Hannah Callowhill Penn by John Hesselius
Hannah Callowhill Penn (1671-1726) second wife & executrix of William Penn (1644-1718), founder of Pennsylvania, was born in Bristol, England. She was the daughter of Thomas Callowhill, a prosperous Quaker button manufacturer, linen draper, & merchant, & his wife, Anna (Hannah) Hollister. Although she had 8 siblings, by the time Hannah was 15, she was her parents’ only surviving child. They taught her to keep accounts & to understand the various aspects of family commercial ventures, which later proved useful.
When she finally consented to be Penn’s wife after almost a year‘s persistent courtship, he was fifty-two, a widower with teen-age children. Their marriage took place on Mar. 5, 1696, at the old Broadhead Meeting in Bristol; in the next twelve years she bore Penn eight children (not seven as commonly stated). Of these, the first did not live long enough to be named. The succeeding children were John, call “the American” because he was born in Philadelphia (1700); Thomas (1702), later chief proprietor of Pennsylvania; Hannah Margarita (1703); Margaret (1704); Richard (1706); Dennis (1707); & Hannah (1708). Both Hannahs died in early childhood.
In this first period of her married life Hannah Penn made her only trip to Pennsylvania, with her husband & stepdaughter Letitia. They remained in the province just twenty-three months (1699-1701), but during that time she came to know Penn’s associates in the provincial government & gained their respect by her common sense, prudence, & dignity. Though she became aware of the economic problems & developing factionalism in the young province, she was concerned primarily with managing the farm at Pennsbury in Bucks County while her husband was engaged in the business of government. Penn had hoped to settle permanently in the province, but political & financial problems that arose in England required them to return.
In the years following Hannah saw her husband pressured by debts & imprisoned, & watched him grow disillusioned with his contentious Assembly & eventually realize that William, Jr., his eldest son by his first marriage, was unsuitable as the future heir to the proprietorship & province of Pennsylvania. She was in full accord with Penn, as a result, in 1703 initiated his first proposal to surrender the government of his province to the Crown for a cash settlement, while retaining title to the land, & when , in order to pay off his debts, he arranged to mortgage the land to English Quaker trustees.
Hannah Callowhill (Mrs. William) Penn, by Henry J. Wright, after Francis Place, 1874.
William Penn died in 1718. In his will, written in 1712 after his first stroke, he had demonstrated his confidence in Hannah by naming her sole executrix & leaving to her & her children the greater part pf his Pennsylvania land. But by vesting the government of the province to the hands of English trustees he had laid the foundation for a claim to both soil & government by his eldest son, William, Jr., the de jure heir. That claim, initiated immediately after Penn’s death, complicated the last period of Hannah’s life with tedious & expensive litigation over the will.
In 1721, now aged fifty, Hannah suffered what was called a “fit of the dead palsy” which, though it left her mind unimpaired, weakened her physically. From then until her death much of the proprietary business was left to the discretion of the devoted Simon Clement & of her eldest son, John, now of age. Never fully relinquished her right of stewardship, she continued to keep in tough with events in the province & in 1724 concluded a temporary agreement with Lord Baltimore over the long-vexed question of the Pennsylvania-Maryland boundary. By then the mortgage was nearly all paid, & she had come to view the surrender of government with less enthusiasm. She knew that the people of Pennsylvania thought it “inconsistent with the Proprietor’s first engagement” with them; moreover, if the will was confirmed in favor of her family, divorcing the soil from the proprietorship & its perquisites would deprive her sons of their full inheritance.
She lived just long enough to learn that she had won by default, & that Penn’s will would be upheld. A week later she died at the home of her son John in London, following another stroke. She was buried at Jordans Friends Meeting in Buckinghamshire; her coffin reputedly reposes on that of her husband. By her dedication to her husband’s policies & her ability through all her trials to act, as Isaac Norris wrote, “with a wonderful evenness, humility & freedom,” she had succeeded in keeping the Province of Pennsylvania intact & the people contented. Pennsylvania was held by her branch of the Penn family as a proprietary colony until the Revolution.
This posting based on information from Notable American Women edited by Edward T James, Janet Wilson James, Paul S Boyer, The Belknap Press of Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1971