Entrance to Chatham Dockyard
Diaries are rarely honest. I once read the biography of Clive James, who declared that people writing about themselves will always tend to reflect themselves in a favourable light. Samuel Pepys, a seventeenth century naval administrator kept a diary in which he allowed himself not a shred of dignity. We see him sorry for the death of an uncle, but greedy to see the will. During a marital row, we see him tearing up letters from his wife, while she begs him to stop. On Charles II's coronation day we follow our hero from his 4.00am start, finding a good spot on the scaffolding in Westminster Abbey, to his sorry state the following morning when he wakes in a pool of his own vomit: "I fell asleep and slept til morning. Only when I waked I found myself wet with my spewing" (April 23rd 1661). Pepys seemed to value honesty, regretting the fact that "man cannot live without playing the knave and dissimulation" (1st September 1661). And yet he wasn't above dissimulation himself, faithfully recording cheating his colleagues out of money due to them, or the times when he hid affairs from his wife. Pepys also loved the theatre, newly established following a long ban during the years of Cromwell's rule. And yet he also seemed to sometimes feel that it was the devil that dragged him into a theatre, where people made their living through dissimulation. Finally all his honesty was carefully coded in a diary written in short hand and Latin. It would be centuries before anyone got round to translating the Diary. If ever there was a man who experienced the conflicting pull of truth and deception it was Samuel Pepys, living through the difficulties of marriage and life in an age where the wrong views could lead to the Tower.
Samuel Pepys, born on 23rd February 1633, was fifth child of John Pepys who ran a tailoring business in Salisbury Court, off Fleet Street in London. This was a chaotic household, with music making providing an escape for young Samuel, an interest that would continue through Pepys' life. In the Diary he often goes into his garden and plays his lute by moonlight. As was usual at the time, many of the children died - Mary, Sarah, two children called John. Young Sam suffered with a kidney stone, and his health was not good. His reaction to these trials was to grab whatever compensating pleasures that life may offer, a spirit that is wonderfully evident in the Diary he would later write. Unexpectedly Samuel survived, and as he grew older, he found himself, following the deaths of older brothers, as the family's oldest boy, which meant he was picked out for special treatment. A wealthy cousin, another John Pepys, took an interest in the young man, and invited him to Durdans, a grand house near Epsom in Surrey. It was here that John Pepys worked for the Coke family who owned Durdans. Samuel was given the exciting job of playing leading roles in amateur family stage productions. Several visits were made to Durdans, and his horizons were widened beyond the confines of Salisbury Square.
An end to such fun came as England began to slip towards civil war. Even as a boy Pepys would have seen street rioting and attacks on catholics preceding the war. On 4th January 1642 the commotion that surrounded Charles I's failed attempt to arrest five rebel MPs would have swirled outside his Salisbury Square front door. Charles I left London a week later, to begin gathering his army in Nottingham, the English Civil War officially beginning on August 22nd. In 1643 Samuel was sent off to Brampton in Cambridgeshire, where he stayed with his uncle Robert, who worked as an agent at the nearby grand house of Hinchingbrooke. Pepys attended Huntingdon Grammar School, for a year or perhaps two. His walk to school, from the house in Brampton, to Hinchingbrooke, and on to Huntingdon, is little changed since the 1640s. The Nun's Meadow is still on the left, and the huge Partholmew Meadow still lies on the right, described by William Camden as "the largest and most flowery spot the sun ever beheld". The path dips down to Alconbury Brook, passes along the edge of Hinchingbrooke Park, and then continues on to Huntingdon. Once you've passed the railway station, a row of nineteenth century buildings and a ring road, you'll be back in the Huntingdon that Pepys would have been familiar with. This relatively brief time living in the country was followed by a return to London, where Pepys finished his schooling at St Paul's School, in St Paul's Cathedral churchyard. On 30th January 1649 Pepys either skipped school, or school was closed. Either way he made his way to the Banqueting House in Whitehall and witnessed the execution of Charles I. His reaction was generally one of approval.
Magdalene College, Cambridge
In October 1650 Pepys moved to Magdalene College, Cambridge. The government's educational plan was to produce a body of undergraduates sympathetic to the new Commonwealth, and Pepys, the young republican, was thought worth helping. He received a grant of money, and within a month of starting at Cambridge, a further scholarship. Cambridge was at the height of its puritanism, and even though Pepys was a good student he was reprimanded for drunkenness at least once. The young man also wasn't quite sticking to the puritan line when he tried his hand at novel writing, producing a book called Love a Cheate, which sadly he later destroyed while he was tidying up. Apart from his studies, he read books on English history, and performed well in disputations on themes such as "Whether a lettered or a unlettered wife be preferable". He knew Dryden who was at Trinity, and shared with him an admiration for Chaucer. All the while he continued to suffer pain from a kidney stone, which moved to his bladder.
Graduating in 1654 Pepys returned to London, and showed no inclination for the Church, the usual career path for Cambridge graduates. Instead he went to work as a general dogsbody to Edward Montagu in Cromwell's government. An attic room at Montagu's Whitehall department served as his lodgings, and he was responsible for jobs such as ordering riding caps and clothes, and sorting out problems with domestic servants. It was a start, and much enjoyment was had. Inspite of the austere puritan regime there were many convivial meetings in the same taverns which the government was struggling to suppress. Pepys was a member of the good time crowd, working for a government that officially frowned on enjoyment. Such ironies, no doubt, are found in all governments.
Pepys married Elizabeth Marchant de St Michel in December 1655 following a passionate romance. Fourteen year old Elizabeth had no money, inspite of being a member of a noble family from Anjou, and neither did the twenty two year old Whitehall clerk. Both families were unhappy about the match, but Pepys and Elizabeth seemed to genuinely love each other and were swept along by their feelings. Thirteen years later in the Diary he relived the emotions of his early love in describing a rush of memories brought on by music heard during a theatre performance. Initially, however, things did not go well for the newly married couple. Pepys' bladder stone caused problems, which resulted in a frustrated Elizabeth leaving him for a few months. After much hurt, they made up their differences, and in 1658 Pepys underwent surgery to remove a stone the size of a tennis ball from his bladder. This risky and horribly painful procedure was fortunately a complete success, and Pepys vowed to have an elaborate dinner on every anniversary of the operation.
In 1659 Pepys and Elizabeth moved into a small house in Axe Yard. The final months of the Commonwealth played themselves out. Oliver Cromwell had died in 1658, and his son Richard was proving himself unsuitable as a successor. Meanwhile in Axe Yard Elizabeth thought she was pregnant, but this turned out to be a false alarm. We know this because Pepys mentions it on the first page of the Diary which he started keeping on 1st January 1660. Perhaps Pepys started his diary because his bosses in Whitehall, Montagu, and George Downing, both kept one. But they were both important officials of state, while Pepys was a clerk who had lived in an attic. Nevertheless, for whatever reason, he bought a 282 page notebook and kept his Diary for nine years. That first notebook and its five successors still exist in the Pepys Library at Magdalene College, Cambridge. Other people kept diaries to record official events, or as Christian inspired records of spiritual progress or regression. The Pepys Diary was unique in its candor, in the way it faithfully recorded the untidiness, the joy, sorrow and turbulence of a life.
Almost as soon as the Diary began Pepys' life was transformed. During the confusion between Richard Cromwell's abdication, and Charles II's return, Pepys became Montagu's secretary at sea. His first job was to help prepare for the return of Charles II from exile in Holland. He set out with Montagu on the warship Naseby, on which a carpenter was busy removing the Cromwell figurehead. The Naseby, renamed the Royal Charles, then collected England's new king from Holland. On the journey back to England Pepys was on deck, overhearing Charles engaging in one of his favourite pastimes, chatting about his adventures in exile. Pepys wrote about this, and also found time to remark on the king's dog: "which shit in the boat, which made us laugh and me think that a king and all that belong to him are just as others are."
In the confusion, perhaps even the lottery of the Restoration's great social change, Pepys had come out on top. He had a new and better job, and new lodgings in Seething Lane, opposite his new place of work at the Navy Office. Others had not been so fortunate; even though Charles asked for as much clemency as possible, Pepys still had to endure seeing a number of former friends and colleagues who had worked in Cromwell's government executed. In the relevant Diary entries he describes trying to cheer himself up by going to a tavern for oysters, before returning home, getting cross with Elizabeth because the new house was a mess, and then going into his study and putting up some shelves. But Pepys wasn't the sort to stay miserable for long. He was soon enjoying frequent visits to the theatre, describing Charles II's coronation with great energy, drinking, checking out the ladies at the Walks at Gray's Inn, playing his music, having arguments and makings up with Elizabeth, and buying her a necklace to ease his conscience after a fling with two young women.
View From Royal Observatory , Greenwich
By 1662 a vow had been made to settle down and work harder. Visits were made to naval shipyards at Deptford, Woolwich, Portsmouth and Chatham. At Chatham he flirted with the attractive daughter of the rope yard manager. Back in London he would often walk from Seething Lane, across the Thames and through fields on the Thames' south bank to Greenwich. No fields remain today, but you can still follow his route along the south bank Thames path. Walking through Docklands along Bermondsey Wall East you will pass Cherry Garden Pier. This is a distant echo of a cherry orchard where Pepys sometimes took a break from his walk to buy cherries. At Greenwich itself Pepys' enjoyed the view from the hill where the Royal Observatory now stands, looking out over Greenwich Park.
So the Diary followed life, both public and private, through the 1660s. 1665 saw a serious outbreak of plague hit London, and ironically this turned out to be a spectacular year for Pepys. It was as though he was experiencing the adrenalin rush that comes with living through a time of crisis. Living largely separate from Elizabeth he was working long hours, modernising the Navy, making lots of money, sleeping with many women and enjoying himself hugely. The Great Fire of London in 1666 was reported to King Charles by Pepys himself, before he found Elizabeth and took her across the river to Southwark where they sat in a tavern and watched London burn. As "fire drops" floated across the Thames, Pepys was writing about what he saw, using whatever scrap pieces of paper came to hand.
The following year, 1667, was to see humiliation for the Navy into which Pepys had put so much work. The Dutch, who were engaged in a trade war with England, raided up the Medway as far as Chatham. The Royal Charles, the very ship which had brought Charles II back from exile, was taken by Dutch raiders back to Holland. Pepys had been warning of a disaster like this for some time, and had been demanding more money. Because of his warnings he came out of the disaster well. Others took the blame, while Pepys made a speech in Parliament defending the Navy Board, which was very well received.
Upnor Castle, which opposed the Dutch raid on the Medway
The Diary ended in 1669, due to worries about declining eyesight, which in the event came to nothing. Giving up the Diary was "almost as much as to see myself go into my grave" (quoted Samuel Pepys, The Unequal Self by Claire Tomalin). As soon as the Diary ended life darkened for its former author. Elizabeth died on 10th September 1669. Pepys had a bust made of her which was placed in his local church, St Olave's, in London, where it remains to this day. The bust is placed high up and is rather difficult to see. A copy is sometimes displayed at the National Portrait Gallery. A new relationship quickly began, with a woman named Mary Skinner. Not much is known about Mary. They may have met at St Olave's Church, but this is not certain. Pepys and Mary never married, but remained companions for thirty three years.
Meanwhile the government was laying into the Navy Board in its continued frustration following the disastrous Dutch war. Inspite of Pepys good performance following the Dutch Medway raid, he, along with virtually every other navy official, was now under scrutiny. In January 1673 the Navy Office, and Pepys house in Seething Lane were destroyed by fire. Fortune seemed to be kinder in 1674 when Pepys entered Parliament. But his friendship with Charles II's openly catholic brother James, Duke of York, gave rise to suspicions of Catholicism. After centuries of religious conflict between protestants and catholics, Parliament was determined to maintain Britain as a protestant country. Suspicion of catholic sympathies was a serious business. Vulnerable as he was, it was at this point that Pepys engineered his most revolutionary change to the way the Navy was run. In 1677 Pepys proposed that no one should be appointed lieutenant until he had served three years, received a certificate from his captain and passed an examination in navigation and seamanship at the Navy Office. Having experience and training before taking on a senior role seems an obvious requirement now, but it wasn't in the seventeenth century. As Pepys biographer, Claire Tomalin, says: "Pepys had made history at a stroke, bringing about a revolution in the way the Navy was run, fired by his belief that education and intelligence were more useful to the nation than family background and money" (Samuel Pepys P303). In this new navy talented people like James Cook, son of a farm labourer, would be able to rise to the highest positions. This was a revolution for the Royal Navy, and a social milestone generally. Britain may have been known for its class system, but it was on a meritocratic basis that the Navy grew ever more powerful, and would eventually be used to create the largest empire in history.
As the religious hysteria of the late 1680s grew worse, Pepys' position, as an ally of the James, Duke of York, became more precarious. Pepys seemed to have little time for religious disputes, but he liked James personally and was loyal to him for that reason. This was in contrast to his feelings for Lord Shaftsbury, who picked up on the anti-catholic fabrications of Titus Oates, and fanned the flames. James left for Brussels in March1679, leaving Pepys exposed. Mary was taking quinine for a fever, but because quinine had been brought back by Jesuits from Peru, it was called "Jesuit powder" and regarded with suspicion. Pepys' enemies used this kind of irrational hysteria to move against him. Pepys was imprisoned in the Tower of London for a short time before being released on bail. He kept a diary again in 1680 as he gathered evidence for his defence, and this evidence now sits in a huge 400,000 word manuscript volume in Pepys Library at Magdalene College. The gathered evidence saved Pepys from prosecution and possible execution, but he still lost his place in Parliament, and spent five years in limbo. Eventually he was asked by Charles to return to government as secretary for the affairs of the Admiralty.
Statue of James the Second outside the National Gallery
On 1st February 1685 King Charles, who had led Pepys to drink himself into celebratory unconsciousness at his 1660 coronation, had a stoke, and died a few days later. James became king as James II. Dryden, who had also made a career in government, converted to Catholicism to show solidarity with his monarch, but Pepys did not. Treading carefully he served James as loyally as ever, but also contributed money to helping protestant refugees driven out of France by Louis XIV. Prudence was wise. In 1688, James attempted to impose religious toleration by statute. A son was also born to James's wife, which suggested that Britain now had faced a catholic succession. Parliament would not accept this. A deputation was sent to the protestant William of Orange in the Netherlands offering him the throne. Pepys did his job, preparing the Navy for a possible fight with William's ships, but the fight never happened. James was not wanted, and William landed unopposed at Torbay, in what became known as the Glorious Revolution. Out of personal loyalty to James, Pepys refused to take an oath of allegiance to William. For this Pepys was sacked. Now he was out of a job and hounded by the government, spending time in the Tower during French invasion scares in 1689 and 1690. Nevertheless, when circumstances permitted he still entertained and continued to enjoy himself as much as he could.
In the summer of 1692 Pepys shut himself up in his library for three months, ostensibly to do some "filing". The state of his papers suggests that no filing was done at this time. His biographer Claire Tomalin suggests that he was actually reading the Diary of his youth and considering whether to save it. In January 1698 Whitehall Palace burnt down, leaving only the Banqueting House. With Whitehall Palace largely destroyed the world described in the great Diary was gone. Towards the end of his life Pepys was living in what was then rural Clapham in the house of his friend Will Hewer. Knowing that death was near he amended his will to leave all his books to Magdalene College, where they can still be seen today in the Pepys Library. Samuel Pepys died at Clapham on 25th May 1703, and was buried at St Olave's Church. His library was transferred to Magdalene, the Diary sitting unobtrusively amongst 3000 other books. It would be over a hundred years before academics at Magdalene would translate the diaries, and it wasn't until 1970 that the whole Diary was published as Pepys had written it. Pepys' honesty had required such security. But he wanted the Diary to survive and the story to be told. Eventually it was.