The Diary of Samuel Pepys

by Samuel Pepys

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Historical Context

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 993

The English Civil War The seventeenth century witnessed many governmental changes for England. The first war, which began the reshaping of the country, started in 1629 with King Charles I at the throne. From this year until 1640, coercion was placed on Scotland by the Earl of Strafford, Charles’s chief advisor, and Archbishop Laud, who fostered animosity from the Puritans and Presbyterians when he imposed a mandatory Anglican prayer book for Scots to utilize. As a result, Scotland rebelled and invaded England.

After this invasion King Charles had no way to pay for his army and decided to dismantle Parliament so that he would have available funding. This caused Parliament to rise up against the king and take charge on its own. Parliament sentenced the Earl of Strafford and Archbishop Laud to death in 1641 and condemned the king’s policy. Charles responded to this with a futile overthrow attempt that triggered a civil war within the country. Parliament’s troops were led by Oliver Cromwell, a staunch Puritan.

The majority of these soldiers were Puritans who would go into battle singing psalms. This earned them the title ‘‘Battalion of the Saints.’’ They defeated Charles’s troops at Marston Moor in 1644 and Naseby in 1645. This gave Cromwell the upper hand and, in 1649, King Charles I was sentenced to death and executed.

The Protectorate Charles I’s death forced his son to leave the country and land in Scotland where he declared himself Charles II. Oliver Cromwell was now in charge of England, with his army that defeated the king still intact. Parliament proclaimed itself to be a republican Commonwealth. In 1650, Charles II attempted to invade England but was defeated by Cromwell at Worcester in 1651, and Charles fled once again in order to avoid capture.

From 1652 to 1654, the First Anglo-Dutch War occurred under Cromwell’s charge. The war fluctuated back and forth until 1654 when the English overpowered the Dutch, forcing them to accept the humiliating first Peace of Westminster.

Meanwhile, Cromwell took the majority control over the Commonwealth and was given the title of ‘‘Lord Protector.’’ Under this new government, the country was divided into eleven districts. Each district was appointed a major general whose job was strictly to collect taxes, keep justice, and protect the public morality. Essentially, Cromwell was the one person in charge of the country. With his strong Puritan spirit, places such as playhouses, brothels, and alehouses were closed; activities such as horse racing and cock-fighting were banned; and behavior such as drunkenness and blasphemy was severely punished. Within a relatively short period of time, citizens grew upset with these strict laws. However, with a bodyguard staff of more than a hundred men, Cromwell became as much a monarch as the country’s previous kings. Cromwell’s strong Puritan rule sparked an intense hatred for military rule and severe Puritanism.

Cromwell died on September 3, 1658, and sent the already unstable country into chaos. Cromwell’s son, Richard, assumed the Protectorate but this was not an easy transition. Oliver Cromwell had run the country into debt with his naval victories, the army couldn’t be paid, and Richard did not know how to handle this. The army demanded that Parliament be dissolved since it couldn’t pay the soldiers, and they rallied support against Richard Cromwell, who retired. The army called the old Rump Parliament into power and Parliament demanded control over the army and navy.

The Restoration With all the frustration from Cromwell’s severe Puritanism, Parliament offered the throne to Charles II. However, before they agreed to allow Charles back into the country, he had to agree to...

(This entire section contains 993 words.)

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a couple of concessions—religious tolerance and amnesty for those involved in the execution of his father, Charles I. Charles agreed to these terms and came back to England to take his place on the throne.

Socially, Charles II’s rule became a time of returning to diversions that had been banned by Cromwell. Theatre, sports, and dancing were all allowed. Furthermore, Charles II’s court was noted for being relaxed in their moral judgement.

While Charles was enjoying his popularity with his people, he was having troubles abroad. The English expressed resentment toward the Dutch’s mercantile success. This, coupled with the spread of the plague in that area of the continent, meant that the English were not very willing to trade with Holland. Likewise, the Dutch were not very fond of England’s new king. This animosity resulted in The Second Anglo-Dutch War, which began in 1665.

In the summer the plague reached London and it thrived in the crowded, hot conditions. Anyone with money or status began to panic and flee to the countryside. By June the roads were flooded with citizens who were desperate to escape, and the mayor decided to close the gates to the city. No one without a certificate of health was allowed to leave. A black market of forged certificates began to thrive. Death rates escalated throughout the summer and by August, deaths were estimated to be six thousand per week. By fall, the plague began to slowly recede, and by February, 1666, the king determined that it was safe for him to return to the city.

On September 2 of the same year disaster struck yet again. Early in the morning, a small house fire helped to ignite neighboring buildings. Fierce winds only helped to spread sparks and set even more houses on fire. The fire grew so out of control, the only course of action was to destroy unburned houses to prevent them from fueling the blaze. The fire burned for three days before it began to quell. But relief turned into horror again when the fire rekindled the next day and continued its destruction. More houses had to be demolished in order to permanently extinguish the fire.

This tragedy, coupled with an already disorganized British navy, led to their defeat by the Dutch although the war did not officially end until the Peace of Breda in 1667.

Literary Style

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Description Pepys narrates his memoirs in an honest reporting style noted by critics as unlike any other diary in history. Pepys never intended his memoirs for publication, and as a result recorded both common and historic daily events with a reporter’s style of description. For example, on October 13, 1660, Pepys describes the historic event of the execution of one of Charles I’s enemies as follows: ‘‘I went out to Charing Cross, to see Major-general Harrison hanged, drawn, and quartered.’’ In the same entry, Pepys relates the events of his comparatively ordinary afternoon, ‘‘setting up shelves in my study.’’

Pepys’s description gets more detailed when he is suitably inspired. One of the most famous examples from the narrative is Pepys’s description of the Great Fire of London in 1666, in which he offers his assistance. Says Pepys in an unusually descriptive diary entry on September 2, 1666: ‘‘The houses, too, so very thick thereabouts, and full of matter of burning, as pitch and tarr, in Thames-street; and warehouses of oyle, and wines, and brandy, and other things.’’ Pepys notes other aspects of the fire with colorful descriptions such as ‘‘almost burned with a shower of fire-drops’’ and ‘‘the cracking of houses at their ruine.’’

Point of View Because The Diary of Samuel Pepys is a personal account, it is told only in Pepys’s viewpoint. As a result the events are seen through the eyes of a well-to-do naval administrator, and certain perspectives are not explored. This is most notable in the difference between Pepys and those who work for him, both at home and in the English navy. For example, on the morning of December 2, 1660, Pepys observes that his maid had not done something properly and he beats her with a broom, an act that made him ‘‘vexed.’’ He says that ‘‘before I went out I left her appeased.’’ Although Pepys may think he has made amends with the servant, ‘‘she cried extremely’’ when he beat her and so may have a different perspective about the incident.

In a similar vein Pepys professes to care about the concerns of his employees, the sailors, who have not been paid for their efforts and so cannot feed their families. This is a common problem that has come with the disorganization of the navy and Pepys is aware of it. While the sailors starve, Pepys collects certain tariffs from his suppliers and grows rich. On certain occasions he attempts to help his employees out. For example, on the evening of March 27, 1662, he pays the wages of a group of seamen out of his own pocket, then goes ‘‘to dinner, very merry.’’ Although this is a good act on his part, these seamen are one such group who needs assistance and the narrative rarely addresses their needs. When Pepys does it is usually in reference to his own acts of charity or the effects this unrest might have on his position. A poor seaman lacking his pay would most likely have a different perspective than Pepys, especially if the seaman knew how Pepys profited while the seaman starved.

Compare and Contrast

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1660s: London is ravaged by two disasters: the Great Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of London in 1666. London experiences heavy casualties in both disasters, largely because plague and fire spread quickly throughout the crowded city.

Today: Many scientists devote their lives to studying disasters—both natural and man-made— in an effort to devise effective methods for preventing widespread damage.

1660s: During the carefree Restoration days in England, following strict rule by the Cromwellian Protectorate, many people enjoy plays that explore previously censored topics.

Today: Because of increasing violence in schools, workplaces, and other public areas, many conservative groups advocate the censorship of violence in television and movies.

1660s: In an effort to re-establish England’s reputation after the restoration of Charles II, English ships capture the Dutch port of New Amsterdam, a thriving trading post. They rename it New York—after the king’s brother and Lord High Admiral of the navy, the Duke of York.

Today: In an effort to incite fear, terrorists crash planes into the World Trade Center in New York, an icon of global business and prosperity. The mayor of New York vows that the city will rebuild itself and will not be ruled by fear of terrorists.

Media Adaptations

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The Diary of Samuel Pepys was produced as an audio book in 1996 by the HighBridge Company. The book is read by Kenneth Branagh.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 204

Morshead, O. F. Introduction to The Diary of Samuel Pepys: Selections, edited by O. F. Morshead. New York: Harper & Row, 1960. Offers a brief biography of Pepys and his family, a publishing history of the diaries, and commentary on the diaries’ content. Notes Pepys’ energy, his artless style, and his surprising frankness.

Ollard, Richard. Pepys: A Biography. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1974. Offers clarification to readers who need additional information about topics to which the diaries allude. Focuses particularly on Pepys’ politics and his position in the admiralty.

Sutherland, James. English Literature of the Late Seventeenth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969. Examines the subjects of Pepys’ diary and notes his self-analysis and his remarkable honesty.

Taylor, Ivan E. Samuel Pepys. New York: Twayne, 1967. This general introduction to Pepys and his diaries organizes its chapters around the themes of Pepys’ work, including his politics, family life, theatergoing, and womanizing.

Willy, Margaret. English Diarists: Evelyn and Pepys. London: Published for the British Council and the National Book League by Longmans, Green, 1963. Includes a brief sketch of Pepys’ life and a discussion of the scope of his diaries with reference both to what they reveal about his personality and to the historical events they record.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Coote, Stephen, Samuel Pepys: A Life, Palgrave, 2001, pp. 65, 81, 104.

Gosse, Edmund, ‘‘Prose after the Restoration,’’ in A History of Eighteenth Century Literature (1660–1780), Macmillan and Co., 1889, pp. 73–104.

Jeffrey, Francis, ‘‘An Excerpt from a Review of Memoirs of Samuel Pepys, Esq.,’’ in the Edinburgh Review, Vol. XLIII, No. LXXXV, November 1825, pp. 23–54.

Johnson, Paul, ‘‘Honest, Shrewd and Naïve,’’ in the Spectator, Vol. 255, September 21, 1985, pp. 24–25.

Lubbock, Percy, Excerpt from Samuel Pepys, Hodder and Stoughton, 1909, p. 284.

Scott, Sir Walter, ‘‘An Excerpt from a Review of Memoirs of Samuel Pepys, Esq.,’’ in the Quarterly Review, Vol. XXXIII, No. LXVI, March 1826, pp. 281–314.

Warshaw, J., ‘‘Pepys as a Dramatic Critic,’’ in Drama, Vol. 10, No. 6–7, March–April 1920, pp. 209–13.

Whibley, Charles, ‘‘The Real Pepys,’’ in The Pageantry of Life, edited by William Heinemann, Folcroft Library Editions, 1973, pp. 107–23.

Further Reading Coote, Stephen, Royal Survivor: The Life of Charles II, St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Biographer Coote examines Charles II’s reign, including his belief in the monarchy’s ancient rights, his political maneuvering, and his hidden Catholic faith.

Kennedy, Paul M., The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery, Humanity Books, 1986. This book examines the political history of the British fleet from before 1600 to the 1970s.

Miller, John, The Restoration and the England of Charles II, Longman, 1997. This book of essays contains selections by acknowledged experts on the Restoration and Charles II.

Picard, Liza, Restoration London: From Poverty to Pets, from Medicine to Magic, from Slang to Sex, from Wallpaper to Women’s Rights, St. Martin’s Press, 1998. As the lengthy subtitle suggests, this book is a storehouse of information about everyday life in Restoration London and counts The Diary of Samuel Pepys as one of its many sources.

Quinsey, Katherine M., Broken Boundaries: Women & Feminism in Restoration Drama, University Press of Kentucky, 1996. This collection of essays examines the transitional Restoration era, in which women slowly gained more rights in the theater, including appearing onstage for the first time as actresses and behind the scenes as writers.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide