Rambling through Chesham and Amersham
Each constituency has a unique and fascinating history
One of the joys of a political life is that, due to by-elections, I get to visit parts of these islands that I would rarely have the chance to visit. Powered by tea, ale, and Pevsner one can discover so much, slumbering beneath the surface. The focus of the politically interested has homed in on Chesham and Amersham. What follows is a rambling, localised footnote to our history, indeed a footnote full of footnotes.
The constituency almost entirely fits into the old Burnham hundred of Buckinghamshire. Famously one of the old Chiltern Hundreds, the appointment to the Stewardship of which now echoes through history as a way of resigning one’s seat in the Commons. The Stewardship, or more properly the “Crown Steward and Bailiff of the three Chiltern Hundreds of Stoke, Desborough and Burnham”, was originally created as the Chilterns were lawless lands, and needed someone to ensure that the King’s writ and the Common Law applied there as elsewhere. The role mutated until by the reign of Elizabeth it was a courtesy title in the gift of the monarch. Post the restoration, Parliament passed a Bill stating that if an MP accepted a post from the crown, they would be, “expelled [from] this House.” Given that resignation of one’s seat was at that point illegal, this allowed a member to gracefully bow out.
Foremost amongst these families are the Penns, long established in Penn, a village near Amersham, spawned Admiral Sir William Penn
The lawlessness begat a strong tradition of non-conformity. After the death of philosopher, theologian and proto-Eurosceptic, John Wycliffe, in 1384, his ideas — primarily that the Bible should be understood in the vernacular English, and a distaste for the Papacy and all its works, spread into Buckinghamshire.
Though tolerated in a large part, the religious enthusiasms of the 1500’s resulted in the rounding up of local Lollards who looked on Wycliffe as their guide. From about 1500 there were regular burnings in Chesham of dissenters, with one, William Tylesworth, being burnt in 1506 (his children were forced to light the pyre). Six more were burned in 1521, while in 1532, another Thomas Harding, was arrested for reading Tynedale’s “The Obedience of a Christian Man”, which advocated again the separation of Church and state and for the English King to be supreme ruler in his own lands. He was unfortunate in his timing as Henry VIII was to use this text as a key intellectual pretext underlining his split with Rome the following year. Not soon enough for Harding who, according to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, “was then chained to a stake, erected for the purpose, at Chesham in the Dell, near Botely; and when they had set fire to the fagots, one of the spectators dashed out his brains with a billet”. One isn’t sure, it isn’t made clear, whether this was an act of mercy or rage.
The spirit of non-conformity in the area was not extinguished, but rather the embers kept the fires alive. As the centuries turned, the family names of those who suffered for their Lollardism are repeated amongst those who became Puritans, Baptists and Quakers.
Foremost amongst these families are the Penns, long established in Penn, a village near Amersham, spawned Admiral Sir William Penn, Cromwellian Admiral of the Fleet, capturer of Jamaica. Switching to Charles II he had the distinction of knighthoods under both the Commonwealth and Royalist regimes. Pepys described him as a, “hypocritical rogue… and atheist”. His son, also William Penn, foreswore such carrying on, and became a Quaker, welcoming George Fox, the founder of the movement, to the village. Penn himself spent fair amounts of time in prison for his faith. Once following a post-sermon riot, a jury refused to convict him. This, despite the jurors themselves being imprisoned and threatened with being fined and/or having their noses slit. The case became the foundation of the principle that a jury must be allowed to act under its own conscience.
Penn somehow managed to persuade his dying, atheist father to accept his religious views and he inherited the estate in 1670, including a credit note from the monarch amounting to £16,000.
The note was cashed in 1681, when he persuaded the King to grant him lands in America near the Delaware River. The King agreed to his desire to name it Sylvania, but Penn’s protests of Quaker modesty were pushed aside when the King demanded that the prefix Penn be added in honour of the Admiral.
Meanwhile a few miles south, in Chalfont St Giles another giant of Puritanism, John Milton arrived. The great poet was in near hiding having been appointed Cromwell’s Secretary for Foreign Tongues. Blind he arrived as a refugee from the London plague in 1665. Here he finished Paradise Lost and started Paradise Regained. The paradise regained is largely based on his time in Chalfont.
Up the lane in Penn, William Penn married the delightfully named Gulielma Maria Posthuma Springett, daughter of a puritan captain and stepdaughter of Isaac Pennington, son of a regicide judge. They moved into a house at Tilers Green, near Penn. Before decamping to his new lands in America and building Pennsbury Manor near his plantation of Philadelphia. Penn returned to Penn to sort territorial disputes with Lord Baltimore. He stayed in England, having been bankrupted by a dodgy agent, and is buried, five miles from Penn in the grounds of the Jordan’s Quaker Meeting House, built in 1688 and described by Simon Jenkins as “the Quaker Westminster Abbey”.
While all this was going on, more Penns appear, also based in Penn. Nobody can prove if they are related to the Quaker Penns, but they certainly thought so, as did the other Penns, if nothing else they share a heraldry, but that might have been wishful thinking on one or the other family’s part.
Politicians need to remember that they are never ground zero, but merely the inheritors of things more marvellous
These Penns, of Penn, descend from William Penn — no, not that one, but another local Parliamentarian, William Penn. He was the Sheriff of Buckinghamshire during the Commonwealth but also switched sides in 1660 to support the restoration. These Penns married Curzons, who in turn rebuilt Penn House, and through the vagaries of the aristocratic succession became the Viscounts Curzon. They married the Howe’s who made their name by taking Philadelphia in the American War of Independence. The current and seventh Earl Howe is a Penn Curzon, the 30-year Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, and yes, lives in Penn.
Penn was also the site of one of medieval England’s greatest industrial endeavours. The house that William Penn (Quaker) lived in with Guilelma was Tilers Green. This was named after the great Penn based industry of tiling. First recorded at Penn in 1222, tile making was a cottage industry that grew large. If you have ever wondered where those scuffed medieval encaustic tiles in many a chancel floor came from, the likelihood it was from here. In the 1350s, 258,000 were ordered for Westminster and Windsor alone. The scale of the endeavour is boggling, given the only power available was man, horse and ox. Tiles from Penn have been found in Canterbury, Hereford, Winchester and Bristol, and as far afield as Tresco on the Scilly Islands.
And so on. In every corner of these islands, in each and every one of its parliamentary constituencies are similar tales, similar stories. Politicians need to remember that they are never ground zero, but merely the inheritors of things more marvellous, more interesting than they will ever be themselves.
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