Authors: Samuel Pepys

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English civil servant and memoirist

Author Works


Memoirs Relating to the State of the Royal Navy of England, 1690

The Diary of Samuel Pepys, 1825 (partial publication, as Memoirs of Samuel Pepys . . .), 1848-1849 (as Diary and Correspondence of Samuel Pepys), 1875-1879 (6 volumes), 1893-1899 (10 volumes), 1970-1983 (11 volumes).


Samuel Pepys (peeps), born on February 23, 1633, was a man of wide interests and varied affairs: an inveterate playgoer and a minor patron of the arts, a conscientious husband and householder, a responsible public official, and a friend (sometimes a self-acknowledged flatterer) of the great and the powerful. All this is known from his Diary, his own candid and unaffected portrayal of himself. Yet the Diary, as detailed and as thorough as it is for its own specified time, deals with only nine years (1660-1669) in a life that lasted a full seventy.{$I[AN]9810000393}{$I[A]Pepys, Samuel}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Pepys, Samuel}{$I[tim]1633;Pepys, Samuel}

Although not much of importance had happened to Samuel Pepys before he began his famous project, his many affairs continued long after poor eyesight forced him to give up his record in 1669. Twice, in the period between the ending of the Diary and the quiet ending of his life in 1703, his fortunes fell and rose again. Although the full publication of the Diary in 1849 transformed him posthumously into a literary figure, it should be remembered that he was not–either to himself or to his contemporaries–primarily a man of letters. He was what would be called in modern terminology a career Admiralty official. He served twenty-eight years in the Admiralty Department, was twice secretary of the Admiralty, and was acknowledged, after the “Bloodless Revolution” ended his career in 1688, as the foremost authority on naval matters in all England.

His Admiralty career began significantly enough with the restoration of the Stuarts in 1660. His life up to that time had been a genteel struggle with poverty, for his family, though well connected, was, by his own admission, “never very considerable.” He had gone through Magdelene College, Cambridge University, as a scholarship student (receiving a B.A. in 1653 and an M.A. in 1660), had married in 1655 the fifteen-year-old daughter of a penniless French expatriate, and had lived for some time under the patronage of a wealthy cousin, Sir Edward Montagu. This nobleman, later the first earl of Sandwich, was a staunch supporter of Charles II and played no small part in the triumph of the royal cause. As his good fortune swelled with the resurgence of the Stuarts, so the good fortune of Samuel Pepys increased. Pepys’s first official appointment was to a minor position in the Exchequer, but on July 13, 1660, he moved to the Navy Office, becoming, later that same year, clerk of the privy seal and a justice of the peace.

This triumphal year is covered by the Diary. During the remaining eight years of that chronicle, the triumphs continued. Pepys’s finances improved. Able to afford books, he began the collection of his famous library (now preserved at Cambridge). His wife could dress in cautious finery, and he could, when his basically Puritan conscience allowed, indulge in his favorite delights, the theater and wine. His prestige increased as well; he was known to the king. The duke of York became his friend and his pupil in naval matters. By 1689 the lowly government clerk had become a prominent official, the unknown Cambridge scholar had become a respected practical authority, and the former Roundhead sympathizer had become a friend of royalty.

But, as Pepys well learned, one who attaches himself to the politically great and who enjoys their triumphs must also endure their defeats. Once the national relief at the removal of the Puritans had died away, the reaction against the policies of the two royal brothers–a reaction accelerated greatly by popular disapproval of their personal conduct and, particularly, of James’s avowed Catholicism–set in. The reaction had immediate repercussions; since there was much disapproval over the temporary Dutch naval supremacy, and the duke of York was closely associated with the navy, the Admiralty received much of the reactionary force. The first of a number of setbacks came even before the end of the Diary, but the honor of the Admiralty was saved by Pepys himself. In 1688, in an eloquent speech before the House of Commons, he defended his colleagues of the Navy Department against a charge of financial mismanagement and temporarily, at least, kept the anti-Stuart forces at bay.

The reaction being too strong to be held back indefinitely, Pepys was to be injured by it personally before it was finally ended. Following an excursion to France and Holland in 1669, he returned to England to stand for Parliament. He was supported in this venture by the duke of York, but he lost the election when his interests were turned from politics to bereavement over his wife’s death. He stood again, after having been appointed secretary of the Admiralty for the first time, in 1673. His connections with the future James II worked against him, however. He won the election but was not, for some months, allowed to take his seat because of a trumped-up charge that he, like his royal friend and patron, was a Roman Catholic.

This was not the only time that he was to be the victim of conspiracy and guilt by association. On May 22, 1679, he was imprisoned in the Tower of London on a charge of collaborating with the French, an accusation as spurious as the earlier one. When his accusers could not muster enough evidence to have him brought to trial, he was eventually released. Although no action was taken against him, he was forced to remain in the Tower from May to the following February, even though it was widely admitted that he was guiltless.

In June of 1684, after a visit to Tangier, he was reappointed to his Admiralty secretaryship and was once again elected to Parliament. He continued in office during the brief reign of the fourth Stuart and retired, peacefully enough, when William of Orange arrived to become the constitutional co-monarch of England. Even in retirement Pepys was harassed for his long friendship with the now-deposed king. Once again (in June, 1689) he was imprisoned; once more he went untried. Finally, in deference to his age and his ill health, he was released, uncharged, and was allowed to live out his remaining four years in the quiet retreat of Clapham.

From this last retirement came the only written work published under his name during his lifetime, his Memoirs Relating to the State of the Royal Navy of England. These papers were accepted as his final vindication. He died on May 26, 1703, with full honors restored, secure in his reputation as a naval authority, as a valuable man of public office, and as a respected former president of the Royal Society. Thus his reputation remained, fading slowly in the pages of Restoration history, until the first deciphering of his Diary more than a century later.

BibliographyBryant, Sir Arthur. Samuel Pepys. 3 vols. 1933-1938. Reprint. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publications, 1985. An older, standard Pepys biography.Coote, Steve. Samuel Pepys: A Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Coote’s portrait of Pepys brings the man and his era to life.Ollard, Richard. Pepys: A Biography. 1974. Reprint. London: Allison & Busby, 2002. A thorough review of Pepys’s life.Taylor, Ivan E. Samuel Pepys. Updated ed. New York: Twayne, 1989. A standard biography from Twayne’s English Authors series, updated from the 1967 edition. Includes bibliographical references.Tomalin, Claire. Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002. Tomalin, an acclaimed biographer, illuminates Pepys’s entire life, showing him to be a man of interest and importance while examining his historical context.Wheatley, Henry B. Samuel Pepys and the World He Lived In. 3d ed. New York: Haskell House, 1975. A classic work originally published in 1889.
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