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On Quakers, Medicine & Property: The Autobiography of Mary Pennington (1624-1682)


In 1681, when Mary Pennington finished writing this book a year or two before her death, she was an invalid probably not able to go much beyond her own chamber. She was living in Sussex, England, with her daughter, Gulielma, and Gulielma's husband, William Penn, the "founding father" of American Quakers. Mary intended her book as a memoir for her grandson, Springett Penn, but it was a time when Quaker books were often seized by the authorities and their authors imprisoned. For whatever reason, Mary's book was hidden away in the wall by someone's hand and forgotten at her death, if indeed her family ever knew about it at all. An inscription in one of the earliest copies bears this story:

"Nathaniel Williams, his book, 1755, copied by his father from the original manuscript, which lay concealed nearly forty years behind the wainscoting of a room at William Penn's house at Warminghurst in Sussex." (1)

Mary came from an upper class English family. Her parents both died in 1627, when she was three. Her father, Sir John Proude (or Preva) had been a loyal follower of the Prince of Orange. For six years Mary lived with a family she does not name except to call them "loose Protestants," people willing to follow whatever religious practice ruled England without any serious concern for doctrine or piety.

At nine, Mary went to live with her aunt's husband, Sir Edward Partridge. It was in this house that she came under the influence of Sir Edward's sister, Catherine, who ran Edward's household after his wife's death.

Catherine Partridge Springett (1599–1647) was a rich widow whose husband had practiced law. Her young son, William, became Mary's playfellow. When Mary was 18 she married William, with his mother's blessing and perhaps much encouragement. Catherine was to live with Mary even after William's premature death two years later in the civil wars.
Catherine was a powerful figure. She was determined to rule her own estate despite her brothers' vested interests in managing it for her, causing a tension to which Mary alludes occasionally in referring to the Partridge brothers. Religiously, Catherine Partridge Springett was never a Quaker. She was a devout woman who aligned herself with the Independent party, even "keeping" a minister on her property of farms and estates in Kent.

In addition to her role as manager and religious patron, Catherine was also a busy, practicing physician. Mary tells us that her foster mother saw twenty patients a day, was the most skilled surgeon in the region for removing cataracts, and wrote prescriptions that were highly regarded by local pharmacists. She gave her time and resources to the poor, but expected the rich to pay for their own cures. She may have come from a family of physicians; at least one medical text survives that is identified with the Partridges. The earliest version of this text, dated 1588, is called The Widowes Treasure: A medical and vet (physic and surgery) and cookery book (2). Another, printed in 1653 by Jane Bell and perhaps a copy Catherine actually used, is called The Treasury of Hidden Secrets, commonly called the good huswives closet of provisions for the health of the household. Both versions are from the library of a Dr. John Partridge (1644–1715).

Catherine was not the only woman in the family with medical skill. Her granddaughter, Gulielma Penn, Mary's daughter, also became widely praised for her medical expertise. Gulielma's contemporary, John Aubrey, noted that she was "virtuous, generous, wise, humble, generally beloved for these good qualities and one more—the great cures she does, having great skill in physic and surgery, which she freely bestows." (3) In 1947, L.V. Hodgkin lamented that "there is no mention of any skill in needlework or embroidery ... It would have been pleasant to think of little Gulielma being taught to embroider by her grandmother." (4) But clearly the women's skills in this family included a range of gifts that were not traditional "women's work." Such a legacy of gifts in medicine, pharmacy and surgery would have been especially valued by those who avoided adornments and kept life "simple." These skills were apparently practiced without incurring any social censure, with charitable liberty, and deemed worthy of autobiographical praise even in their own time.

While there is no evidence that Mary shared her husband's family's interest in medicine or surgery, Catherine undoubtedly inspired and sharpened Mary's gifts in economic administration, and reinforced to her the importance of maintaining control of both her inheritance and household funds. Mary was also a passionate designer, drawing up the architectural design for new buildings and supervising their construction. Although opposed, first as a Puritan and then as a Quaker, to viewing church buildings as "sacred," she built at least one domestic house, board by board, as an expression of religious devotion. She notes almost wistfully, "if I had lived when building houses for the service of the Lord was accepted and blessed, I could not have had a sweeter, stiller and pleasanter time."

Mary's account, however, goes well beyond its immediate context of English upper class medicine, patronage and economics. It tells remarkable stories about remarkable people she knew firsthand. These include many of the religious dissidents of her day, including men condemned to have their ears cut off, notable Puritan preachers, George Fox himself, and many famous early Quakers, including the remarkable members of her own extended family.

The memoirs are divided into two distinct narratives, with several stories running through both. The first is a narrative of her conversion, first to piety in general, then specifically to Puritan teachings, then, on her first husband's death when she was barely twenty, to a depressed agnosticism that lasted until her marriage to Sir Isaac Pennington and their conversion to the Quakers.

Her narrative about this second marriage is as much about her own industry and economic autonomy as it is about Quaker trials; Sir Isaac was a prolific writer and bold speaker, imprisoned several times, who eventually lost all of his estate, while Mary managed by her own efforts to preserve her inheritance and to support their children on this remnant. She seems to revel in this. She says in one place, for example, "I call my children's a handsome provision, considering it is all out of my own inheritance, having nothing of their father's to provide for them with." When her husband tries to take over her direction in restoring a ruined farmhouse she bought after they lost their fine home, she objects by reminding him that it was bought with her money, not his, and reminds him further, with much "love" and "compassion" of all the "pain" he has caused her by their Quaker trials. Sir Isaac was quick to assure her, she says, that he wished to make her happy in all things. As a result of this exchange, she was able to finish the project much more "joyfully" once she got him out of the way and regained her full power to direct both builders and bankers.

The second narrative text is a biography of her first husband, Sir William Springett (1622–1643/4), commemorating him to his only grandson and namesake, Gulielma's son. William Springett was never a Quaker. Yet he was zealous in all he did: as a child learning hunting, shooting and riding; in his studies at Cambridge; and as a Puritan committed to simplicity. His Puritan convictions influenced both his married life and his zeal as a soldier. "We married without a ring," Mary says. William refused to have their first child baptized, causing scandal to both his family and friends. Both Mary and William were, even before the Quakers, committed to simplicity in dress and lifestyle. As a soldier, William eagerly purged both private houses and churches of "popish" adornments, stripping altars, destroying paintings, and breaking stained glass windows. He was one of those party who believed he was acting out of the righteousness of God in this purge, even stealing priests' robes to give the fabric to the poor. In praising him for this zeal, Mary lauds him not for the acts of violent demolition themselves, but for the evenhandedness with which he practiced it: in all he did, she says, he was fair, impartial, and charitable to those in need.
Mary's remarkable personality and gifted skill as a storyteller shine through both narratives, despite their quaint language. Here we find vivid images of the strong and delightful characters in Mary's life, as well as her own remarkable biography. Her writing talent is all the more remarkable because she had little, if any formal education, before she went to live in the Springett-Partridge household at nine. She notes, in describing her attempts to write prayers at age 12 or 13, "I could scarcely join my letters, I had learned so little a time to write." Yet reading and writing was highly valued in her new home, as critical ingredients in household administration, medicine and religion; there is little evidence of any interest in literature for its own sake by any of the characters in these stories. The maids would read Puritan sermons aloud to the children between the two church services on Sunday, and religious politics was a significant topic of discussion. Thus Mary learned to tell stories, and eventually, if secretly, wrote them down.

The history of William Penn, George Fox, Sir Isaac Pennington, and those who shaped early Quaker thought and practice is well known. As a piece of that history, Mary's memoir was used almost in its entirety by L. V. Hodgkin in her excellent, but now long out of print, biography of Mary's daughter, Gulielma. The memoir itself was last published independently in 1911 (5). The text here is taken from an earlier version published in 1821 (6). William Penn had high regard for his mother-in-law, Mary Pennington. Yet, Mary's story—in her own words—is a fascinating account for its own sake, of women's daily and religious life in 17th century England. It should not be reduced to the influence her life had on leading Quaker men of her day. Although it is as keenly relevant to Quaker history now as it was when it was first written, it speaks to a much broader audience as well. This is no traditional Quaker "testimony," a biography written piously by one's friends to commemorate a sober life. It is the unflinching autobiography of an intelligent and gifted woman, an account of a life marked by social crisis, religious change, and lively personal adventure.


1. Cited in L. V. Hodgkin, Gulielma: Wife of William Penn (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1947), 172.
2. one copy is now in Houghton Library at Harvard University.
3. John Aubrey, Brief Lives chiefly of Contemporaries. Set down by John Aubrey between the years 1669 and 1696. Edited by Andrew Clark (2 vols.) (Oxford, 1898) Here quoted from Hodgkin, Gulielma, 80.
4. Hodgkin, Gulielma, 24.
5. Experiences in the Life of Mary Penington, written by herself. Edited, with an Introduction and Notes, by Norman Penney, FSA, FRHistS (Philadelphia and London).
6. Some Account of Circumstances in the Life of Mary Pennington from her manuscript left for her family (London: Printed for Harvey and Darton, Gracechurch-Street, 1821).