7 things you (probably) didn’t know about Samuel Pepys

The diary of Samuel Pepys (1633–1703) gives us a fly-on-the-wall account of London life in the 17th century – from the triumphant return of Charles II to the disasters of the plague and the Great Fire of London. Writing for History Extra, Deborah Swift, author of a new novel Pleasing Mr Pepys, reveals seven things you might not know about the renowned diarist…

A portrait of Samuel Pepys

Samuel Pepys began his diary on 1 January 1660, adding entries until 1669, when the fear that writing in dim light was making him blind brought those entries to an end. His fears were unfounded, but mysteriously he never returned to writing his personal diary. A naval administrator who rose to become chief secretary of the Admiralty commission, Pepys helped to bring an important new professionalism to the Royal Navy. But you might not know…

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1

He kissed a dead queen

Pepys never once mentions his wife’s birthday in his diary, but often mentions his own. No cake or candles for Pepys though; on his birthday in 1669 he took his wife and servants to Westminster Abbey to show them the tombs. The open coffin of Catherine de Valois (queen to Henry V) was accessible to the public “by particular favour”, and Pepys was able to view the mummified remains.

Queen Catherine’s body had been languishing there since the time of Henry VII, when the Lady Chapel – where she was buried – was demolished. It has been suggested that Henry ordered her memorial to be destroyed in order to distance himself from his ancestry [Henry VII’s father, Edmund, was the eldest son of a possibly illegitimate union between Catherine de Valois and her keeper of the wardrobe, Owen Tudor].

The effigy of Catherine de Valois
The effigy of Catherine de Valois in Westminster Abbey, London. Photographed in the 1950s. (Photo by David E. Steen/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Pepys tells us:I did kiss her mouth, reflecting upon it that I did kiss a Queen, and that this was my birth-day, 36 years old, that I did first kiss a Queen.” This behaviour might seem odd to us today, but kissing a relic was in the 17th century usually a sign of reverence – though Pepys does seem to have done it with surprising enthusiasm.

2

He loved the play Macbeth

Pepys was a great theatre-goer, but he was not overly impressed by the talents of renowned 16th- and 17th-century playwright William Shakespeare. Pepys was quick to dismiss one of Shakespeare’s most enduringly popular plays, writing in his diary: “Saw Midsummer Night’s Dream [originally performed 1595–96] which I have never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid, ridiculous play that I ever saw in my life.”

Pepys also called Twelfth Night (1602) a “silly play and not relating at all to the name or day” and said of Henry VIII (1613): “Though I went with resolution to like it, is so simple a thing made up of a great many patches… there is nothing in the world good or well done.”

The only one of Shakespeare’s plays Pepys seems to have enjoyed was Macbeth (1606), which he called “a most excellent play in all respects, especially divertissement”. Pepys loved it so much he saw it nine times and wrote: “It is one of the best plays for a stage, and variety of dancing and musique, that ever I saw.”

3

He rescued a cheese from the Great Fire

It is September 1666, and Pepys is in a panic. A fire is consuming London at an alarming rate. Terrified that he might have to abandon his most valuable possessions to the flames, he dashes outside and digs a hole. There he inters his precious hoard, which includes not only his gold and his papers, but also a large wheel of Parmesan cheese.

We might think this a strange thing to do, but to Pepys the cheese was an investment. Cheeses such as these, which could weigh up to 200lbs, were used as diplomatic gifts; for example, in 1556 Pope Paul IV made gifts of “eight great Parmesan cheeses” to Queen Mary. A rare and expensive import from Italy, Parmesan was used sparingly and increased in value as it aged. Pepys’ cheese would have been too valuable to lose.

The Great Fire of London
As the Great Fire consumed London at an alarming rate in September 1666, Pepys chose to rescue a large wheel of valuable cheese. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
4

He was the victim of a vendetta

In 1679 Pepys was arrested and sent to the Tower of London. The charges included piracy and treason. It was alleged that, as an official in charge of navy stores, he plundered goods from ships captured from the Dutch. As bizarre a notion ‘Pepys the pirate’ might seem, his diary revealed the first charge to be true.

By law, captured enemy goods belonged to the Crown. However, Pepys’ private diary reveals that a few goods had indeed found their way into his own coffers, as ‘perks of the job’, but there was not enough evidence to convict him.

A more damaging rumour was that Pepys had sold state secrets to the French. In order to defend himself against the charge of treason, which was punishable by being “hanged, drawn and quartered”, Pepys sought to trace the source of the rumour. The search led him back to his time as a Justice of the Peace in 1678, when he had crossed one of the most cunning tricksters of the 17th century, Colonel John Scott.

In 1678, Scott had been in exile trying to escape the law, having become a suspect in the murder of a London magistrate, Edmund Godfrey. Upon a search of Scott’s lodgings, secret papers were found, some written in Pepys’ own hand, detailing the strength of the English navy. Suspecting Scott to be a spy, Pepys ordered his arrest if he ever again set foot on English soil. Scott never forgave him and began a vendetta against Pepys which included false accusations of treason.

A portrait of Samuel Pepys
A portrait of Samuel Pepys, English writer and diarist. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

After he was arrested on the charge, Pepys set up a network of investigations into Scott’s background, in France, England and Holland. Two manuscript volumes survive among Pepys’ papers which detail his enquiries. Pepys uncovered that Scott’s whole life was a lie, and that Scott was one of the most fraudulent rogues of the 17th century. With the chief accuser discredited, the prosecution case had no basis and petered out.

5

He is the first to record drinking an English cup of tea

Pepys’ diary contains the earliest known written reference to someone in England drinking a cup of tea. Although a 1664 bill recently discovered in the West Yorkshire Archives refers to “bottles of china drink”, the first written report of a cup of tea being offered socially, rather than medicinally, is in Pepys’ diary.

In 1660, Pepys was called to a high-level meeting with experts in naval affairs, including Sir William Batten, Colonel Slingsby and Sir Richard Ford. “Sir R. Ford talked like a man of great reason and experience,” wrote Pepys, “And afterwards did send for a Cupp of Tee (a China drink) of which I never had drank before.”

Tea was imported via Holland in the 17th century, but it was prohibitively expensive. Ale was the national beverage in Pepys’ day, but that was soon to change. When Catherine of Braganza, the future wife of Charles II, arrived in Portsmouth on 14 May 1662, one of the first things she asked for was a cup of tea. A chest of tea was given as part of her dowry from her father King John IV of Portugal, and although Catherine soon adopted English ways, she kept the taste for tea because it had been easily obtainable and popular in her native country. The habit of drinking tea at the royal court soon spread to aristocratic circles and from there it filtered to the moneyed classes and beyond.

Unlike Catherine of Braganza, however, it seems Pepys did not take to tea – he made no further mention of it in his diary until seven years later in 1667, when his wife was prescribed it as a cure for a cold.

Catherine of Braganza
Catherine of Braganza, the wife of King Charles II. Upon her arrival in England, one of the first things she asked for was a cup of tea. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 

6

He had dozens of mistresses but no children

Pepys was famous for his roving eye and for his many affairs – with his servants and with the wives, daughters and even the mothers of his colleagues. His most enduring affair was with one Mrs Bess Bagwell, who was the wife of a ship’s carpenter, William Bagwell of Deptford dockyard. It appears Mr Bagwell was complicit in the affair and used Pepys’ interest in his wife to improve his career prospects by trading her favours for better positions in the navy. Bess Bagwell’s story is told in my novel A Plague on Mr Pepys.

Despite being married to Élisabeth de Saint Michel in 1655, Pepys listed in his diary dozens of mistresses including Mrs Lane, Mrs Tooker, Mrs Burrows, Mrs Martin, Mrs Pennington, Betty Mitchell and the actress Elizabeth Knepp. One of Pepys’ most passionate and poignant liaisons was with Deb Willet, a lady’s maid to his wife. Of course the romance couldn’t last and Deb was dismissed in disgrace.

Samuel Pepys sits in an artist's studio whilst his wife Elizabeth
Samuel Pepys sits in an artist’s studio whilst his wife Elizabeth has her portrait painted. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Considering Pepys’ many affairs, it is surprising and perhaps sad that Pepys had no heir. A possible explanation is that during an operation in 1658 to remove a kidney stone (done at great risk and without anaesthetic), something went wrong which later prevented Pepys from ever fathering a child.

7

He kept a lion as a pet

In 1674, when he was lodging at Derby House, Westminster, Samuel Pepys kept a lion. It was presented to him as a diplomatic gift by Samuel Martin, the English consul in Algiers, who was married to one of Pepys’ former mistresses, Betty Lane. Pepys wrote to Martin to tell him that the lion was “as tame as you sent him, and as good company”.

Pepys also reports an incident in 1661 in which he was summoned to Sir William Batten’s house to view a “baboon” which he thought “so much like a man… I do believe it already understands much English; and I am of the mind that it might be tought (sic) to speak or make signs”.

Exotic pets were a status symbol in Pepys’ day and such animals were often on display to the public at the Tower of London, arguably England’s first city zoo. By 1622 the royal menagerie was home to eagles, pumas, a tiger and a jackal, as well as lions and leopards, which were considered symbols of kingship. Perhaps when it grew too large for his office, Pepys’ lion ended up there…

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Deborah Swift’s novel Pleasing Mr Pepys (Accent Press) tells the story of Deb Willet and is the first of a trilogy on the women in Pepys’ diary. You can find out more here or visit Deborah’s website here.

This article was first published by History Extra in February 2018.