The Diary of Samuel Pepys
From the Introduction by Kate Loveman
When Samuel Pepys began his diary in 1660, he was a minor government clerk, struggling to pay his rent and watching anxiously as the last of England’s republican regimes collapsed. When he ended his diary nine years later, he was a wealthy and powerful naval administrator whose expertise was valued by Charles II. The intervening years had seen a succession of national celebrations and disasters: the restoration of the monarchy, the Great Plague, the Great Fire of London, and a punishing naval war with the Dutch. Pepys vividly records his experience of living through these events, along with eyewitness accounts that he obtained from his wide network of contacts. His desire to improve himself – intellectually, socially, financially, and perhaps even morally – drove his diary-keeping and resulted in an intimate account of a life lived in dangerous times. Meanwhile, his fascination with the city around him produced a record of daily life in seventeenth-century London that is unrivalled in its breadth and detail. Much of the power and the pleasure of reading Pepys’s diary come from the ways in which national dramas are interwoven with his personal and domestic concerns. For example, in 1667 Pepys was dealing with a threatened Dutch invasion, hurriedly sending additional ships to help the defence. At the same time he also sent his wife and father to hide his money in the country. After the danger passed, there were farcical scenes as the family attempted to locate and dig up the badly buried gold – trying to do so at night, without alerting the neighbours to what was going on. Stealthy excavation was made even more difficult as Pepys’s father, who was supposed to be able to identify where the gold was buried, was hard of hearing. ‘I was out of my wits almost’, commented Pepys. What makes Pepys’s journal unusual among seventeenth-century diaries is his decision not to foreground the end result of this night (most of the gold was retrieved), but to focus on the arguments, exertion, problem-solving and co-operation that led to that result. In writing he captures his experiences and discoveries, so that we discover with him.
BEFORE THE DIARY
Samuel Pepys was born in London in 1633, during the reign of Charles I. His father John worked as a tailor, while his mother Margaret had been a washmaid before her marriage. Pepys was the oldest of their eleven children to live to adulthood. His surviving siblings – Tom, Paulina, and John – appear in his diary, usually because Samuel had determined that one or other was in need of a job, a spouse, or a reprimand. The family lived in Salisbury Court, off Fleet Street. The streets surrounding Salisbury Court were part of ‘the City’, the area of the metropolis within and around the medieval city walls that was run by the elected representatives of the Corporation of London. To the west of the City lay the upmarket leisure and residential district around Covent Garden. Continuing west brought you to the heart of Westminster, to the Houses of Parliament and the King’s residence at Whitehall Palace. Pepys was nine when civil war broke out between Charles I and Parliament. On 30 January 1649, when the King was executed by the remnants of the parliament, Pepys enjoyed a day off from his studies at St Paul’s School to witness the event. ‘I was a great roundhead when I was a boy’, he later recalled in his diary – though it was not something he wanted others to recall.1 Pepys worked hard at St Paul’s. He obtained a scholarship to the University of Cambridge, beginning his studies at Magdalene College in 1651. His time there helped him to acquire the knowledge and manners expected of a gentleman, but that was not all puritan Cambridge had to offer. In 1653, the college authorities punished him after he was discovered ‘in drink’. He also visited a local bawd, Elizabeth Aynsworth, learning ‘a very lewd song’ from her and, presumably, other things.
After leaving Cambridge in 1654, Pepys went to work in Westminster for Sir Edward Mountagu. Although many of Pepys’s immediate family were artisans and tradesmen, on his father’s side he was connected to Huntingdonshire gentry: Mountagu was the son of Pepys’s great aunt, and willing to assist his younger cousin. He was a figure of note in Oliver Cromwell’s regime, sitting on Cromwell’s Council of State. In 1656 Mountagu became a general-at-sea, taking joint command of the parliamentarian naval forces.
Pepys acted as Mountagu’s secretary and helped to manage his affairs while he was away from London. He also took on a second job as a clerk at the Exchequer in Westminster, dispensing and receiving government money. Pepys’s prospects, however, were seriously threatened by an illness that had worsened since university: bladder stones. By March 1658, the pain was unbearable. To save his life, he risked an agonising operation with a high mortality rate. The operation was successful, but he remained wary of a recurrence of the stone, carefully monitoring his lower body for pain. His diary would become a resource in tracking his health and testing out potential remedies.
By the time Pepys endured his operation, he was no longer a bachelor. In December 1655 he had married Elizabeth St Michel, the fifteen-year-old daughter of a French Protestant immigrant. Elizabeth is not named in the diary – Pepys refers to her as ‘my wife’. While this implies (accurately) that he was not inclined to imagine her identity outside of his influence, it was also a sign of his affection: this was a love match, albeit a tempestuous one. Elizabeth had no money, no influential family connections, and she lacked the education to keep up with her new husband’s broad range of intellectual pursuits. But she was, like him, capable, intelligent, and keen to better herself. Just occasionally Pepys became aware that he had underestimated her: ‘she is very cunning, and when she least shows it, hath her wit at work’, he concluded after she matched him point for point in a quarrel over the household accounts and the lowness of each other’s family origins.1 Elizabeth certainly knew how to use the little power she had to win arguments with her husband. The greatest of these began in October 1668 when she discovered his affair with her paid companion, Deb Willet. Elizabeth had far more to lose than Samuel: if their marriage broke down, she was the one who would be left with little to support herself. In her rage and grief, she employed just about all the tactics at her disposal to make her husband feel her pain and to ensure his fidelity. She demanded that he take oaths to prevent future lapses – a strategy Pepys himself used to constrain his desire for ‘pleasure’. Knowing his concern for his reputation, she threatened to shame him by declaring the affair, or else to damage his status by publicly converting to Catholicism. She even suggested that they remove themselves from the temptations of the city by going to live in the country (not a proposal she would much have enjoyed, as she loved London just as much as he did). Elizabeth evidently had a shrewd sense of her husband’s character. Although their simmering disputes frequently erupt in the pages of the diary, they would prove an effective partnership, together successfully navigating the challenges presented by their rapidly changing society.
At the point Pepys started his diary there was no government in control of the country. Strife between elements in the army and the parliament meant 1659 had seen four regimes within the year, as well as a failed royalist rising and riots in the capital. The year 1660 began under the republican ‘Rump’ parliament, which was widely seen as unrepresentative of the electorate. Popular agitation succeeded in persuading the most powerful army leader, George Monck, that the Rump’s government was untenable. Monck compelled the Rump to readmit to parliament MPs whom the army had long prevented from sitting, and to proceed to free elections for a new parliament. The new Convention parliament quickly resolved to invite Charles Stuart, exiled in the Netherlands, to take the throne. Charles II’s arrival was widely celebrated, since many people who were otherwise wary of the restoration of the monarchy welcomed the stability it promised.
One of the most pressing matters was a religious settlement. During the 1640s and 1650s, the Church of England had been remodelled: bishops were abolished, the Book of Common Prayer was forbidden, and attendance at church was no longer compulsory. Presbyterians in the church and in parliament still wanted to see a national church, but one governed by meetings of elected officers, rather than by bishops appointed by a monarch. However their efforts foundered. Self-governing ‘Independent’ congregations formed, opposed to the idea of a state church. Sects with much more controversial views also proliferated: Quakers, for example, valued an individual’s direct relationship with the Holy Spirit over the guidance of the Bible and, shockingly, allowed women to preach. Before Charles’s return in 1660, he promised to allow ‘Liberty to Tender Consciences’, with the details to be determined by parliament.1 This calculatedly ambiguous phrase was taken to mean that the religious freedoms secured in the civil wars would continue, at least for the vast majority of Protestants. However the Cavalier parliament elected in early 1661 strictly curtailed those freedoms: it reinstated the Church of England as it had existed prior to 1642, forced out committed Presbyterians, and implemented laws to penalize and jail those who worshipped outside the state church. The harshness of this settlement remained a source of strife and prompted anti-government plots.
Meanwhile, the nation faced external challenges, not least from the Dutch. In 1665 long-running disputes with the Dutch Republic over trade and colonial expansion led to the official declaration of the Second Anglo-Dutch War. Parliament was initially generous in voting to finance the war effort, but grew increasingly suspicious of Charles’s plans and became reluctant to grant further supply. The extravagance and lax morals of Charles’s court, especially the King’s ostentatious spending on his mistresses, did not endear him to parliament or the public. The economic damage wrought by the plague and Great Fire further weakened the country. At the end of the 1660s hostility to Charles’s rule appeared to be growing rather than diminishing.
In the midst of uncertainty, disasters, and economic crisis, Samuel Pepys was doing exceptionally well for himself. In June 1660, Mountagu (who had facilitated Charles’s return) got Pepys appointed as Clerk of the Acts to the Navy Board. The Navy Board oversaw shipbuilding, supplies for the fleet, and the payment of seamen. As Clerk of the Acts Pepys served as the Board’s secretary, handling correspondence and keeping records. The job came with a fine house at the Navy Office in Seething Lane in the east of the City, where Pepys would live among his colleagues. Pepys was diligent and ambitious. He set out to learn about every aspect of the navy related to his post in order to perform to the best of his ability and expand his role – for he was increasingly convinced most of his colleagues were incompetent. He began to encroach on the duties of other naval officials by, for example, drawing up large contracts with merchants. His own efficiency and the esteem of Mountagu (now Lord Sandwich) gained him other supplementary and lucrative positions in the administration. Besides the salary that came with his posts, he also profited from the gifts and payments offered by merchants who were keen for him to smooth their business with the navy. In the seventeenth century, an official who had exerted himself to provide an efficient service might legitimately take a gift in return – but what distinguished a generous gratuity from a bribe was unclear. In his diary, Pepys recorded the ‘gifts’ he received, along with his justifications for accepting them and the obligations they placed him under. From a man unable to pay his rent in the early months of 1660, he had amassed thousands of pounds by 1668, which he judged would be enough to live well on if he lost his post.