William Penn, at the age of 22 years, was a student (1666-1668) at the Protestant Academy in Saumur in the Loire Valley, France. Until the Academy was closed and demolished at the time of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685) it was one of the foremost of European protestant institutions of higher learning with leading philosophers including, the locally born, Moise Amyraut (1596 – 1664). Amyraut, who, like Penn, moved from the study of Law to that of philosophy, was one of William Penn’s teachers and Penn probably stayed at his house during his time in Saumur.
During 20th-22nd of May, 2011 there were a series of events held to mark William Penn’s time as a student in Saumur; this included the dedication of a town square in his name. However, because of the separation of church and state in France, not all the proceedings met Quaker preferences. As, Quaker, Mark Millington who was present at the commemorative events wrote:
“…the event at Saumur felt distinctly ‘different’. A distinct clue was provided by the presence of sponsorship advertising by local business and in particular by the ‘Caves’ or local vineyards.
The event was organised by the municipality of Saumur through the office for heritage and culture with collaboration from members of France Yearly Meeting. The convention in France for there being a complete separation between the state and all matters religious meant that none of the material prepared by the local council could contain any reference to there being a religious element to the week-end. This contributed in no small measure to a certain degree of confusion regarding parts of the programme. Nevertheless and despite the translation facilities and conference administration being somewhat haphazard it proved to be an illuminating and most enjoyable experience for at least one non French speaking participant!
It was possible to deduce that there were a number of parallel agenda for the event. The local municipality seemed anxious to lay claim to its connection with William Penn and through him to Philadelphia and the United states. France Yearly Meeting, either corporately or through individual members sought the opportunity to bring the word ‘Quaker’ before a wider audience.” For the full article click here.
Typically, the local French authorities do not refer to the slave holdings of the Penn family nor the murder and displacement of Catholics in Ireland or of the displacement of Native Americans from what is now Pennsylvania. Rather, they draw out only those aspects of Penn’s life which coincided with their own political agenda. The poster used to promote the weekend events (above) with the image of Penn as a peace lover and promoter of brotherhood typifies the continual sanitisation of the man and his life by numerous public bodies world-wide.
At the start of the weekend’s events there was a guided tour through the old town to visit where once stood the Academie de Saumur. This tour ended at the Temple of the Reformed Church of France just beyond the line of the old city walls. Here there was an unveiling of an information plaque and the new place-name plaque commemorating William Penn.
During the weekend a paper was
presented by Betty Hagglund from the Quaker Study Centre at Woodbrooke, England focusing on the probable life of Penn whilst a student at the Saumur Academy. I’ve been in touch with Betty to see if she’ll make the paper available – hopefully I’ll post an extraction the near future.