Writer #2 – The Greatest Diarist of All Time

Samuel Pepys was born February 25th 1633, the fifth of eleven children. Despite local tradition that he was born at his uncle’s house in Brampton it seems most likely he was born at his family home in London. Pepys’ father was a tailor and his mother a butcher’s daughter, this may sound like a very humble beginning but amongst his father’s cousins were Sir Richard Pepys, a Baron of the Exchequer (later Lord Chief Justice of Ireland) and Edward Montagu, 1st Earl of Sandwich. Samuel Pepys’ was a boy with connections, which he would capitalise on later in life.

Interior of the Huntingdon Grammar School in the late 1860s or early 1870s.

Sometime in the early 1640’s Samuel left his parents home for the Huntingdon Grammar School, doubtless this was intended for his safety, London at this time fearing siege at any moment by the King’s forces, furthermore Huntingdon was conveniently close to his uncle at Brampton. The Grammar School in Huntingdon was of course the alma mater of Oliver Cromwell at this time a regimental officer in a cavalry regiment.

Samuel returned to London and attended St. Pauls School by 1645, and was not in Huntingdon during the storm of the town by Charles I. In 1649 and aged fifteen, Samuel attended the execution of Charles I. Politically, Samuel was a “great roundhead”; he remarked to a friend on the day of the execution “that were I to preach upon him [Charles], my text should be – ‘the memory of the wicked shall rot’”.

In 1654, fresh from Cambridge where he had studied at Trinity Hall and Magdalene colleges, Samuel was employed by Edward Montagu. It was the first step in a career that would take him to the very top of the burgeoning civil service.

Edward Montagu, 1st Earl of Sandwich, Admiral and Patron of Samuel Pepys – Portrait by Peter Lely c. 1660-1665

In December 1659, Samuel purchased a paper covered notebook from John Cade in Cornhill London, he ruled a left-hand margin down each page in red-ink and on January 1st 1660 penned the opening line of the most important eye-witness account to the 1660’s. In 1660, Samuel – aged 27 – was secretary to Edward Montagu. Over the course of this first tumultuous year, Samuel’s patron would become the first Earl of Sandwich, whilst Samuel would become Clerk of Acts to the naval board, moving with his wife into their first home and accompanying the fleet that restored Charles II to his throne.

His diary would run to over a million words and cover the 9 year period from 1660 to 1669. In its pages can be found the restoration, the second Dutch War (where his position offered him insight into the “miscarriages” of the war), the Plague of 1665, the Great Fire of 1666 where he buried “the papers of my office … my Parmazan cheese, as well as my wine” and his life in all its detail.

The diary was written in shorthand and partially in code. It was never intended for publication, hence the frank accounts of his extramarital affairs, complaining about his superiors and colleagues and his own introspection on his fears, weaknesses and worries. These give the diary the human touch which has endeared it to so many readers over the years.

The first page and entry of Pepy’s Diary, note the year is recorded as 1659/60 as was the convention at time, the English New Year officially begun on March 25th not January 1st.

Unsurprisingly, Huntingdonshire features in Pepys’ diaries on multiple occasions; his patron lived at Hinchingbrooke House and Samuel had close family living in Huntingdonshire. Samuel met friends at Huntingdon pubs as in 1661 where at The Crown “we sat and drank ale and were very merry til 9 at night” and again in 1667 at the Three Tuns where he lunched with friends. He walked around Portholme meadow, commenting on “the country-maids milking their cowes there”, visited his sister and her husband at Ellington and saw first his uncle, then his father at the house in Brampton. The farmhouse and 74 acres of land would be inherited by Samuel in 1674 – the only home he ever owned.

Pepys’ House at Brampton in the early 20th century

Perhaps the most famous incident at the Brampton house occurred in June 1667 when, in fear of a Dutch invasion following their recent successful raids on both the Medway and Thames, Samuel sent his wealth to his fathers house to be buried in the gardens safe (he hoped!) from misfortune. His wife took £1,300 in gold to be secretly hidden, the deed was done and the wealth safe.

Four months later Samuel came to retrieve his gold, but found his wife and father could not remember the exact location it had been buried! When it was eventually found (just 6 inches under ground to his chagrin) the bags had split open, as a result, Samuel and his friend

with pails and a sieve, did lock ourselves into the garden, and there gather all the earth about the place into pails, and then sift those pails in one of the summer-houses, just as they do for dyamonds in other parts of the world”

Most of his wealth was found, but some was unaccounted for. In 1842, a pot of Elizabethan and early Stuart half crowns was uncovered in the grounds that had been part of the Pepys plot, and were given over to the incumbent Earl of Sandwich – were these the last of Pepys’ treasure?

His diary comes to a close in 1669, as he feared that the writing was harming his eyes, but Samuel himself was to go on a long way yet. He became an MP in 1673, was appointed Governor of Christ’s Hospital, elected a Master of Trinity House and soon after elected a Master of the Clothworkers Company. In 1674, he became Secretary of the Admiralty, where he instigated examinations for naval officers to be promoted to lieutenant, a first step towards the professionalisation of the Navy which was sorely wanted.

The Battle of Solebay, June 7, 1672, just after two o’clock in the afternoon, viewed from the northwest. – Willem van de Velde the Elder

Pepys career was nearly cut short in the midst of the “Popish Plot”, a supposed Catholic conspiracy to kill Charles II. Pepys was arrested and imprisoned on fabricated charges of Treason, Piracy and Catholicism, and found himself in the Tower of London. These false charges were dropped in 1679 and Pepys was released.

Having lost his positions and with various personal affairs to deal with in Huntingdonshire (his father and brother-in-law both having died) he remained out of Public Office until 1683. This year he went on a secret assignment with Lord Dartmouth, to evacuate the ailing colony at Tangiers. This remarkable endeavour has quite the local connection which will be explored in a blogpost later this year!

The title page of Newton’s “Principia Mathematica” with Samuel Pepys’ recorded as President of the Royal Society.

Upon his return Samuel was appointed Secretary of the Affairs of the Admiralty by Charles II. He also became President of the Royal Society; during his presidency, Newton’s Principia Mathematica was published by the society.

Following the death of Charles II, Pepys continued in his senior naval positions throughout the reign of James II, he quit following the Glorious Revolution, when James lost his throne. With his previous links to the Stuart monarchy making him circumspect as a senior civil servant, he also lost his Parliamentary seat. Samuel slipped into a quiet retirement, gathering books for his library, materials for his great naval history (never finished) and corresponding with friends and acquaintances.

He died in 1703 aged 70 in his house in the quiet village of Clapham (now of course a London suburb). His 3,000 volume library, including his diary, were left to posterity and eventually became the property of Magdalene College, Cambridge University. His remarkable diary was only published as a full translation of the coded shorthand in 1899.

Portrait of Samuel Pepys in 1666 by John Hayls.

This is the second in a series of posts about writers with a connection to Huntingdonshire, look out for our post next Saturday!

(You can find our first post on T.S. Eliot here if you missed it – https://huntshistoryfest.com/2020/04/04/writer-1-the-most-influential-english-poet-of-his-time/)

Matthew Calleway is a reader, writer and all round creative type. He can often be found behind a desk planning things for the Huntingdonshire History Festival or else in the Cambridgeshire countryside walking, cycling and swimming in rivers.

Akeroyd, A & Clifford, C. “Huntingdon: Eight Centuries of History”, Breedon Books Publishing, Derby, 2004, 1st Edition

Anon, “Samuel Pepys – Brampton House” Via: http://www.pepys.info/bramho.html, Accessed On: 8th April 2020

Anon, “The Diary of Samuel Pepys: Daily entries from the 17th century London diary”, Via: https://www.pepysdiary.com/diary/, Accessed On: 8th April 2020

Burn-Murdoch, B “What’s so Special About Huntingdonshire?”, The Friends of the Norris Museum, Hunstanton, 1996, 1st Edition

Jeannine, “The Next Chapter of Samuel Pepys“, 2012, Via: https://www.pepysdiary.com/indepth/2012/05/31/the-next-chapter/, Accessed On: 8th April 2020

McCrunn, R. “The 100 Best Nonfiction Books of All Time: No 92 – The Diary of Samuel Pepys (1660)”, 2017, Via: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/nov/06/the-diary-of-samuel-pepys-100-best-nonfiction-books-of-all-time-review-robert-mccrum, Accessed On: 8th April 2020

Partridge, C. “In no hurry to move? Take a Pepys at this”, Via: https://www.theguardian.com/money/2004/may/30/movinghouse.property, Accessed On: 8th April 2020

Rodger, N.A.B. “The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815”, Penguin Publishing, London, 2004, 1st Edition

Tibbs, R. “Fenland River: The Story of the Great Ouse and its tributaries”, Terence Dalton Ltd, Lavenham, 1969, 1st Edition

Tinniswood, A. “Pirates of Barbary: Corsair, Conquests, and Captivity in the 17th Century Mediterranean”, Riverhead Books, New York, 2010, 1st Edition

Wickes, M “A History of Huntingdonshire”, Phillimore & Co. Ltd, Chichester, 1985, 1st Edition

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