[The author Andrew Godsell recently got in touch having written Legends of British History and he offered the book’s biographical sketch of Pepys for publication here. It covers his whole life (and beyond) so there are “spoilers” towards the end if you don’t know what’s coming. Otherwise I hope you enjoy this overview of Sam’s life. You can buy Legends of British History at Amazon.co.uk. P.G.]
Samuel Pepys: A Man and His Diary
The reputation of Samuel Pepys as the author of Britain’s most celebrated diary is rather surprising. The literary reputation of Pepys in his lifetime was limited, following which the personal journal was left in obscurity for more than a century after his death. The eventual publication of the diary revealed Pepys as an exceptionally skilled recorder of the political events of his time, and also everyday life. Pepys’ record of contemporary events has become an important source for historians seeking an understanding of life in London during the mid-seventeenth century. Pepys kept the diary for nine years, as a virtually daily record that was to stretch to more than a million words, with a quality that entertains and inspires people in the current day, nearly three and a half centuries after it was written.
Samuel Pepys was born on February 23 1633, at Salisbury Court, Fleet Street, in London, the son of John Pepys, a tailor, and his wife, Margaret Kite. Within a few years, the autocratic rule of Charles I (reigned 1625-1649) sparked the English Civil War, and at the age of 15, Pepys witnessed the execution of the monarch in 1649. After attending St Paul’s School in London, Pepys moved to Magdalene College, at Cambridge University, in 1651, and left three years later with a Bachelor of Arts degree. After leaving university, Pepys worked in the household of Edward Montagu, a cousin of his father. The subsequent advancement of Pepys owed a great deal to the patronage of Edward Montagu, who would be created the first Earl of Sandwich in 1660. Edward was the great great grandfather of John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich, after whom the sandwich was named in the eighteenth century. In 1655 Pepys, aged 22, married Elizabeth St Michel, who was only 15 — Elizabeth had been born in England into a French Huguenot family. Shortly afterwards, probably in 1656, Pepys began his career as a civil servant, by taking a post as clerk to George Downing (who gave his name to Downing Street) at the Exchequer. Samuel’s marriage to Elizabeth was soon under strain, causing a separation during the late 1650s, and he was also troubled by a kidney stone, which was successfully removed in an operation of 1658. Pepys travelled abroad for the first time in 1659, sailing to the Baltic Sea, where he delivered letters from the British republican government to Montagu, who was mediating in a war between Denmark and Sweden.
Pepys started to write his diary, using shorthand, on New Year’s Day 1660, at the age of 26. The opening sentences of the diary ran as follows:
Blessed be God, at the end of the last year I was in very good health, without any sense of my old pain but upon taking of cold. I lived in Axe yard, having my wife and servant Jane, and no more in family than us three. My wife, after the absence of her terms for seven weeks, gave me hopes of her being with child, but on the last day of the year she hath them again. The condition of the State was thus. Viz. the Rump, after being disturbed by my Lord Lambert, was lately returned to sit again. The officers of the army all forced to yield. Lawson lie still in the River and Monke is with his army in Scotland. Only my Lord Lambert is not yet come in to the Parliament; nor is it expected that he will, without being forced to it. The new Common Council of the City doth speak very high; and hath sent to Monke their sword-bearer to acquaint him with their desires for a free and full Parliament, which is at present the desires and the hopes and expectation of all.
The combination of the personal and political remained a constant theme of Pepys’ diary. Indeed the young Pepys was soon on the fringe of historic events. In May 1660, having been found a place by Montagu, Pepys joined a naval expedition to the Netherlands with the purpose of returning Charles, son of the late king, from exile, ahead of the restoration of the monarchy. The next month saw Pepys promoted to a post in the Navy Board, based at Seething Lane in the City of London, with a salary of £350 per year. Appointment as a Justice of the Peace followed in September 1660. On April 23 1661 — Saint George’s Day — Pepys attended the coronation of Charles II, which was held at Westminster Abbey. In 1662 Pepys was appointed to a government committee which oversaw the administration of Tangier, a colony acquired as part of the dowry of Katherine of Branganza, who married Charles II on May 22 of that year, at Portsmouth. Pepys was to remain a member of this committee through to 1679.
Pepys kept a detailed account of his activities, and thoughts, in the journal — this being the word that he used. Very few days were omitted, although Pepys often wrote up entries in retrospect. His work for the navy was explained at length, as public service was combined with attendant opportunities for private enterprise, enabling Pepys to accumulate a personal fortune. Samuel’s domestic routines with Elizabeth featured in the diary, and trouble with servants was a recurring theme. Pepys obviously enjoyed socialising with family and friends, as drinking, eating, and visits to the theatre were chronicled, along with his progress in learning to sing and play musical instruments. Pepys was a womaniser, who was frequently unfaithful to Elizabeth, and recorded his sexual liaisons with a series of women in the diary. Throughout the diary Pepys wrote extensively, and repetitively, about matters such as the time he got up in the morning, his finances, the weather, and the food that he ate. Pepys regularly ended entries by noting that he ate supper and went to bed. Alongside an active life, and extrovert personality, Pepys wrote about his mind being troubled by various thoughts and worries. Pepys continually tied himself up in knots with a series of vows for virtuous behaviour, and acts of penance when he failed to live up to his ideals. It appears to me that Pepys was suffering from what is now termed Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
The young and successful Pepys often reflected upon his good fortune. Here is his diary entry for October 10 1664:
This day by the blessing of God, my wife and I have been married nine years — but my head being full of business, I did not think of it, to keep it in any extraordinary manner. But bless God for our long lives and love and health together, which the same God long continue, I wish from my very heart.
Pepys had a great curiosity about the world, and used a Latin motto (borrowed from a phrase of the Roman politician and philosopher, Cicero) which has been translated as “The Mind is the Man”. Pepys’ interest in furthering knowledge led to him being elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in February 1665. In contrast to highbrow learning, Pepys showed interest in women of low virtue. Besides affairs with several women, Pepys appeared to aspire to a relationship with Barbara Palmer, Countess of Castlemaine, a mistress of Charles II. Pepys often glimpsed “my Lady Castlemayne” in London society, and wrote in his entry for August 15 1665:
Up by 4 a-clock and walked to Greenwich, where called at Capt. Cockes and to his chamber, he being in bed — where something put my last night’s dream into my head, which I think is the best that ever was dreamed — which was that I had my Lady Castlemayne in my armes and was admitted to use all the dalliance I desired with her, and then dreamed that this could not be awake but that it was only a dream. But that since it was a dream and that I took so much real pleasure in it, what a happy thing it would be, if when we are in our graves (as Shakespeere resembles it), we could dream, and dream such dreams as this — that then we should not need to be so fearful of death as we are this plague-time.
Pepys’ reflections on the Great Plague, a tragedy estimated to have claimed the lives of as many as 100,000 people in London during 1665 and 1666, struck a much more sombre, and appropriate, note on October 16 1665:
I walked to the Tower. But Lord, how empty the streets are, and melancholy, so many poor sick people in the streets, full of sores, and so many sad stories overheard as I walk, everybody talking of this dead, and that man sick, and so many in this place, and so many in that. And they tell me that in Westminster there is never a physitian, and but one apothecary left, all being dead — but that there are great hopes of a great decrease this week: God send it.
On March 10 1666 Pepys experienced an enjoyable day. In between spells at his office in the morning and evening, Pepys spent time with three women named Elizabeth, with these being his wife, and their friends Mrs Knipp and Mrs Pierce. Lunch at the Pepys’ home was followed by a shopping trip, during which clothes were acquired by the ladies, and the group all “eat some fine cakes”. Having recounted the events of the day, Pepys reflected:
The truth is, I do indulge myself a little the more pleasure, knowing that this is the proper age of my life to do it, and out of my observation that most men that do thrive in the world do forget to take pleasure during the time that they are getting their estate but reserve that till they have got one, and then it is too late for them to enjoy it with any pleasure.
At the start of September 1666, the Great Fire of London raged for four days, and Pepys described the disaster at length in his diary. On September 4, the penultimate day of the fire, Pepys recorded the burying of important possessions in his garden as a means of protecting them from the advancing blaze — the items included “papers of my office” plus “my parmazan cheese as well as my wine”. Pepys concluded this entry:
W. Hewer [Pepys’ clerk] this day went to see how his mother did, and comes home late, but telling us how he hath been forced to remove her to Islington, her house in pye Corner being burned. So that it is got so far that way and all the Old Bayly, and was running down to Fleetestreet. And Pauls is burned, and all Cheapside. I wrote to my father this night; but the post-house being burned, the letter could not go.
The Pauls to which Pepys referred was the old St Paul’s Cathedral. This cathedral had been built by the Normans to replace the Church of St Paul the Apostle, which had been wrecked by fire in 1087. The tomb of Ethelred “the Unready”, which had escaped the effects of the blaze in 1087, was lost in the fire of 1666. Two years later Pepys recorded the demolition of the ruins of St Paul’s, ahead of a planned re-building. The current St Paul’s Cathedral was constructed between 1675 and 1710. Although St Paul’s has not staged as many state occasions as Westminster Abbey, the former was the venue for the marriage of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer in 1981 — this being the first royal wedding at the site since Prince Arthur wedded Catherine of Aragon at the previous St Paul’s in 1501.
The catastrophes of plague and fire in London coincided with national crisis, as Britain endured the Second Dutch War between 1665 and 1667. With this war against the Netherlands revolving around naval battles — including an audacious Dutch raid along the River Thames in June 1667 — Pepys had an important administrative role. In both 1667 and 1668 Pepys appeared on behalf of the navy before Parliamentary committees investigating its work. Pepys recorded his actions of March 5 1668 with pride:
After the Speaker had told us the dissatisfaction of the House, and read the report of the Committee, I begin our defence most acceptably and smoothly, and continued at it without any hesitation or losse but with full scope and all my reason free about me, as if it had been at my own table, from that time till past 3 in the afternoon; and so endeed without any interruption from the Speaker, but we withdrew. And there all my fellow-officers, and all the world that was within hearing, did congratulate me and cry up my speech as the best thing they ever heard, and my fellow-officers overjoyed in it.
During June 1668 Pepys took a holiday tour of southern England. This included a visit to Stonehenge on June 11, which Pepys recorded as follows:
To Stonehege, over the plain and some prodigious great hills, even to fright us. Came thither, and find them as prodigious as any tales I ever heard of them, and worth going this journey to see. God knows what their use was. They are hard to tell, but yet may be told.
The tales of Stonehenge transfix contemporary visitors, in the same way as they captured the imagination of Pepys in the seventeenth century.
In his diary entry for February 23 1669, Samuel records a rather disturbing incident, during a day out with his wife plus two of his relatives, Bab and Betty Pepys:
I now took them to Westminster Abbey and there did show them all the tombs very finely, having one with us alone (there being other company this day to see the tombs, it being Shrove Tuesday); and here we did see, by perticular favour, the body of Queen Katherine of Valois, and had her upper part of her body in my hands. And I did kiss her mouth, reflecting upon it that I did kiss a Queen, and that this was my birthday, 36 years old, that I did first kiss a Queen.
At this point, two hundred and thirty two years had passed since the death of Katherine, who was the widow of Henry V.
Pepys ceased writing the diary on May 31 1669, fearing for his eyesight. He had been experiencing pains in his eyes for five years, and these were to continue for the remainder of his life, but Pepys’ worry that he would go blind proved unfounded. More importantly, an unexpected tragedy struck later in 1669, as Elizabeth died on November 10, from the effects of a fever caught during an extended holiday with Samuel in the Netherlands, Flanders, and France. Elizabeth was just 28 at her death, and Samuel was left a widower — he never re-married.
During the next few years, Pepys continued to advance as a civil servant, and became Secretary to the Admiralty Commission in 1673. Pepys also began a new career as a politician, being MP for Castle Rising, in Norfolk, from 1673 until 1678. Pepys was briefly MP for Harwich during 1679, but in that year he fell from grace, being falsely accused of involvement in the “Popish Plot”, and imprisoned in the Tower of London for six weeks. In 1680 Pepys produced an account of Charles II’s escape after the Battle of Worcester in 1651, when he famously hid in the Boscobel Oak — with this being dictated by the king. During 1683 and 1684 Pepys was at Tangier, participating in the British abandonment of the colony, and wrote a diary of his experiences, which was to be published in 1841, but lacks the greatness of the journal from the 1660s. In 1684 Pepys was appointed Secretary for Naval Affairs, and also elected as President of the Royal Society — he was to hold the latter position for two years.
Charles II died in 1685, being succeeded by James II, his brother, and Pepys returned to Parliament, as MP for Harwich. James II’s attempts to restore Catholicism to Britain were to lead to his downfall. In 1688, twenty eight years after Charles II had returned from the Netherlands, his nephew William of Orange, a Dutchman who was married to Mary, a daughter of James II, invaded England, landing at Brixham in Devon. The arrival of William of Orange prompted James to flee to France, whereupon Parliament formally concluded that he had abdicated. William III and Mary II took the throne as joint monarchs on February 13 1689. Pepys, who had been defeated at Harwich in a General Election during January 1689, disapproved of the new regime, and resigned from his post as Naval Secretary seven days after William and Mary were appointed as monarchs. This proved to be the end of Pepys’ distinguished career in public service. In an echo of the events of 1679, Pepys was falsely suspected of Jacobite activities, being imprisoned in 1689, and again the following year. In 1690 Pepys published “Memoires Relating to the State of the Royal Navy”, a book about his administrative career.
During retirement, Pepys’ main enthusiasm was the massive expansion, and cataloguing, of his library, which grew to more than 3,000 volumes — with books being combined with manuscripts and other materials. Pepys received great assistance in the library project from his nephew, John Jackson. In his will, Pepys bequeathed the library to Jackson, with the instruction that upon the death of the latter the collection should be transferred to Magdalene College — where Pepys had been a student as a youth — to be preserved “for the benefit of posterity”. Samuel Pepys moved from London to Clapham (at that time a small town beyond the boundaries of the capital city) in 1701, and it was at Clapham that he died, on May 26 1703, aged 70.
Pepys’ diary was moved to Magdelene College in 1724, the year after the death of John Jackson. A century passed, however, before the shorthand diary was transcribed by John Smith, a student at the college. A relatively short selection from Pepys’ diary, edited by Lord Braybrooke, was published in 1825 by Henry Colburn (the man who issued Benjamin Disraeli’s debut novel, “Vivian Grey”, to a rather baffled readership the following year). Three further editions of Braybrooke’s version of the diary were to be published, each of these being slightly expanded. A new transcription of the diary by Mynors Bright appeared in six volumes, comprising about eighty per cent of the full text, between 1875 and 1879. Following the death of Bright in 1883, a further version of his transcription, edited by H B Wheatley, was published in ten volumes between 1893 and 1899. Wheatley’s version represented about ninety per cent of the diary, with most of the omissions being made in line with what was considered decent in nineteenth century Britain. The full diary was finally published as “The Diary of Samuel Pepys, a New and Complete Transcription”, edited by Robert Latham and William Matthews, running to eleven volumes, including extensive commentary, between 1970 and 1983. Matthews died in 1976 before this labour of love was completed. Latham subsequently edited “The Shorter Pepys”, a single volume condensation of the edition he had worked on with Matthews, containing about a third of the text of the diary, which was published in 1985. This was reissued in 2003 as “The Diary of Samuel Pepys: A Selection”, and provides the most accessible version of the diary.
I follow in the footsteps of Pepys as somebody who writes a regular diary, and share his interest in government administration, being a former civil servant, and current local government officer. My civil service career lasted a mere nine months, during 1996 and 1997, when I worked for the Intervention Board, an offshoot of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The Intervention Board, which was based in Reading, and has since been converted into the Rural Payments Agency, administered the European Union’s infamous Common Agricultural Policy. I arrived a few weeks after the EU banned the export of British beef, due to the effects of BSE. With the BSE crisis dominating the organisation’s activity at the time, staff referred to the Intervention Board as the Ministry of Mad Cows.
Three hundred and twenty four years after the opening of Pepys’ journal, I started my diary on the first day of 1984. Two years later I read a commentary on Pepys’ work, in “A Book of One’s Own: People and Their Diaries” by Thomas Mallon (published 1984). This was followed in 1988 by my reading numerous passages by Pepys in “The Faber Book of Diaries”, edited by Simon Brett (published 1987). Having enjoyed these introductions to Pepys, I planned to read more of his diary, but must admit that for many years I was daunted by the length of the work. After all, the drastic edit that is Latham’s single volume edition has a text that runs to over a thousand pages. I acquired a copy of Latham’s 2003 version of Pepys’ diary four years after its appearance, and began reading it early in 2008. A few months later, I am still reading Samuel Pepys’ diary. On most days I enjoy the routine of reading a few of Pepys’ diary entries, normally late in the evening, as supper is followed by bed.