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Samuel Pepys' diary, politics, Navy and sex life

Personal diaries have always been essential, to save historians from being totally dependent on royal chronicles and military reports. But what were the chances of a mid-17th century home-based book surviving fires, wars and bombs, and lasting until today? Slim!

Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) wasn’t a member of the aristocracy or gen­try. His father was a London tailor who married a but­ch­er’s daught­er and had 11 children. He was sent to Huntingdon Grammar School in 1642, just as King Charles I started the British Civil Wars. At 15, Pepys watched the execut­ion of the king in 1649. He att­end­ed Mag­dalene College Cambridge and gained a reputation as a boozer.

After university, Pepys got lucky; he linked up with relatives who were gentry, and patrons. Cousin Edward Mountagu was a high-ranking naval officer who hired Pepys as his pers­on­al sec­ret­ary. Pepys had a couple of years to learn every­thing he would need, in order to rise in society: to dance and to buy fash­ion­able men’s clothing.

The very handsome Samuel Pepys
portrait painted by John Hayls in 1666
National Portrait Gallery

Pepys married 14 year old French Huguenot Elizabeth de St Michel in 1655. It was a stormy relat­ionship with a fiery temper on Eliza­b­eth’s side and constant infid­elity on Samuel’s side. In 1658 Pepys underwent a lithotomy, rem­ov­al of a kidney stone via very scary surgery.

Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell died in 1658. When the Rump Parlia­ment was recalled in early May 1659, Lord Protector Rich­ard Crom­well resigned in late May 1659 and the Puritan Commonwealth ended, British life changed.

Pepys’ first diary entry, Jan 1660, had an intimate introd­uction to life in White­hall with his wife. He was moving up in the world, working as a teller for the Excheq­uer. And this was when he used his writing skill and his passion to describe the world around him. Thanks to all the articles in The Diary of Samuel Pepys. From his detailed writing, it was clear he really liked wine, plays, music and the intimate company of many women.

A power vacuum had opened after the Commonwealth ended, leaving Britain terrified as to who would seize power. The return of monar­chy was seen as the safest option, so cousin Edward Montagu quickly allied himself with those wishing to restore the king.

An invitation reached Charles in May 1660, asking him to return to Britain as the next king. Montagu was asked to sail his fleet from Dover and wait at sea, while parliament voted. Now Montague had a new opportunity for Pepys, one that took him into the heart of Eng­lish politics. Pepys accompanied Montagu as his secretary, spending some days in The Hague and writing diary entries.

On board ship, Pepys list­ened in awe while Charles told tales of his difficult escape from Worcester 8 years before. On 25 May 1660, Charles landed in Dover after his exile ended.

Safely in London again, Pepys colourfully recorded King Charles II's coronation in detail, describing the glorious royal robes, dia­monds gold and silver.

Charles II's cavalcade through London, 
by Dirk Stoop
Museum of London

The King’s coronation was the source of much joy after the Puritans’ tyrannical reign. Pep­ys re­corded the founding of the Bank of England and the app­oint­ment of Henry Purcell as organist of Westminster Abbey. He wrote about the contemp­orary court, his household and major polit­ic­al and soc­ial events. And the newly reopened theatre became his passion, as did the coffee houses. Pep­ys recounted having attended 100+ plays and enjoyed the publication of Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan and John Milton's Paradise Lost.

When Montagu was made Earl of Sandwich by Charles II, he in turn rewarded Pepys with a role at the Navy Board. This came with an attractive salary and a home at the Navy Office. He was an effective member of the Board, and this allowed him to rise to more prominent positions eg Justice of the Peace; adminis­t­rator in the English colony of Tangier.

Pepys lived in central London during the Great Plague that swept the city in 1665, sending his wife to Woolwich to save her. He was distressed at the number of graves dug and how many poor sick peop­le were in the streets, full of sores.

Worse suffering followed; Pepys described the Great Fire of London in 1666. He recorded a scene of chaos as people struggled to save their children, and goods that they flung into the river. Pepys, who now moved in the inner circles of court, personally informed Charles II of the fire’s progress, rep­orting the destruction of 13,000+ homes and c90 parish churches. He said that unless his Majesty commanded houses to be pulled down, nothing could stop the fire.

Great Fire of London
London Bridge (left) and Tower of London (right)
Photo credit: On This Day

In any case the glamour was fading. Years after Charles was crown­ed, Pepys thought Charles didn’t have the right priorities. He rec­orded that while the Dutch burned the English fleet at Medway, the king was hunting and dining with Lady Castlemaine. It seemed hypocritical that Pepys was quick to condemn the debauchery of the court yet continued his own adult­eries. In 1667, he wrote that the King and Court were never in the world so bad as they are now for gaming, swearing, whoring and drinking, and the most abominable vices that ever were in the world”.
Remarkably Pepys had surv­ived the Great Plague that killed 100,000 Londoners, and in 1666 his home narrowly escaped the fire that razed four-fifths of the city. But he stopped writing his diary in May 1669 due to poor eye­sight! Six months later, Elizabeth died from typhoid fever.

Continuing to climb the political ladder, Pepys was elected as an MP first in Norfolk in 1673 and then MP for Harwich in 1679. In these years he introduced many improvements and expansions to the Navy while Secretary to the Admiralty, and was widely respected.

But he acquired a few powerful political enemies as well. Accused of complic­ity in the Popish Plot, of selling naval secrets to France and of piracy, Pepys was imprisoned in the Tower of London for six weeks in 1679. He was eventual­ly discharged. In 1689, he was gaoled for plotting to restore the exiled King James to the throne and a year later, he was re-arrested on susp­ic­ion of being involved in an insurrection to restore James.

Pepys retired from public life and lived quietly into old age. He died in 1703 at 70.

At Magdalene Cambridge, Pepys' own college, the Pepys Library is a rare example of a C17th private library and one of the most significant collections of books and manuscripts in British history. The diary, written between 1660-69, was found in this college in 1825, when the shorthand and censored version was pub­lished. The uncensored version first appeared in the 1980s by Hyman of London, supplemented with commentary from prominent hist­orians.


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