Samuel Pepys was born on February 23rd 1633 near Fleet Street in London. Pepys is best known for his diaries written between 1660 and 1671 that include descriptions of major events such as the coronation of Charles II, the impact of the plague in London in 1665 and the Great Fire of 1666.
Pepys was educated at Huntington Grammar School before moving to St. Paul’s School in London between 1646 and about 1650. Samuel Pepys was present at the execution of Charles I in January 1649. In 1651, Pepys joined Magdalene College, Oxford University, graduating in 1651.
After university, Pepys joined the household of Sir Edward Montagu – his father’s cousin. He spent a great deal of his working life at the Admiralty. Pepys was a very effective worker and is credited with helping to modernise the Royal Navy as it stood then. In July 1660, Pepys took up his appointment as Clerk of the Acts for the Navy Board, which gave him an annual salary of £350. It is known that someone offered him £1000 for the post – a sign of how important the position was. The offer was refused.
Pepys married a fourteen years old French girl called Elizabeth Marchant de St. Michel. They frequently quarrelled as a result of Pepys’ infidelities and this aspect of their marriage is written about in detail in the diaries. However, he disguised his writing by using a variety of foreign languages or shorthand so as to confuse his wife if she attempted to read his diary entries. Elizabeth died on November 10th 1669. Though their marriage had its stormy moments, Pepys commissioned a monument for his late wife in the church of St. Olave’s in London.
Pepys began writing his diaries on January 1st 1660 when he was aged 26. Pepys was an expert observer of people and while his diaries are rightly famous for his description of major events such as the Plague and the Great Fire, they also give great detail on the normal people of London who lived there at the time. Just occasionally, the narrative moves out of describing London, but the bulk of the work is on the city itself.
He stopped writing them in 1671 when his eyesight had badly deteriorated.
In 1673, Pepys was elected MP for Castle Rising in Norfolk. In the same year he was appointed Secretary to the Admiralty Commission. In 1679, Pepys became MP for Harwich. However, his rise to power in the Admiralty and other areas (he became Master of Trinity House in 1676) had made him enemies. In May 1679, Pepys was arrested and placed in the Tower of London after being charged with treasonable activities – being engaged in correspondence with people in France. He was released in July 1679 but the charge was not dropped until June 1680.
In June 1684 Pepys was once again appointed to a senior post in the Royal Navy – King’s Secretary for the Affairs of the Admiralty – a position he held under two kings – Charles II and James II. Pepys became a loyal supporter of James and when the king fled in 1685, Pepys found himself out on a limb. He found no support from William III or Mary II and just one week after their coronation, Pepys tended his resignation from the Admiralty.
Pepys again spent short periods of time in the Tower but he was never charged and after his final release he moved out of London – to Clapham (then in the countryside) and he lived here until he died on May 26th 1703.
Though famous for his diary entries, Pepys is less well known as someone who corresponded with two of the great minds of the era – Sir Christopher Wren and Sir Isaac Newton. He is remembered in the world of mathematics in the ‘Newton-Pepys Problem’. This was a mathematical debate on whether you were more likely to throw a six with six dice or two sixes using twelve dice. Pepys’ name is on the front of ‘Principia Mathematica’ by Newton – which included Newton’s laws on gravity and motion.
Pepys also spent many years collecting books and manuscripts and meticulously referencing them. He had no children and bequeathed his estate to his nephew John Jackson. The unique collection eventually went to Magdalene College in 1723 (on the death of Jackson) where it remains to this day. It contains over 3,000 books and manuscripts and included early English Bibles by William Caxton and Drake’s nautical pocket almanac.