My history hero: Samuel Pepys (1633-1703)

Downton Abbey star Hugh Bonneville explains why he admires the 17th-century diarist...

Samuel Pepys portrait

This article was first published in the September 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) was a naval administrator but is best known for his celebrated diary in which he recorded notable events of the day along with his own personal routines, health worries and infidelities. Born in London, he rose to become chief secretary of the Admiralty. His reforms helped bring an important new professionalism to the Royal Navy.

When did you first hear about Samuel Pepys?

My father was a great reader of historical biography and I found some of Pepys’s diaries on a shelf at home as a boy of about 10. I was rather intrigued by them, and read bits and pieces, without fully understanding them. A bit later on, in my teens, I read an unexpurgated version of his diaries and realised that my father’s version was actually a heavily edited, sanitised copy which left out a lot of the more titillating bits!

What kind of person was he?

He was dogged, determined and dutiful – and probably a bit corrupt, but you had to be at the time if you wanted to get on – and rose to be a great civil servant in his own right. But he always had a sense of duty to the crown, the church and his family, even though he sometimes mucked things up. Above all, what comes across in Pepys’s diaries is just his incredible appetite for life. He lived in an age when the man to be admired dabbled in science, knew a foreign tongue, and looked outwardly on life. Pepys was not only a man of enormous energy – socially and indeed sexually – but a man of wide and varied interests with an insatiable thirst for knowledge and ideas.

What made Pepys a hero?

I’m drawn to Pepys as a person because he was an unwitting cataloguer of an incredible period of history: everything from the Great Fire of London to the Plague to the Restoration. He was a sort of one-man webcam.

I also admire his bravery in writing down his innermost feelings in his diary, and recording his dalliances and the wonderful blazing rows he had with his wife, with her fiery French temperament. Yet he can see both sides of the argument, and privately acknowledges that, while he tries, he’s not always the best of husbands. Another thing I like is his loyalty to others – a quality of the man that shines through in his diaries.

What was Pepys’s finest hour?

He would probably have said that it was his role as a senior civil servant in turning around the governance of the Royal Navy, reducing corruption and in making it a modern fighting fleet. And there is no question that he left the senior service a lot more shipshape, so to speak, than he’d found it. Of course, his real legacy was his diaries which are so honest, and provide such a valuable insight into his life and times. They really give you a sense of a three-dimensional person.

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?

Perhaps his snobbery and tendency to look down on people at times. But you have to remember that everything then was about appearance, and how to secure advancement. It’s all too easy to judge people through the long lens of history.

Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?

I like to think I face each day with the same sense of optimism and excitement, because we’re only here once. But sadly I don’t have half his energy. And while I too am curious about life, I don’t have his incredible sense of enquiry. I actually played Pepys once in a film [Stage Beauty] but I’d love to be in a project in which the man himself takes centre stage.

If you could meet Pepys, what would you ask him?

I would ask him how he found the time to do so much: that is, go to work but still find the time to have a pint in Deptford, see some wench, and then meet an ambassador – all in one day! In short, how did he pace himself?

Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) English diarist and naval administrator. Became Secretary to the Admiralty. Portrait by Godfrey Kneller.
UNSPECIFIED – CIRCA 1754: Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) English diarist and naval administrator. Became Secretary to the Admiralty. Portrait by Godfrey Kneller. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
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Hugh Bonneville spoke to York Membery. Bonneville is an actor, best known recently for his roles in Downton Abbey and the BBC Two comedy series W1A.