Samuel Pepys – right place, right time.


Like any good civil servant, Samuel Pepys had an uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time. In May 1660 he found himself aboard the ship that brought the newly proclaimed King, Charles II, back from exile. Through this one adventure Pepys made numerous connections, not least with the King himself, that would see his future career in good stead.  This was by no means a swashbuckling adventure, very few thrilling tales are written about the adventures of administrators. Yet, Pepys’ account of this time, travelling in the naval flotilla, gives us a unique perspective on the course of events removed from the London political manoeuvrings and of the changes that Pepys himself embraces.


Pepys’ opportunity to take part in this expedition came about through the patronage of his cousin Lord Edward Montagu, to whom Pepys was in service as a household official. Montagu was a former Cromwellian politician and was at this time Councillor of State and General-at-Sea. Many of the early opportunities that came Pepys’ way were due to the patronage and contacts of Lord Montagu, though to be fair on Pepys, he was a smart man who made the most of the chances that came his way :


He [Lord Montague] called me by myself to go along with him in the garden, where he asked how things were with me and what he hath endeavoured to do with my uncle to get him to do something for me; but that he would say nothing to… and [that] he would use  all his own and all the interest of his friends that he hath in England to do me good. And asked me whether I could without to much inconvenience go to sea as his secretary, and bade me think of it.

6 March 1660, Pepys Diary


The young clerk was unsure whether to take up the offer, there were potential benefits in the expedition, but there were inherent dangers involved in going to sea. After some soul-searching he decided to go, eventually pulling together the courage to tell his wife:


Then by coach home, where I took occasion to tell my wife of my going to sea, who was much troubled thereat and was with some dispute at last willing to continue at Mr Bowyers in my absence

10 March 1660, Pepys Diary


Ah, the classic ‘tell them the bad news on the journey home gambit’, clearly timeless. It was uncertain how long the time at sea would last, even if the mission would be success. In some respects it was a gamble, Parliament had yet to declare for the King and the army was still opposed to his return. Only two days after Montague had offered Pepys the opportunity, the army presented a remonstrance against the King to Parliament, one which led to a serious rebuke from General Monck (who at that time was essentially head of the army), as Pepys records; ‘Monke did check his soldiers highly for what they did yesterday’ (9th March 1660). It’s unsurprising therefore that Pepys spends the intervening time worrying about his decision:


All night troubled with my thoughts how to order my business upon this great change with me, that I could not sleep; and being overheated with drink, I made a promise the next morning to drink no strong drink this week, for I find it makes me sweat in bed and puts me quite out of order.

9 March 1660, Pepys Diary


The seriousness of the business can be seen in Pepys’ concern for his legal affairs, preparing a will and planning for the worst outcome:


After dinner, to my own house, where all things are put up into the dinning room and locked up, and my wife took the key along with her. this day in the presence of Mr. Moor (who made it) and Mr. Hawley, I did (before I went out with my wife) seal my will to her, whereby I did give her all that I have in the world but my books, which I gave to my brother John, excepting my French books, which my wife is to have.

17 March 1660, Pepys Diary


Once committed he throws himself into the work, and proves to be quite adept at managing the affairs of his master and the navy. The increase in workload was not lost on him though. We get a glimpse here of how much patronage greased the wheels of Seventeenth century society, Pepys was rapidly becoming someone to know:


To my Lord, where infinite of applications to him and to me, to my great trouble. My Lord gave me all the papers that was given to him, to put in order and give him an account of them…


Went to the Admiralty, where a strange thing how I was already courted by the people.

14 March 1660, Pepys Diary


On board, Pepys worked hard and was thrilled by the respect he was shown. People began to see that he was a man who could get things done. This recognition extended to the royals themselves, the Duke of York (the future King James II), in particular, seeing the worth in this young clerk of the Navy. He adapted quickly to life on board, and bounced back from various mishaps and inconveniences. Drinking, eating and music making were an important part of the social life on board the ship, as various people came and went around Lord Montagu’s circle. Pepys joined in with gusto. Such an opportunity for seeing and being seen was crucial. It would only be speculation, but if Pepys had not gone on this trip and made these connections would he have gone on to be as successful?  Despite his initial caution and missing his wife, Pepys embraced his two months spell as a sailor, and as he himself put it:


So to sleep – every day bringing me a fresh sense of the great pleasure of my present life

17 April 1660, Pepys Diary



2 thoughts on “Samuel Pepys – right place, right time.

  1. Pingback: History Carnival time! « Madame Guillotine

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