Diary Essay - Critical Essays

John Evelyn


An intimate of people in high places, John Evelyn was able to observe at first hand many of the significant events and developments of his time. To his observation, he brought a mind remarkable in a turbulent era for its calmness, balance, and acuity. His diary is a contribution of exceptional value to our understanding of seventeenth-century England.

Evelyn, the son of a large landowner, was a royalist and an Anglican. He served briefly in the army of Charles I, but, after the king’s retreat in 1641, he resigned, believing that further service would mean financial ruin for himself and would little aid the royalist cause. Finding it difficult to maintain a neutral position, he left England in 1643 for the Continent, where he spent most of the next nine years traveling and studying European culture. After his return to England in 1652, he occupied himself with gardening and with improving his estate. He refused a position under Cromwell and maintained secret correspondence with Charles II. From the Restoration until his death in 1706, he enjoyed the favor of the crown and held several important minor positions in the government.

Evelyn lived in an era of unrest and calamity. Three times he saw the existing English government overthrown; he observed the Dutch war from the vantage point of an official position; he remained in London during the plague of 1665; he watched the progress of the Great Fire from its start to its engulfment of the city; he noted with disapproval the licentiousness of the court of Charles II; he attended the spectacular trials of the men accused of complicity in the Popish Plot. In religion, he witnessed the shifting fortunes of the various sects; in politics, he saw the rise and the fall of a multitude of favorites.

The diary, in addition to providing an inside view of these major events, reveals the ordinary conditions of existence in the seventeenth century. Life was filled with hazards. On voyages, pirates were frequently a threat, Evelyn himself barely escaping them on one occasion. For travel on the Continent, an armed escort was often necessary for protection against highwaymen. Within a brief period, Evelyn was robbed three times; and once, in England, he was robbed and bound, and narrowly missed being killed. Also in the seventeenth century, many barbarous practices were still sanctioned by law. Evelyn tells of beheadings that required several blows of the ax, of men put on the rack to elicit confessions, of the public display of bodies that had been hanged, then drawn, and quartered. The plague, smallpox, and other diseases constantly reminded men of their mortality. Evelyn made frequent references in his diary to death among his friends and his children, seven of whom never reached adulthood.

Amid the public tumult and private insecurity, Evelyn was throughout a truly civilized man. While many were dominated by the emotions that religious and political controversy aroused, he retained his sanity. Of a compassionate nature, he deplored acts of cruelty, and expressed his opposition to many accepted practices, such as the harsh treatment of criminals and the baiting of animals. During the Dutch war he served as commissioner for the care of the sick, wounded,...

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