Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Quaker Alphabet Blog Week 31 - P for Mary Penington

Portrait of Mary Springett now in Pennsbury Manor PA
Mary was born in 1625, the only child of Sir John Proud and Anne Fagge of Ewell in Kent. Her father was killed while serving under the Prince of Orange in Holland when she was three and her mother died soon afterwards, leaving her an orphan. Until she was eight or nine she was taken care of by a family she describes as a 'kind of loose Protesttants' but then she joined the household of Sir Edward Partridge in Kent. Here also lived Sir Edward's widowed sister Katherine Springett and her three children, William, Herbert and Catherine.

Mary's religious quest, which she wrote about later in her spiritual autobiography, was for the nature of true prayer. This led her to absent herself from Church services and then from family prayers and brought her into conflict with her guardian. He warned her that her behaviour was putting her chances of a respectable marriage at risk as 'no gentleman was of this way.' But his threats proved groundless when William Springett returned from his studies in Cambridge with many of the same convictions as Mary.

Mary and William were married, without the use of a ring, in 1642, when she was about 18 and he was 20. Together they espoused a kind of Puritanism which put a premium on spontaneity and on using one's own words in prayer 'from the heart'. They therefore stood firm against premeditated prayers which had been written down by others and were then repeated by rote. They went to extreme lengths, tearing from their Bible those passages, such as the ;singing psalms' and the Lord's Prayer, which offended them.

Memorial to William Springett in Ringmer church
By Mary's account it was a marriage of true minds, but they had only just over two years together before William became ill with a fever contracted while besieging Arundel for Parliament. Heavily pregnant and accompanied by her small son Mary made an arduous journey to be with him but in spite of her desperate ministrations he died soon after she arrived. When his will was read it became evident that William had committed most of his money and lands to the Parliamentary cause and Mary was left in straightened circumstances. When their daughter was born she was named Gulielma after her father and Mary stood out against her family and friends enough to refuse to have her baptised, thus becoming, as she says, 'a by-word and hissing among the people of my own rank in the world.'

Mary was helped by her mother-in-law Katherine Springett and the two women lived together until 1647 when Katherine also died. Her son John had died in infancy so Mary and her daughter were left more isolated than ever. Although their worldly needs were taken care of Mary's account of the next seven years is one of drifting in spiritual despair, trying to distract herself with her old pastimes but failing to find any satisfaction.
Gulielma Springett Penn

In 1654, on a visit to London, Mary met Isaac Penington, the son of the Lord Mayor. He was also searching for a spiritual home and understood something of what she had been going through. They were married in the same year when she was twenty nine and he was thirty eight and continued their spiritual quest together. They encountered Quakers and were reluctantly drawn to them, in spite of misgivings about a movement led by mainly lower class and ill-educated people. Mary had deep misgivings about the Quaker testimony to equality which would require her to 'take up the cross to the language, fashions, customs, titles, honour, and esteem in the world' and struggled for some time to fully leave the security of her upper-class position and regard everyone as her equal. In the end, however, she acknowledged that the Quakers had what she was looking for and in 1658 Mary and Isaac were convinced.

Bury Farm, Amersham
They knew that this decision would result in hardship and indeed it did. Isaac was imprisoned six times altogether and lost all his estates through his refusal to take an oath in a court of law. Mary and Isaac had five children and it fell to Mary to support her a growing family. With no home of their own the family rented Bury Farm in Amersham for some time but then Mary bought a very delapidated house called Woodside nearby and gained much pleasure from renovating and extending it over a period of four years from about 1669. While Isaac, the wise and gentle scholar, wrote his many important books on Quakerism and letters to a wide acquaintance, Mary made a comfortable home for him and the rest of her family.
William Penn as a young man

In 1672 Mary's daughter Gulielma married William Penn and in 1679 when Isaac died Mary moved in with her daughter and son in law at Worminghurst in Sussex. She was not in good health so she drew up her will, put together the writings which make up her spiritual autobiography and died in 1682 at the age of fifty-seven. Her spiritual autobiography was passed down in her family but was not published until 1911 [reprinted by Friends Historical Society 1992]. Although this was probably done more because of her famous husband and son in law than for her own sake, these remain Mary's words and Mary's life. 

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