Spotlight On …
Written by Victoria Green
“As happy a man as any in the world, for the whole world seems to smile upon me!”
Samuel Pepys was a 17th Century administrator of the English navy, and later an MP. Despite his distinguished career, he is best known for the diary that he kept. Pepys’s diary chronicles his daily life between 1660 and 1669. It was published in the 19th Century, and is one of the most important sources for the English Restoration period. While providing an eye-witness account of events of the time (the Great Plague of London, the Great Fire of London, the Second Dutch War …), the diary’s most fascinating entries are those that detail his everyday life. With a reputation for being a little indulgent, it certainly makes for interesting reading in parts! From bickering with his wife, to adultery, boiling the lice from his wigs and complaining about Shakespeare, Pepys’ writings provide a glimpse into domesticity over 350 years ago and are remarkably familiar.
The National Leather Collection holds many objects from the time of Samuel Pepys (buff coats, blackjacks, bombards, manuscripts, gloves …), allowing us to create a picture of what life in 17th Century London must have been like. The museum is also fortunate enough to have Pepys’ very own pocket wallet in its collection! In today’s blog, I wanted to learn more about the famous diarist and share some of the highlights from his diary.
Please enjoy the following; eight things you probably didn’t know about Samuel Pepys!
1. He witnessed the execution of King Charles I …
Samuel Pepys is a primary source for the Restoration period, having lived through the overthrow of the English monarchy and the interregnum. He even attended the execution of King Charles I, and later reports on the gruesome deaths that awaited those who had signed his death warrant. The Fifth Monarchist, Thomas Harrison, was the first regicide to be killed on 13th October 1660:
To my Lord’s in the morning, where I met with Captain Cuttance, but my Lord not being up I went out to Charing Cross, to see Major- general Harrison hanged, drawn, and quartered; which was done there, he looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition. He was presently cut down, and his head and heart shown to the people, at which there was great shouts of joy.
Saturday 13th October 1660
2. He buried his cheese during the Great Fire of London …
Pepys is panicking; it’s September 1666 and London is burning. The Great Fire is consuming the city at an alarming rate and residents are evacuating their homes. Pepys’ diary is the only eye-witness account of this event, and details the spread of the fire over the course of several days. He describes how he, afraid of losing his most prized possessions, dashes outside and digs a hole to bury his gold, papers, wine and a large wheel of parmesan cheese. Though this seems like an odd thing to do, cheese was an investment. Wheels of cheese (sometimes weighing as much as 200lbs!) were used as diplomatic gifts. In 1556, Pope Paul IV made a gift of “eight great Parmesan cheeses” to Queen Mary. As a rare and expensive Italian import, Parmesan was used sparingly and increased in value as it aged.
Sir W. Batten not knowing how to remove his wine, did dig a pit in the garden, and laid it in there; and I took the opportunity of laying all the papers of my office that I could not otherwise dispose of. And in the evening Sir W. Pen and I did dig another, and put our wine in it; and I my Parmazan cheese, as well as my wine and some other things.
Thursday 4th September 1966
3. He kissed a queen …
Pepys makes lots of references to his birthday throughout his diary, but his method of celebration is somewhat different to the traditional cake and candles. On his birthday in 1669, he took his wife and servants to Westminster Abbey to show them the tombs. At the time, the open coffin of Catherine de Valois (queen to Henry V) was accessible and Pepys was able to view the mummified remains. In his diary entry for that day, Pepys writes how he kissed her on the mouth. This might make us gasp or cringe today, but kissing a relic is a sign of reverence – though Pepys did seem a little overenthusiastic …
I now took them to Westminster Abbey, and there did show them all the tombs very finely, having one with us alone, there being other company this day to see the tombs, it being Shrove Tuesday; and here 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.
Tuesday 23rd February 1969
3. He wasn’t very good at keeping his New Year’s resolutions …
Samuel Pepys was known for being little indulgent. He was a man of leisure, and enjoyed his wine, womanising, and going to see plays (except Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream). Periodically throughout his writings, Pepys has bouts of puritanism and vows to devote more time to hard-work than leisure. However, he seemed to have had a little trouble sticking to his resolutions. For example, in his entry for New Year’s Eve 1661, he writes: “I have newly taken a solemn oath about abstaining from plays and wine…”. The following months reveal his lapses to the reader. By the 17th February 1662, it is recorded, “Here I drank wine upon necessity, being ill for the want of it.”
4. He designed himself a pair of reading glasses …
Pepys’ suffered poor health throughout his diary-writing days, probably from the long hours he worked. He was specifically concerned about his eyesight, which he believed to be a direct result of his diary-keeping. In fact, his last ever entry on the 31st May 1669 concluded that he was to stop writing altogether. During 1668 and 1669, he had experimented with designs for ‘tubulous spectacles’, inspired by the Royal Society’s journal. His final design was a mask into which tubes could be inserted, with lenses held within. He used these ‘tubes’ to write during the later part of his diary.
The month ends mighty sadly with me, my eyes being now past all use almost; and I am mighty hot upon trying the late printed experiment of paper tubes.
Friday 31st July 1668
6. He is the first English tea-drinker on record …
Most tea-lovers will know the story about the alleged origins of tea-drinking in England. It’s 1662, and Charles II’s wife-to-be, Catherine of Braganza, arrives in Portsmouth on the 14th May and asks – very reasonably – for a cup of tea. Catherine may have been revolutionary in changing the national beverage from ale to tea, but it was Samuel Pepys who recorded the first ever instance of English tea-drinking in a social setting in 1660. In the 17th Century, tea was imported via Holland, and was very expensive. With the arrival of Catherine of Braganza and her tea-chest dowry, the habit of drinking tea at royal court spread from the top down. Pepys, unlike Catherine, did not take to tea. It is not mentioned in his diary again until 1667, when given to him by his wife as medicine.
To the office, where Sir W. Batten, Colonel Slingsby, and I sat awhile, and Sir R. Ford coming to us about some business, we talked together of the interest of this kingdom to have a peace with Spain and a war with France and Holland; where Sir R. Ford talked like a man of great reason and experience. And afterwards I did send for a cup of tee (a China drink) of which I never had drank before, and went away.
Tuesday 25th September 1660
7. His cat kept him awake …
Pepys makes frequent reference to cats throughout his diary, from a cat being rescued from the Great Fire with all its hair burned off to his kitten being spooked by a ghost. He also liked to complain about his cat keeping him awake at night. If you’re also a cat-owner, you’ll know that getting a full night’s sleep is often an unattainable dream. From meowing at midnight to face-licking, kneading and using their humans as a pillow, cats do not make for the best bedfellows. In 1662, Pepys bemoaned that:
About three o’clock this morning I waked with the noise of the rayne, having never in my life heard a more violent shower; and then the catt was lockt in the chamber, and kept a great mewing, and leapt upon the bed, which made me I could not sleep a great while.
Friday 22nd August 1662
8. He was the proud owner of some 17th Century tourist tat …
In the National Leather Collection, we have a wonderful wallet which once belonged to Samuel Pepys. It is made and lined with brown goatskin, and ornamented with silver wire embroidery. On the inside this reads ‘Saml. Pepys Esq’, and on the back ‘Constantinople 1687’. Pocket wallets appeared during the 17th century, and were used to carry papers or tickets. Pepys was not in Constantinople in 1687, but it is thought that the wallet may have been presented to him by a Turkish envoy as a gift. SO, imagine my surprise when I found another, unrelated wallet in our stores which looks almost exactly the same. Though the second wallet doesn’t feature an owner’s name, it is embroidered in a similar manner with ‘Constantinopoli 1702’. The wallets are too alike for this to be mere coincidence; could this wallet have been a mass-produced tourist souvenir?
1319.65: Samuel Pepys’ pocket wallet
1319.65: reverse of Samuel Pepys’ wallet
1311.65 & 1319.65: the two wallets compared
1311.65: reverse of pocket wallet