1902 Encyclopedia > Samuel Pepys

Samuel Pepys
English naval administrator, Member of Parliament and diarist

SAMUEL PEPYS (1633-1703), was the fifth child of John Pepys and Margaret (Perkins? Piary, 17th September 1663), and was born on 23d February 1632/3. His family was of the middle class, and at this time was in humble circumstances, his father being a tailor in London, while an uncle and an aunt, named Perkins, lived in poverty in the Fens near Wisbeach. His father's elder brother Robert had a small property at Brampton in Huntingdonshire, and Samuel was at school at Hunting-don about 1644. Thence he went to St Paul's, London, and on 21st June 1650 was entered as a sizar at Trinity College, Cambridge, but was transferred on 1st October in the same year to Magdalene, where he became pensioner on 4th March following. On 3d April 1651 he was elected scholar on the Spendluffe foundation, and on 4th October 1653 on that of Dr John Smith. Exactly a fortnight afterwards he was admonished by the registrar before all the fellows in residence for being " scandalously overserved with drink the night before." His love of drink, so constantly illustrated in the early pages of his Diary, would have been a serious drawback to his advance-ment, had not his love of work and order been a still stronger impulse. The crisis was reached on Sunday, 29th September 1661, when he was too drunk to trust himself to read prayers to the household. After that he makes resolute vows against wine, which he often breaks, and with regard to which he displays curious powers of self-deception.

Nothing more is known of Pepys's college career, though he tells us that he was addicted to writing romances. He became a moderate classical scholar ; it is, however, a curious commentary upon the university training of those days that, after his appointment to the navy board, he is found busy with the multiplication table, which he speaks of as entirely new to him, and of his daily progress in which he is not a little proud. After this he becomes en-amoured of arithmetic and teaches his wife the science also.

In October 1655 Pepys married Elizabeth St Michel, a girl of fifteen, of great beauty, whose father, a Huguenot refugee in England, was at this time in very poor circumstances. She was a good cook and a good house-keeper, and was both clever and warm-tempered; Pepys, vain, quarrelsome, fussy, and pedantic, was unfitted, save by a general goodness of heart, to manage a high-spirited girl; and the pages of the Diary are full of bickerings and downright quarrels arising out of trifles, the entries of which, though often amusing, are as often extremely pathetic. Pepys and his wife, who were destitute of funds, were received by Sir Edward Montagu, afterwards earl of Sandwich, whose mother had married Pepys's grandfather. Pepys probably acted as Montagu's secretary. He was successfully cut for the stone on 26th March 1657/8, an anniversary which he always notes with gratitude. In March 1658/9 he accompanied Montagu and Algernon Sidney to the Sound on board the "Naseby" (afterwards the " Charles "). To this he more than once refers as the beginning of his fortunes. On his return he was employed as a clerk in the army pay-office of the exchequer under Downing, afterwards Sir George Downing.

In January 1659/60 Pepys began to keep his Diary. He was at this time living in Axe Yard, Westminster, in a small house with one servant, on straitened means. On 29th January he can count but £40; his great object is to get on and to " put money in his purse ;" and by 24th May 1661 he is worth £500. Political principles he had none, though his personal attachment to James (II.) makes him call himself a Tory; but it is noticeable that even before the Restoration he regularly attended the Church of England service carried on by Peter Gunning, afterwards successively bishop of Chester and of Ely. Of active religious convictions Pepys leaves no trace, but he was ever a steady church-goer ; and the epithets he applies to the sermons are very happy in their causticity. In February he went to Cambridge to settle his brother in his old college. One side of what was distinctly a coarse-grained nature is exhibited in an entry during this week, where he describes himself (as on many other occasions) as " playing the fool with the lass of the house." His views of women, indeed, are almost always vulgar; he was given to clumsy gallantry, and he was certainly unfaithful to his wife. In March Montagu gave Pepys the post of secretary to the generals at sea. While the fleet lay off the Dutch coast he made a short journey into Holland. At this time he secured the favour of the duke of York; and he retained it through life. On 28th June he became clerk of the acts of the navy, an office which Montagu had procured for him against powerful competition. A salary of a little over £100 a year, afterwards increased to £350, was attached to the post, but Pepys had to pay an annuity of £100 to his predecessor in office. On 23d July he became clerk of the privy seal, the fees from which, at any rate for a time, brought him in an additional £3 a day (Diary, 10th August 1660). In this month he took his M.A. degree. On 24th September he was sworn in as J.P. for Middlesex, Essex, Kent, and Southampton. He now lived in Seething Lane, in front of the navy office, Crutched Friars. In July 1661, on the death of his uncle, the Brampton estate, worth £80 a year, came to his father, and on the latter's death in 1680 to Pepys himself. In July 1662 he was made a younger brother of the Trinity House.

Pepys's untiring industry in office, his prudence, his unfailing usefulness, his knowledge of business, which he was ever diligent to increase, and his general integrity secured him the greatest confidence at headquarters. As early as August 1662, when placed on the Tangier com-mission, he had found himself "a very rising man." In March 1664/5 he was made treasurer to the commission, and received also the contract for victualling the garrison, both lucrative appointments ; and in October, through the influence of Sir W. Coventry, he was further made surveyor-general of the victualling office, a post which he resigned at the conclusion of the peace. His conduct during the Great Plague, when, alone of all the navy board, he stayed in the city of the dead and carried on the whole administration of the navy, was admirable. During the Fire also his readiness and presence of mind were of the greatest service in staying the conflagration.

In the spring of 1667/8, in the blind rage at the national disgrace generally termed the miscarriage of Chatham, the whole navy board were summoned before the House of Commons to give an account of their con-duct. Pepys was deputed by his colleagues to conduct the defence, and he did so with complete success on 5th March in a speech of three hours' duration, which gained him great reputation.

In 1669 the increasing weakness of his eyesight compelled him to discontinue the Diary, his last entry being on 31st May. What was to us an irremediable misfortune was to Pepys "almost as much as to see myself go into the grave." He now took leave of absence and spent some months in travelling through France and in revisiting Holland. On the day of his return his wife fell ill, and died in the early spring, before 3d March 1669/70. In July 1669 Pepys stood as the duke of York's nominee, backed by the Howard influence, for the borough of Aldborough in Suffolk, but was defeated. In November 1670 we find him engaged in a quarrel with the Swedish resident, which was likely to have been followed by a duel, as Pepys, doubt-less to his exceeding comfort (for he was a great coward), received an order from the king neither to send nor accept a challenge. In 1672 he was promoted to the secretary-ship of the admiralty; and, when James resigned his office of lord high admiral, Pepys did all the work until the commission was appointed. He was placed also upon the new commission for Tangier.

In June 1673 he was chosen at a by-election, again as James's nominee, for Castle Rising, a Howard borough, but a vote of the committee of privileges declared the election void. Pepys, on the authority of Sir J. Banks and the earl of Shaftesbury, was denounced before the House of Commons as being a Papist; but, when these persons were called upon, they denied any definite knowledge of the altar and crucifix which he was charged with having in his house. The parliament being prorogued, he retained his seat, and is recorded as speaking on 17th May and 26th October 1675, on the latter occasion against the pro-posal made, in distrust of the crown, to lodge the money for the ships in the chamber of London instead of in the exchequer; and again on 11th May 1678, in the debate on the king's message to quicken supply for the navy, when he was sharply reproved by Sir R. Howard for speaking " rather like an admiral than a secretary, ' I' and ' we,'" an amusing instance of how completely Pepys had obtained control of the business of the navy and had identified himself with the work. He was afterwards, in 1678/9, returned for Harwich (see a note on p. 122 of vol. vi. of Bright's edition of the Diary). In the list, however, of members of the parliament which met on 6th March in that year, which is given by the Parliamentary History (vol. iv. p. 1082), the members for Harwich are recorded as being Sir Anthony Deane and Sir Thomas Pepys. An investigation of the records of Harwich leaves no doubt that the Parliamentary History is wrong upon this point, and that Pepys did sit for the borough during this parliament.

On 7th August 1677 Pepys was elected master of the Clothworkers' Company, who still possess the silver cup he gave them on the occasion. He continued to hold the secretaryship until 1679, when fresh complaints of miscarriages in the navy were made before the House. The country was then in the throes of the popish terror. Pepys was accused, on the evidence of one Colonel Scott, an in-famous character, "a very great vindicator of the Salamanca doctor" (Intelligencer, 20th May 1681), of sending secret information regarding the English navy to France (Intelligencer, 23d May 1681), and was again charged with being a Papist. On 22d May he was sent, nominally on the first charge, though really on the second, to the Tower, with his colleague Sir Anthony Deane. As he himself wrote to James on 6th May, " a papist I must be, whether I will or no, because favoured by your royal highness." On 2d June he appeared before the King's Bench, and was remanded three times, bail being refused by Jones, the attorney-general. At length Pepys was allowed out on bail for £30,000. The trial was four times postponed, in the hope that evidence would be obtained, and at last on 12th February 1680 he was released only because Scott refused to swear to his depositions, and no prosecutor appeared, and because his old servant, who had given evidence against him, being now on his deathbed, confessed that it was utterly false. This illustrates admirably the wild injustice that prevailed during that feverish time.

In April 1680 Pepys attended the king by command to Newmarket, and there took down in shorthand from his own mouth the narrative of his escape from Worcester. His post had meantime been abolished, or at any rate the con-stitution of the navy board changed. We find him writing to James on 6th May 1679, asking leave to lay down " this odious secretaryship," and to be placed on the commission of the navy. James urged his claims upon Charles, but the imprisonment in the Tower probably put an end to the affair. In May 1682 Pepys accompanied James when he took the government of Scotland, and while there made with Colonel Legge a tour of the chief towns. In the autumn of 1683 he sailed with the same Colonel Legge, then Lord Dartmouth, on the expedition to destroy the fortifications of Tangier, though not aware when he started of the object of the expedition. The ships reached Tangier on Friday, 14th September. Here he stayed, with the exception of a short visit to Spain, until 5th March, and arrived in London on 6th April.

On his return Pepys was again made secretary to the admiralty. In this same year (1684) he was elected pre-sident of the Boyal Society. At the coronation of James II. he figured as one of the barons of the Cinque Ports; and he sat in James's parliament for his old seat of Har-wich along with his former colleague Sir Anthony Deane, —a fact which illustrates how completely the crown had regained possession of political power in the boroughs. He lost both his seat and his secretaryship at the Revolu-tion, though he was consulted on navy matters to the time of his death. Having been rejected at Harwich in the new elections, he tried in vain to find another seat. His well-known intimacy with and regard for James made him a special object of suspicion to the Government, and in 1690, in common with others suspected for similar reasons, though without cause, he was suddenly arrested and sent to the Gate House, but was almost immediately released, 15th October, on bail (see his letter, Bright, vol. vi. p. 169). He was, however, afraid of fresh attacks as late as Easter 1692 (Letter to Evelyn, Bright, vi. p. 173). It was about this time that he published his long-intended Memoirs of the Navy. He gave, as in former years, great attention to the government of Christ's Hospital, and especially to the mathematical foundation ; and he was concerned with the establishment of Sir William Boreman's mathematical school at Greenwich. He was, too, a benefactor of his old school of St Paul's, and of Magdalene College.

In the spring of 1700, being very ill with the breaking out of the wound caused by the operation of 1658, he removed to the house of his old clerk William Hewer, at Clapham, and, against the urgent advice of his doctors (Bright, Preface), gave himself up to indefatigable study, feeling that his health was restored by the change. He himself, however, on 7th August 1700, wrote in.a charm-ing letter that he was doing " nothing that will bear naming, and yet I am not, I think, idle; for who can, that has so much of past and to come to think on as I have? And thinking, I take it, is working." And he speaks of himself in September as making several country excursions. He was, immediately after this, confined entirely to the house with his old disease of stone, and gradually failed. He bore his long and acute sufferings with extreme fortitude, and died, in reduced circumstances (though he claimed a balance of £28,007 2s l|d against the crown), on 26th May 1703. He was buried by the side of his wife in St Olave's, Crutched Friars, London, on 5th June. His library of 3000 volumes, which he had collected with much labour and sacrifice, and which he would not allow to be divided, was bequeathed to Magdalene College.

The last fact to be recorded of Pepys is that on 18th March 1884, two centuries after his official employment, a monument was unveiled in the church where he was buried to the " Clerk of the Acts and Secretary to the Admiralty" (Times, 19th March 1884).

The importance of Pepys's Diary, historically speaking, may be summed up by saying that without it the history of the court of Charles II. could not have been written. We do not, it is true, gain from it any information as to what was going on in the country. Utterly destitute of imagination or political knowledge, Pepys could only record the sights and the gossip that were evident to all. It is because he did record these, without hesitation or concealment, that from his Diary we can understand the brilliancy and wickedness of the court, as well as the social state and daily life of the bourgeois class. Viewed in another light, it is unique as the record of a mind formed of inconsistencies. To him especially would his own motto apply, "Mens cujusque, is est quisque." Probity in word and integrity in office, along with self-confessed mendacity and fraud ; modesty, with inordinate self-conceit; inde-pendence of mind, with the vulgarest striving after and exultation at the marks of respect which he receives as he rises in the world, and at little advantages gained over others ; high - mindedness, with sordid spite ; dignity, with buffoonery ; strong common sense, with great superstition ; kindness, with brutality ; the eager pursuit of money, with liberality in spending it,— such are a few of the more obvious contrasts. He gained his reputation by fair means, and yet was willing enough to lie in order to increase it; he practised extreme respectability of deportment before the world, while he wor-shipped the most abandoned of Charles's mistresses, and now and again gave loose rein to his own very indifferent morals ; and he combined with courage amid difficulties and devotion to duty in the face of almost certain death a personal poltroonery to which few men would care to confess. The best tribute to him as a man is that in his later years Evelyn became his firm and intimate friend, and that he died amid universal respect.

Authorities.—Diary (Bright's edition; compared with which other editions are of slight value) ; Rev. J. Smith, Life, Journals, and Correspondence of Pepys (1841); Parliamentary History, vol. iv.; Journals of the House of Commons ; Evelyn, Diary ; Wheatley, Samuel Pepys and the World he Lived in (1880) ; and articles in various magazines and reviews. (O. A.)


519-1 Pepys himself gives 10th October as the date ; the registers of St Margaret's church (Westminster) say that the banns were published on 19th, 22d, and 29th October, and that he was married on 1st December. See Notes and Queries, 30th August 1884.

521-1 He carried on an active correspondence with literary friends, among them being Dryden, Sloane, and Evelyn.

The above article was written by: Osmund Airy.

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