Its History, Actually: Samuel Pepys
May 2, 2023

by Ian Langworthy Historian and Battlefield Guide

I know that Oliver Cromwell is probably this area’s most famous historical figure and we will get to him in due course, but there are plenty of others and Samuel Pepys is one, and one who was a lot more powerful and well-known in his day than most people realise. Now, he is remembered for his diary but he rose to become one of the top civil servants and a friend and associate of the royal, rich and respected hierarchy in the country.

Samuel was born in 1633, he came from fairly humble beginnings. His mother was a former wash maid and his father a tailor, although earlier generations of the family were Cambridgeshire farmers. Samuel attended Huntingdon Grammar School (where Cromwell himself was a pupil a few years earlier). He almost certainly stayed in Brampton, at the house of his uncle Robert Pepys, who was Steward to the Montagu family at nearby Hinchingbrooke House. After Cambridge University, Samuel entered the service of Edward Montagu as his secretary and agent in London. The Montagus were supporters of the Parliamentary side and Oliver Cromwell in the civil war. In 1653, Edward was elected to Parliament and needed a diligent, effective and hard-working secretary to manage his affairs. Samuel proved more than equal to the task. He retained Montagu’s patronage even when appointed as clerk to George Downing at the Treasury (a very powerful man, Chancellor under Cromwell and Charles II, Downing Street in London is named after him).

In 1658, Oliver Cromwell died, his nominated successor, his son Richard, was not up to the job and a power struggle followed between his (Richard’s) supporters and Republican elements of the army. Many were tired of the infighting and the experiment with republicanism and longed for stability, which they saw in the return of the King. Various powerful figures from the army (General Monck) and politics (including Edward Montagu) started making contact with the Court, which ultimately led to the restoration of the monarchy in the form of King Charles II.

Montagu was Admiral of the Fleet (called the General at Sea) under Cromwell and took Pepys with him as Admiral’s Secretary and Treasurer to the fleet to bring Charles and his brother the Duke of York (later King James II) back to England. Pepys’ star really was on the rise. He was now one of the principal officers administering the navy under the overall control of the Duke of York.

Pepys started writing his diary on 1st January 1660. He records that on 1st May 1660,

The King’s letter was read in the House, wherein he submits himself and all things to them – as to an Act of Oblivion (see book review in January issue) to all, unless they shall please to except any… Great joy all yesterday at London, and at night more bonfires than ever, and ringing of bells, and drinking of the King’s health upon their knees in the streets,
which methinks is a little too much.

Pepys is now most famous for his first-hand accounts and observations of the Plague of 1665 and the Fire of London in 1666,

By July and into August 1665, the plague was taking hold. Pepys records the mounting death toll as a “Weekly Bill”. Pepys remains in London, working as does most of the government. On 31st August, he records “Thus this month ends, with great sadness upon the public through the greatness of the plague… every day sadder and sadder news of its increase. In the city died this week 7496 and of them 6102 of the plague but it is feared that the true number is near 10000”. By 7th September 1665, the death from the plague in the city that week was 6974 but in early October the plague was starting to abate “The Bill, blessed be God, is less this week by 740 of what it was last week.” One of the main causes of the plague was the insanitary conditions in the cities, with raw sewage running in the streets, and a lack of proper sanitation and clean water.

On 2nd September the following year 1666, Pepys learns of a fire in the city. Later that day, Pepys goes to see for himself, and seeing the fire driven by a high wind towards the city, he goes to Whitehall to warn the King. “So I was called for, and did tell the King and Duke of Yorke what I saw, and that unless his Majesty did command houses to be pulled down nothing could stop the fire. They seemed much troubled, and the King commanded me to go to my Lord Mayor.”  The fire did eventually burn itself out, partly as a result of the creation of fire breaks as Pepys advised.

Despite his lofty position in London society, Pepys maintained his contact with Brampton. In October 1667, Pepys is considering building in Brampton “and then my father and I and wife and Willet abroad, by coach round the towne of Brampton, to observe any other place as good as ours, and find none; and so back with great pleasure; and thence went all of us …to dinner to Hinchingbrooke.’’

There truly is so much more to Samuel Pepys. He was elected President of the Royal Society, he was MP for Harwich and he was the King’s Secretary for Naval Affairs and a Freeman of the City of London. 

A truly remarkable man.