The Charter to William Penn- March 4, 1681

Penn's Charter Transcript

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Record Group 26: Records of the Department of State, Basic Documents, 4 pages, parchment with iron gall ink.

The English were latecomers to the Western Hemisphere. By the time Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1604) authorized Sir Walter Raleigh to establish England's outposts in the "New World" during the 1580s, Spain already had developed a lucrative trade with her colonies in South and Central America. During the 1600s, the English caught up rapidly. Merchants joined together in stock companies and founded the settlement of "Virginia" in 1607, intended to produce luxuries, and others during the 1620s in "New England" to the north, to provide fish. Promoters of the colonies of Carolina and New Jersey during the 1660s wanted to reap profits from the sale of land. In addition, there were dissenters from England's legally established church who wanted to settle in America in order to avoid discrimination and worship freely. Such people formed the core of the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay settlements.

Both secular and religious motives are evident in the founding of Pennsylvania. Proprietor William Penn was a "landed gentleman" having inherited estates in England and Ireland from his father, Admiral Sir William Penn. Like others of his class, he was caught in an inflationary squeeze. Income from his tenants was fixed by custom, while the cost of living was rising. Penn (and others) saw expansion of their land holdings as a solution to this problem. Nevertheless, Penn was more than a real estate promoter; he was a visionary who dreamed of a colony where people could live together harmoniously. This seemed to him impossible in the Europe of the 1600s with its frequent wars and almost constant religious discrimination and at times intense persecution.

Essential to Penn was freedom of worship. He had become a member of the Religious Society of the Friends of God, commonly called Quakers. They did not attend services in their parish churches. In private homes and plain meeting houses they worshiped in silence unless a Friend were inspired by the Holy Spirit to speak. They permitted women to address their meetings. They refused to swear oaths and were pacifists. As a result, the English magistrates physically abused, fined, and imprisoned them. Penn himself was confined in the Tower of London at times.

Consequently, on June 24, 1680, Penn asked King Charles II (1660-1685) for a charter for land in America. The only available tract in eastern North America lay west of New Jersey, north of Maryland, and south of New York, an area that England had conquered from the Dutch in 1664 and which the King had given to his brother James, the Duke of York. After appropriate discussions the King granted Penn's request on March 4, 1681.

Why King Charles provided Penn with such a potentially valuable area at a time when he was tightening control of his American colonies is open to question. In the preamble to the Charter, the King mentioned his desire to "enlarge our English Empire," to provide useful goods, and to civilize and Christianize the "Savage Natives," but these were standard objectives, not peculiar to Pennsylvania. A more plausible explanation is that the King owed Penn a large amount of money, a debt the younger Penn inherited from his father. Kings sometimes paid their debts in land rather than cash. Another possibility is Penn's friendship with the Duke of York, an unlikely but real relationship between a Roman Catholic and Friend. Furthermore, the King might have wanted the Friends, whom some considered religious "fanatics," to leave England and go far away to America.

In some respects, the Charter was as nebulous and contradictory as the King's reasons for granting it. Specifications of the colony's boundaries seem complex in writing and proved troublesome in practice; more clear were grants to Penn and his heirs of control of the land and waterways; use of wildlife and natural resources; as well as possession of gold, silver and "precious stones." In return for such material benefits, the Charter required Penn to deliver annually to the King one-fifth of all gold and silver and two beaver skins. Although Penn had proprietary authority over the colony, his power was not absolute. The Charter required that his laws be consistent with those of England and they were to be set forth "with the advice, assent, and approbation of the freemen… or of their delegates or deputies." This provision was standard, but others were distinctive and demonstrate that Pennsylvania was founded later than most of England's colonies. For example, all laws had to be submitted to the Privy Council (the King's advisors) within five years. Colonists were to obey Parliament's trade laws, first passed in the l650's and re-enacted in the l660s and 70s, that required trade in most commodities to be with England. Penn was to maintain an agent in or near London to respond to any charges of their violation. Aware that Quakers would dominate this colony, the King specified in the Charter that if twenty inhabitants appealed to the Bishop of London for an Anglican clergyman, one should be sent.

King Charles II's Charter continued to authorize the Penns' authority over the province for the next three quarters of a century. When William Penn was disabled by a stroke in l7l2, his wife Hanna assumed proprietary authority. Upon her death in l727, Penn's sons and grandsons became proprietors. Their authority survived numerous challenges. Legislators complained almost immediately after the colony's founding about Penn's power which led him in l683 to relinquish his votes in the upper house (Council). Continued agitation caused him to plead that they not be so "governmentish." By l7l0, he was inclined to surrender the government to the Crown, but his illness prevented such action. The most serious threat emerged in the 1750s and '60s when the proprietary government failed to protect the colony's frontiers from the French, Indians, and possibly also the Scots-Irish settlers in the interior. Assuming that royal control of the colony would result in more effective protection, Benjamin Franklin and his political allies tried to persuade the King to abolish the proprietorship. Parliament's revision of colonial policy and the controversy it provoked overwhelmed Franklin's appeal. The controversy ultimately produced the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the War for American Independence, and the Treaty of Paris of l783, which nullified the Charter and produced the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as a state in the independent United States of America.

The Charter is four pages on parchment, each measuring an average of 20"x24". The upper left corner of the first page bears the portrait, or cartouche, of Charles II. The borders of each page are embellished with the shields of lands conquered at one time or another by England, including France, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. The four pages were bound together at the bottom of each page with a silken cord, and in turn the cord threaded through the Great Seal of England. The Seal, made of green beeswax and placed in a metal box called a skippet, hung like a pendant from the document. The document was given to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1812 by a lawyer representing the Penn Family. By this time, constant folding and unfolding of the popular first page caused rotting of the parchment in the lower left corner. In the 1830s, the entire document was placed on permanent display in the office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth, where it remained for most of the 1800s. At that time approximately five inches of each page at the bottom were trimmed away to fit in frames for display purposes. The silken cords binding the pages, together with the Great Seal of England, were also removed, and have since been lost. The Charter remained under the administrative responsibility of the Department of State until transferred to the newly created State Archives early in the 1900s. It was displayed at the State Museum until 1984 when it was removed due to increasing concern for its fragility and security, and replaced with full-scale color facsimiles. The document is presently housed in a special climate-controlled high security vault in the State Archives in Harrisburg, and is displayed on special occasions.

Great Seal of Charles II
Diameter, 5.6 inches.
Period of use, 19th April, 1672 , to 21st October, 1685 .

The King, enthroned, front view, crowned, with long hair flowing over the back of the right and in front of the left shoulder, wearing the collar of the Garter, holding in his right hand a sceptre nearly perpendicular, slightly inclining to the left, his left hand placed upon a large orb ensigned with a cross which rests upon his left knee. The throne is supported at its base by two eagles; the arch behind the King's head is upheld by two pilasters: the interior of the arch is curved in representation of a large shell; above the arch is a canopy with festooned curtains in front of which are two winged infant Angels supporting a shield bearing the Royal Arms, the same as on the shields in the Seal of James I., encircled with an inscribed Garter, which is ensigned with the Royal Crown. Outside the pilasters of the throne, on each side, is a female terminal figure facing outwards. On the left side of the Seal is a lion sejant guardant, crowned, supporting with his right paw a spear from the top of which flows a long pennant in many folds, on the front fold displaying the Cross of St. George. On the right side of the Seal is a unicorn, turned to the right, sejant, gorged with a coronet composed of crosses and fleurs-de-lis, supporting with his left paw a spear bearing a pennant in many folds, on the front fold of which is the Cross of St. Andrew. The legend is placed upon a band beyond which is a narrow laurel wreath, bound together in four places with crossed ribbons.

Legend :-


Counterseal :-

The King on horseback prancing to the right, his head uncovered, the face turned three-quarters to the front, his hair flowing over his shoulders and back. The King is clad in armour with a cloak fastened over his right shoulder and flying behind his back, and is riding with single curb rein; in his right hand is a straight sword nearly horizontal but with the point downwards, his foot spurred and placed in the stirrup. The horse is rearing and is harnessed with bridle, saddle, saddle-cloth, and a strap passing round the whole length of its body; from behind the saddle fall three straps across the flanks of the horse hanging almost perpendicularly towards the ground. In the background, under the horse, is a view of the river Thames , and of London and Southwark connected by the Bridge. The legend is placed upon a band broken into by the tail of the horse. Beyond the band is a narrow laurel wreath, bound together by crossed ribbons in four places.

Legend :-


There is nothing in the design of this Seal calling for special notice. Nor is there anything in its history that was remarkable, except that one night it was in great danger of being stolen, as another Great Seal, later on, actually was, but this Seal escaped owing to the tender care bestowed upon it by the Lord Chancellor in whose custody it was. “About one in the morning ” (of the 7th February, 1677 ), says Wood, “the Lord Chancellor Finch his mace was stolen out of his house in Queen Street . The Seal laid under his pillow, so the thief missed it.” The purse, however, was stolen with the mace, and the thief, Thomas Sadler, attended by his confederates, made a mock procession with these in the neighbourhood of the Lord Chancellor's house, ( Lincoln 's Inn Fields). Whatever amusement Sadler may have found in this proceeding he had speedy cause for repentance of the theft. Within six weeks he was hanged for the crime at Tyburn.

This was the first Seal handed to the infamous Lord Jeffreys, and by him it was held until it was defaced.

SOURCE: Public Records Office. United Kingdom