By Jeannine Kerwin
Biographies and Portraits
Elizabeth Pepys, as beautifully depicted by artist James Thomson, after John Hayls here, as “immortalized” at St. Olave’s here and eulogized here, was the wife of Samuel Pepys. She was the daughter of Alexandre and Dorothea St. Michel, and a sister to Balty. Elizabeth was born 23 October 1640 at or around Bideford. Details of her childhood and life after the Diary are quite limited but presented here.
It is not known how Sam and Elizabeth met, but Elizabeth’s beauty and charm evoked such passion in Sam that the couple married when Elizabeth was 15 years old. Shortly after their marriage, but prior to the Diary, the couple had unspecified differences and separated for several months. It is believed that Sam’s jealousy, an issue that would continue for him throughout the Diary, was the cause of this split. By the start of the Diary, the two were reunited and living in Axe Yard.
Elizabeth in the Diary
Elizabeth’s role in the Diary is seen solely through the eyes of Sam as none of her letters survive. The marriage was not “smooth” for either of them. Periods of jealousy appeared on both sides. Sam was unfaithful to Elizabeth and although there was no indication that she was ever unfaithful to him, he often let his jealousy get the best of him, as seen during the months of her dancing classes with Mr. Pembleton. In spite of any jealousy, Sam’s intense feelings of love for Elizabeth were also evoked from time to time, as seen during a sudden illness, which caused such a fear in Sam that he wrote “I thought she would have died, and so in great horror, and having a great tryall of my true love and passion for her”. The couple also shared warm and tender moments together, and Sam truly missed her when they were apart.
Elizabeth’s health was an ongoing issue throughout the Diary. She often suffered from a recurring abscess, believed to be a Bartholin’s cyst, which often made sexual relations difficult for the couple. The couple had no children, and the cause of the infertility could easily have been Sam’s, perhaps due to his operation to remove his stone. Sam never fathered any children with any of his mistresses during his lifetime.
For the sake of spoilers, it is up to the readers of the Diary to assess the relationship as based on Sam’s perspective. Further details of their relationship during the Diary years will not be presented here.
Elizabeth After the Diary
Shortly after the Diary ended, Elizabeth and Sam traveled together to Paris with her brother Balty. In preparation for that trip Sam and his friend John Evelyn exchanged letters regarding Sam’s upcoming travels. The following three letters are excerpts from Howarth’s book, which is cited below. In his letter to Sam dated 21 August 1669, John shared with Sam some wonderful “must see” locations.
“Pray forget not to visit the Taille-Douce shops, and make Collection of what they have excellent, especially the Draughts of their Palaces, Churches, and Gardens, and the particulars you will have seen; they will greatly refresh you in your Study, and by the fire side, when you are many years return’d. Israel, Sylvestre, Morin, Chaveau, are great Masters, both for things of the kind extant, and Inventions extreamly pleasant. You will easily be acquainted with the best Painters, especially LeBrun, who is chief of them; and it would not be amiss to be present at their Acadamie., in which Monsieur du Bosse (a principal member) will conduct you. For the rest, I recommend you to God’s Almighty Protectio; augure you in a happy journey, and kissing you Lady’s Hands remain,
Sir, Your most humble and obedient Servant J. Evelyn
It is not know exactly what itinerary Sam and Elizabeth followed on their trip. The letter below from Sam to John was sent shortly after Sam’s return home and offers his apologies for not getting back to John sooner to thank him for his much appreciated advice. Upon their return home Elizabeth developed a severe fever. This letter, dated 2 November 1669, to a close and personal friend, captures the severity of Elizabeth’s illness and shows the emotional impact on Sam as he faced fears of her death.
SIR. I beg you to believe that I would not have been tens days returned into England without waiting on you, had it not pleased God to afflict mee by the sickness of my wife., who, from the first day of her coming back to London, hath layn under a fever so severe as at this hour to render her recoverie desperate; which affliction hath very much unfitted me for those acts of civilities and respect which, amongst the first of my friends, I should have paid to yourselfe, as he to whom singly I owe the much greater part of the satisfaction I have met with in my late voyage. Next to you, I have my acknowledgements to make to Sir Samuel Tuke, to whom (when in a condition of doing it) I shall beg your introducing me, for the owning of my obligations to him on the like behalfe. But, Sir, I beg you heartily to dispense with the ceremonie, till I am better qualified for paying it; and in the meane time receive the enclosed, which I should with much more satisfaction have delivered with my owne hand.
I am, Sir Your most obliged and obedient Servant. S. Pepys
I most humbly kiss you ladies hands, and pray my service may be presented to Sir Richard Browne [John Evelyn’s Father-in-law, the diplomatist]
Elizabeth died on November 10, 1669. Sam did not attend any Navy Board activities for approximately 3-4 weeks. A selection from a belated letter which Sam sent to Captain Elliot dated 3 May 1669-70, to thank him for supporting him in his unsuccessful election contest some 4 months later follows. It gives an indication of the extent of the emotional impact of Sam’s loss.
CAPTAIN ELLIOT, I beg you earnestly to believe that nothing but the sorrow and distraction I have been in by the death of my wife, increased by the suddenness with which it pleased God to surprise me with therewith, after a voyage so full of health and content, could have forced me to so long a neglect of my private concernments; this being, I do assure you, the very first day that my affliction, together with my daily attendance on other public occasions of his Majesty’s, has suffered me to apply myself to the considering any part of my private concernments; among which, that of my doing right to you is no small particular: and therefore, as your charity will, I hope, excuse me for my not doing it sooner, so I pray you to accept now, as late as it is, my hearty thanks for your multiplied kindness in my late affair at Aldborough,……”
Although Sam did have a future long-term relationship with Mary Skinner, he never remarried. Sam commissioned a monument, a bust of Elizabeth to be made and placed in St. Olave’s facing the Navy Pew, where it remains today. Upon his death in 1703, and at his instruction, Sam was laid to rest beside his wife.
Resources for the above Article
- Letters and the Second Diary of Samuel Pepys edited by R.G. Howarth. All of the letters presented above are from Howarth’s book.
- The Diary of Samuel Pepys Companion compiled and edited by Robert Latham
- A Voice For Elizabeth (this Article includes a list of additional references)
This summary includes links to pictures provided by this site’s Glyn and Graham T. Their wonderful photography skills are very much appreciated.