Samuel Pepys is well known as the 17th century London Diarist who left us with a humourous, dramatic and thoroughly readable chronicle of London in the years 1660 to 1669. But who now remembers that he was largely responsible for turning the Royal Navy into the great institution it was and is or that he spent six weeks as a prisoner in the Tower of London?
Samuel Pepys is today famous as, arguably, the best known London Diarist. However, in his own lifetime he was known as a great naval administrator and, amongst his friends and acquaintances as one of the leading amateurs of learning in his day. He was the proud owner of a remarkable library which he bequeathed to Magdalene College, Cambridge. He was born in Salisbury Court, off Fleet Street on February 23rd 1633 and Baptised in St Bride's Church on the 3rd of March following. His father, John, was a tailor whose family came from Cambridgeshire farming stock but his own generation included several eminent lawyers, one of whom, Richard Pepy, became Lord Chief Justice of Ireland during the Commonwealth. His wife, Margaret, was a Londoner of humble origins and who was a washmaid before her marriage. They had a family of six sons and five daughters.
During the Civil wars, the young Samuel was sent to the grammar school at Huntingdon and lived, in all probability, with his uncle Robert Pepys of Brampton. Robert was steward to the Montagues of Hinchingbrooke and it is almost certain that it was at this time that the young Samuel first became acquainted with his future patron, the young squire, Edward Montagu, who was eight years his senior and a distant cousin. Shortly after the end of the Civil War, in 1646, Pepys returned to London and was enrolled at St Paul's School. On January 3oth 1649 the sixteen year old Samuel was present at Whitehall when Charles I was executed. In 1650 he was awarded a leaving exhibition from St Paul's School and the following year left London for Cambridge. He was initially entered for the law school at Trinity Hall but transferred to Magdalene before going up.
The characteristics which wre later to enliven the diaries became evident a this time. He was awarded scholarships and made friends easily. One of his closest friends was Dick Cumberland who later became a Bishop and who Pepys hoped would marry his sister, Paulina. His love of the good life was also in evidence at this time. He was certainly known to at least one lady of the town and the following entry in the register for the college testifies to his taste for the pleasures of the Inn:
"October 21 1653. Mem. That Peapys and Hind were solemnly admonished by myself and Mr Hill for aving been scandalously over-served with drink ye night before. This was done in the presence of all the fellows then resident, in Mr Hill's chamber. (signed) John Wood, Registrar." Pepys also embarked on the writing of a Romance, "Love a Cheate", which however he never completed and later destroyed the manuscript.
He took his BA in 1654 and left Cambridge to return to London. Very soon afterward he became secretary and domestic steward in Whitehall Palace to Edward Montagu who was, by then, an MP and a Councillor of State in Cromwell's Protectorate. In December of the following year he married the fifteen year old Elizabeth St. Michel whose father was a Huguenot refugee. In December 1655 Montagu was made a General-at-Sea and increasingly came to rely on Pepys who proved to be prompt in the execution of orders, punctual and, above all, systematic in the keeping of his accounts. In 1656 he entered public service as a clerk to George Downing in the Exchequer and could now modestly consider himself a made man.
He and his wife were not absolutely compatible and they separated around this time. On March 26th 1658 he underwent the extremely painful and dangerous operation for the removal of a kidney stone. It was, nonetheless, a success and by August he had set up home with his wife and a maid in Axe Yard, Westminster. In September 1658 Oliver Cromwell died and the slow unravelling of the Commonwealth began. His successor as Lord Protector, his son Richard, was supported by Montagu who strongly supported sugestion of making he Protectorate hereditary. Despatched to the Baltic in March 1659 to mediate in the war between Sweden and Denmark, Montagu depended on Pepys' letters to keep him abreast of the worsening political situation in London. Richard Cromwell was not politically astute enough to survive in the increasingly vicious atmosphere and was overthrown in april 1659. The following month, Pepys personally brought letters to Montagu in the Baltic and it is at this point that both men began to distance themselves from the revolutionary cause. Pepys returned to England and Montagu made contact with representatives of the exiled Charles II.
The remnants of the parliament that had sat during the Civil War, known as the "Rump" parliament convened after the fall of Richard Cromwell but was dismissed in October when the general officers of the army took over the government in a military putsch which was opposed by many, including, significantly the section of the army under General Monck who was then in Scotland. He began to move south towards the border encouraging the belief that he would support the election of a free parliament. By this time the public at large openly supported a return to the old system of a Monarchy and a parliament. The ordinary soldiers, who had not been paid for months, deserted in droves and the army's rule collapsed in December. London was seething with insurrection. On December 5th the Apprentices mobbed the army and this prompted the fleet to declare, on the 13th, that it supported a free parliament. On the 19th, the Common Council of the City, which had already had secret contacts with Monck, extracted a promise of a free parliament from the Commander in Chief of the Army, Fleetwood. On Christmas the rank and file of the London regiments demonstrated in favour of a parliament and on Boxing Day the Rump was allowed to re-assemble. On January 1st Monck moved his leading troops across the Tweed and began to march south.
It was on this momentous New Year's Day that Samuel Pepys mad his first entry in the diary that he was to keep diligently until, a the age of 37, failing eyesight forced him to abandon on May 31st 1669. It is unique no less for Pepys' self-revelation than for its graphic picture of social life during the first decade of the Restoration. The events leading to that happy event are detailed in the first pages of the diary. After parliament had voted to restore the monarchy on May 1st 1660 The happiest May-day that hath been many a year as he described it, Montagu was sent to Holland to bring Charles II back to his kingdom. Pepys accompanied him as Admiral's Secretary and Treasurer of the Fleet. Pepys, was therfore ideally placed to witness at first hand a seminal event in the history of England and No-one has left us a better account of the restoration or the social life in the 1660s.
After the restoration, Montagu became a Knight of the Garter and Earl of Sandwich. Pepys became Clerk of the Acts to the Navy Board and deputy to Montagu who was Clerk of the Privy Seal. He, his wife and their servants moved into their official home at the Navy Office where they lived until it was destroyed by fire in 1673. Thereafter he rose rapidly in the Naval Service and became Secretary to the Admiralty in 1672. He was hard-working, often starting work at 4 a.m., diligent and acute but he never forgot the fact that he was a servant of the state with a duty to protect the inteterests of it and its citizens. Lord Brayebrooke, who produced the first edition of the Diaries in 1825, wrote: -
From his papers still extant, we gather that he never lost sight of the public good: that he spared no pains to check the rapacity of contractors, by whom the naval stores were then supplied; that he studied order and economy in the dockyards, advocated the promotion of old-established officers in the Navy; and resisted to the utmost the infamous system of selling places, then most unblushingly practised. His zeal and industry, acquired for him the esteem of Duke of York [later James II], with whom as Lord High Admiral, he had almost daily intercourse.By 1678 the Navy had been transformed into a sizeable and disciplined force, much of the credit for which was justly given to Pepys. In 1673 he was first elected to Parliament for the seat of Castle Rising in Norfolk and in February the following year he was elected to represent the Borough of Harwich. However, disaster was to strike. In August 1678, Titus Oates and Israel Tong first made public their twisted invention of the infamous "Popish Plot". The thing got out of hand in the fevered anti-Catholic sentiment that ran through seventeenth England. Eventually, the Duke of York was accused by Oates and his parliamentary supporters of being involved in a Catholic conspiracy to assassinate the King, poison the Queen, take over England by force and subject the Kingdom to the Pope in Rome.
Pepys was accused in the commons of being a secret papist and, along with Sir Anthony Deane, further accused of selling naval secrets to France. He was forced to resign from the Navy Board in May 1679 and was imprisoned in the Tower. On his release six weeks later he threw all his energies into preparing papers for his defence but no formal charges were ever brought against him and he was re-appointed in 1684.
Also in 1684 he became President of the Royal Society but by 1688 he was again in trouble. He had been in close touch with King James II and provided a yacht to bring the infant Prince of Wales to France. When James was defeated and deposed by William III, Pepys resigned his office and never took the oaths to William and Mary. He stood for Parliament in 1689 and 1690 but failed to be returned on both occasions and was briefly arrested twice in these years on suspicion of being a Jacobite Plotter. After this he steered clear of politics and thereafter lived the life of an amateur of learning and a patron of the arts.
His library was vastly extended in this period of his life and was minutely recorded in catalogues, table of contents and indices. The library is now housed in the Pepys Building at Magdalene College, Cambridge. The puzzle of why he was never knighted has never been solved. It is most unusual for someone who had given such public service as he did not to be honoured in this way. It is all the more puzzling given his close contacts with the courts of Charles II and James II. Given what we know of him it would have been quite out of character for him to refuse an honour if it were offered him. After a long illness, Pepys died at Clapham on the 26th of May 1703.
For more information about Pepys, his life and his diaries visit the following links:
For further reading try:
Samuel Pepys : A Life
The Shorter Pepys
Note: For more information about Pepys, his life and his diaries visit the following links:
For further reading try:
Samuel Pepys : A Life
The Shorter Pepys