Renowned for his diary chronicling life in the City of London in the latter part of the 17th century, Samuel Pepys is less well known for his significant roles at the seat of government, in the City of Westminster
By David Mullany
Samuel Pepys and Westminster? Mention Pepys, and the image that comes to mind is usually his famous account of the Great Fire of London from his house in Seething Lane; his alarm at noticing pigeons with singed wings; his trip down the river to alert the authorities and, happily for us, his dispatching his money and his diary to a house in Bethnal Green in the East End of London. But it’s generally an image of the City of London, not of Westminster.
But start digging, like he did in his garden to protect his wine and cheese during the Great Fire, and the story of Pepys becomes a Westminster affair, not one of the square mile. And, of course, it’s only natural that the balance shifts in this way. Westminster has always been the heart of government and we know only too well from his diaries that Pepys was ‘a most important chap’.
Pepys’s early career was jump-started by his family connection to Edward Montagu, the future earl of Sandwich, who served both Oliver Cromwell and Charles II. After being an MP in the ‘Barebones’ parliament from 1653 and eventually president of Cromwell’s Council of State, Montagu was then a commissioner of the Treasury and on the committee for foreign affairs, living and working in Whitehall Palace. He needed clerks and this is where Pepys was useful. He was in and out of Montagu’s Whitehall lodgings, often bedding down in a corner.
Pepys was then given a further role by another prominent man, George Downing of ’Downing Street’ fame. Walking to and from the Exchequer within the Palace of Westminster, Pepys is getting to know Whitehall and Westminster rather well, describing in his diary his enjoyment of local taverns, cookhouses and coffee shops. We tend to associate the original coffee shops with the City of London, but clearly Westminster was holding its own.
At the age of 22, Pepys marries Elizabeth Marchant de St Michel. Remarkably, for a man who was clearly very ambitious, it was a love match, Elizabeth having hardly a penny to her name. The civil ceremony took place at St Margaret’s Church, Westminster. Elizabeth was only 14 years old. They lived together in a servant’s room in the Palace, but it didn’t work out and for a while Elizabeth ended up back with her parents. Sam was also suffering increasing pain from kidney stones and it wasn’t until early 1658 that a successful operation freed up Pepys to look for more secure lodgings. These he found in Axe Yard, a small cul de sac running parallel to the current Downing Street.
Both Pepys, and his sponsor Montagu, were among those who sailed to Holland to invite Charles II back to England. Pepys was responsible for procuring the ‘rich barge’ that brought Charles ashore and he made acquaintance with the Duke of York, the future James II. Montagu was subsequently appointed by Charles to Master of the Wardrobe and he in turn appointed Pepys as ‘clerk of the acts’ with the Navy Board. With the job came a house in Seething Lane near Tower Hill and it is from here that Pepys wrote his diary for the next 9 years.
This is not, however, the end of Pepys‘s link with Westminster. The 1673 Test Acts forced the Duke of York to resign his post of Lord High Admiral and Pepys then became secretary to the new commission to the Admiralty and, in reality, the administrative head of the Navy. In order to represent it in Parliament he became an MP in Westminster.
His rise to success was remarkable but relatively short lived. Both in the exclusion crisis from 1678, and later in the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Pepys’s association with the Duke of York cost him dear. Suspected of having Catholic sympathies, and of being therefore a supporter of James II and the French, he was imprisoned in the Gatehouse Prison, which was on the site of the Crimea memorial that now stands outside Westminster School.
Having lost his job and his accommodation, he was, on his subsequent release, invited by his friend Will Hewer to move into a house in York Buildings in Buckingham Street, near today’s Embankment Gardens. He lived here until 1701. It was at this house that he built the bookcases to house his impressive collection, including of course the 6 volumes of his dairy. The diary was written between 1660 and 1669, when he stopped writing owing to his failing eyesight.
The diary may have been written in a period when Pepys was preoccupied with the affairs of the Navy, and living and working in the City of London, but we should not forget the role of Westminster in shaping his life.
Photo: Portrait of Samuel Pepys by John Hayls, 1666 (National Portrait Gallery, NPG211)