Read about Pepys’s background, events preceding the diary, and summaries for every month of the diary.
Who was Pepys?
Samuel Pepys was born in London on 23 February 1633, the fifth of eleven children, although by the time he was seven only three of his siblings, all younger, had survived. He was sent to grammar school at Huntingdon during the English Civil War (1642-1651), returning later to London and attending St Paul’s School. Following this he went to Cambridge where he attended Trinity Hall and then Magdalene colleges. Not long after taking his degree in 1654 he was employed as secretary in London by Edward Mountagu, a distant relative who was now a Councillor of State.
In 1655 Pepys married Elizabeth St Michel and at some point after 1656, while still attached to Mountagu’s service, Pepys became clerk to George Downing, a Teller of the Receipt in the Exchequer. However, he and his wife separated for a while (for unknown reasons) and in 1658 he had a bladder stone removed in a dangerous operation. Later the same year Pepys and his wife moved from a single room in Mountagu’s lodgings to Axe Yard near the palace of Westminster, where he was living when starting the diary in 1660.
Pepys was a practical man of business but also had a wide-ranging appetite for knowledge. His classical and mathematical education was the basis from which he explored the arts and sciences and he was an accomplished musician.
London offered him all the diversions he craved for: music and women (to the beauty of both he stood in a ‘strange slavery’), friendships, the casual sociableness of the taverns, above all – what only a great town can give – the constant stimulus of new experience. Pepys was always ‘with child to see any strange thing’ – living and savouring every moment of his life with an intensity which never failed, despite occasional spasms of guilt. There can have been few young men in London with an appetite for pleasure to compare with his in sharpness and range. (Latham and Matthews, as above, p.xix)
Events preceding the diary
Pepys begins his diary at a crucial point in Britain’s history. In September 1658, Oliver Cromwell died, passing the title of Protector (king in all but name) to his son Richard. Pepys’ employer, Edward Mountagu was closely associated with the Cromwells’ reign and the 1656-7 attempt to make Oliver king (Oliver refused because he feared the army’s republicanism). Following Richard’s overthrow in April 1659 Mountagu found himself increasingly at odds with the government’s growing republican elements.
The “Rump” parliament was in power from April, and favoured a parliamentary republic, but in October 1659 officers of the army took over, dismissing the Rump. It seemed like the only choice now was a military dictatorship or some kind of return to pre-Civil War monarchy, and the public feared another such war.
On 5 December the apprentices in [London] mobbed the soldiers. On the 13th the fleet in the Downs declared for a parliament, its example being followed soon afterwards by the Dublin garrison and most of the army in Ireland [Oliver Cromwell invaded Ireland in 1649-50]. On the 19th the Common Council of the city of London, already in touch with [General Monck who commanded the most powerful section of the army], secured a promise of a free Parliament from Fleetwood, Commander-in-Chief of the army, to whom a parliament now represented the only hope of pay for his men. On Christmas Eve the rank and file of some of the London regiments demonstrated in favour of a parliament, and on Boxing Day the Rump was allowed to reassemble. Finally, on 1 January 1660 Monck moved his leading troops over the Tweed [river], and began to march south. (Latham and Matthews, as above, p.xxvi)
London at this time had a population of around 500,000, more than half the total urban population of the country. It had a wide variety of shops and entertainment and was the centre of English politics and government, while still being small enough to allow inhabitants to enjoy the surrounding countryside.