partly a result of the antagonism that developed between Penn and Venables. Having fallen ill, Penn returned to England independently of Venables in June 1655. He hoped to be the first to report his version of events to Cromwell, but Venables arrived soon after him. Both officers were imprisoned in the Tower of London. Cromwell was angered not only by the military failure, but also by the unauthorised return to England of both commanding officers. Penn was released from the Tower in October 1655 after apologising for his disobedience and resigning his commission. He retired to his estate at Macroom in County Cork.

After the fall of the Protectorate in 1659, Penn was approached by General Monck who offered to sponsor his return to naval service. With Monck's support, Penn was restored to the Admiralty in March 1660 and was elected to the Convention Parliament as MP for Weymouth in April. Under orders from the joint Generals-at-Sea Monck and Montagu, Penn organised the fleet that brought the restored Charles II back to England in May 1660.

Penn was knighted on 9 June and became a key adviser to the Duke of York in the administration of the Restoration navy. One of Penn's junior colleagues at the Navy Office was Samuel Pepys, who regarded Penn as an enemy of his patron Edward Montagu, Earl of Sandwich, and depicted him unfavourably in his famous diary. Penn returned to active service in the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1664-7) but quarreled with Monck (now Duke of Albemarle) and was obliged to resign his commission after being brought before Parliament to answer charges of seizing prizes illegally. With his health in decline, Penn withdrew from public life. He died in September 1670.

Penn's eldest son was the Quaker William Penn (1644-1718) who founded the colony of Pennsylvania.


C. S. Knighton, Sir William Penn, Oxford DNB, 2004

Bernard Capp, Cromwell's Navy, the Fleet and the English Revolution (Oxford 1989)