Today is the birthday of Samuel Pepys, who was born on this day in 1633 in Fleet Street, London. I’ve mentioned Samuel a few times in this blog, because his diaries are such a rich source of information about life in seventeenth century London, as well as covering some major historical events. Although his father was a tailor and his mother, the daughter of a Whitechapel butcher, he was actually pretty well connected. His father had cousins in parliament, one of whom was the First Earl of Sandwich. Samuel lived in a turbulent age. When he was only sixteen years old, he attended the execution of King Charles I, in January 1649. At twenty-two, he married Elisabeth de St Michel who was then only fourteen years old. When he was twenty-five, he had surgery to have a stone removed from his bladder. With no such thing as a general anaesthetic, it was a dreadful process which I rather wish I hadn’t read about.
Pepys diary covers almost ten years between 1660 and 1669, a period which saw the restoration of the monarchy and coronation of King Charles II. Samuel was on the ship that brought the King back from exile. The 1660s also saw the Second Anglo-Dutch War, the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London. Outbreaks of plague were a pretty common occurrence in seventeenth century London. There had been major epidemics in 1603, 1625 and 1636. It was mainly a disease that affected the poor, who lived in cramped conditions, and Samuel wasn’t much troubled by it until June when it began to spread to the City. He sent Elizabeth and their servants away to Woolwich, where they might be out of danger but he remained in London. He tells us how there were no boats on the river, grass growing in Whitehall because it was so deserted and ‘no one but poor wretches in the streets’. He gives many descriptions of houses shut up, the news of deaths and how he himself came upon the body of a plague victim when he was out after dark. He chewed tobacco in an attempt to ward off the miasma that everyone believed was the cause of the disease and he worried that the wigs everyone wore might be being made from the hair of plague victims. But apart from that, he had a great time. He almost quadrupled his fortune and by the end of the year he recorded: “I have never lived so merrily (besides that I never got so much) as I have done this plague-time…”
The Great Fire was far more alarming for him. He described peoples’ homes, even stone churches being destroyed by the fire. He tells us how people had given up trying to put it out and were just trying to save what they could and head for the river. It was so hot that even flying pigeons caught fire. Samuel was the first to bring news of the blaze to the King and the first to suggest tearing down houses ahead of the flames. The fire came very close to destroying Pepys’ house in Seething Lane. In order to save some of his precious belongings: some papers, but also his wine and his Parmesan cheese, he dug a hole and buried them. It might sound odd that he considered his cheese precious enough to bury, but Parmesan cheese is, even today, extremely valuable. There are around $200 million worth of Parmesan cheeses maturing in the bank vaults of Italy that are being used at collateral for loans to cheese makers. Samuel’s house was untouched by the fire, but we don’t know if he managed to retrieve his cheese because he didn’t tell us.
As well as major events, we can also learn a lot from his diary about how the upper middle class of London lived day to day. We know what they ate and how they entertained themselves. He was interested in science, enjoyed singing and playing music. He also loved the theatre. Pepys wrote very frankly about his personal life and his relationship with his wife. So we also know all about his infidelities, his jealously of Elizabeth’s dancing teacher and their arguments. We know how they celebrated holidays, we even know how he celebrated his birthday. Let’s have a look at what he did in 1669…
He took his wife and two young girls, who were distant relatives, to Westminster Abbey to look at the tombs. Here, he tells us “…we did see, by particular favour, the body of Queen Katherine of Valois; and I had the upper part of her body in my hands, and I did kiss her mouth, reflecting upon it that I did kiss a Queen, and that this was my birth-day, thirty-six years old, that I did first kiss a Queen.” Catherine of Valois was the wife of King Henry V. She died in 1437. Her tomb had been opened accidentally during the reign on Henry VII and her body was found to be in a remarkable state of preservation. After that, it became something of a tourist attraction. She was not re-interred until 1878.
The last dated entry in his diary is from May 31st 1669. He gave it up because he believed it was affecting his eyesight. We’ve no idea whether Samuel Pepys ever intended his diary to be seen by others. It’s clear that some of the details are extremely personal. He also wrote it in a kind of shorthand that would be indecipherable to the casual reader. But on the other hand, he did have them bound and left them, along with his extensive library, to his nephew. After that, his library was transferred intact to Magdalene College, Cambridge along with the original bookcase. It was first translated for publication by the Reverend John Smith. It took him three years, between 1819 and 1822 to decipher the shorthand. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until he’d almost finished that he discovered the key to Pepys’ code stored only a few shelves above the diary.