by Bill McCann
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. He was born in Salisbury Court, off Fleet Street on February 23rd 1633and Baptised in St Bride’s Church on the 3rd of March following. His father was a tailor whose family came from Cambridgeshire farming stock. His mother was a Londoner who was a washmaid before her marriage.
During the Civil wars, Samuel was sent to the grammar school at Huntingdon and later attended St Paul’s School which he left for Cambridge in 1651. He initially studied law at Trinity Hall but soon transferred to Magdalene where he took his B.A. in 1654. Very soon after he became secretary and domestic steward in Whitehall Palace to Edward Montagu, a Councillor of State in Cromwell’s Protectorate and his father’s cousin. In the following year he married the fifteen year old Elizabeth St. Michel whose father was a Huguenot refugee. In 1656 he entered public service as a clerk to George Downing in the Exchequer. He and his wife were not absolutely compatible and they separated for a time. In March 1658 he had a kidney stone removed and by August he had set up home with his wife and a maid in Axe Yard, Westminster.
After parliament had voted for the restoration of 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. 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. Pepys rose rapidly in the Naval Service and became Secretary to the Admiralty n 1672. 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. However, disaster was to strike in 1678-9. The Duke of York was accused by the perpetrators of the ridiculous “Popish Plot” 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 1688he 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.
The well known and much reproduced portrait of Samuel Pepys in which he is holding a copy of his song, Beauty Retire, is in the National Portrait Gallery, London. It was painted in 1666 by John Hayls for a commission of £14. Pepys wrote of it, “I sit to have it full of shadows and do almost break my neck looking over my shoulder to make the posture for him to work by.”
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