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Samuel Pepys

From the Great Fire of London to his own flames of desire, Samuel Pepys’ diary is a fascinating insight into 17th-century life, says Emma Slattery Williams

Born in 1633 in modest circumstances, Samuel Pepys wasn’t destined to be famous. He wasn’t a member of the aristocracy and didn’t have any innovative ideas that would propel him into the history books. What he did have was a skill with a quill and the forethought to capture everything that happened around him. From 1660 to 1669 he kept a diary, which has survived. By happy coincidence, the timing of it coincided with some of the most transformative events in London and England’s history. Pepys gives us a peek into the heart of the action, as well as a glimpse into everyday life. He probably never intended his writing to be read, let alone studied, hundreds of years later.

Pepys seems to have married Elizabeth for love, but his diary charts other sexual liaisons
ALAMY X2, GETTY IMAGES X4

A HUMBLE BEGINNING

Much of what is known of the past comes from the chronicles of state and royalty, but the lives of ordinary people are less known. This is where Pepys comes in. His is a classic rags to riches story of a man who rose through the ranks to become an advisor to kings. As well as showing the effect the Great Fire of London had on citizens and the relief felt during the Restoration of the monarchy, he documented how working people spent their time. Pepys’ diary demonstrates that the middle classes of London during the late 17th century had similar priorities and pastimes to those of today – they visited coffee houses, had domestic arguments, gossiped about the royal court and worried about their health.

Pepys came from an unremarkable London family. His father was a tailor and his mother the daughter of a butcher. He was one of 11 children, though, as was common then, most didn’t reach adulthood. He was sent to Huntingdon Grammar School in 1642 – the year Charles I raised his standard at Nottingham, beginning the British Civil Wars – but would later return to London. At 15, Pepys sneaked away from his studies to watch the execution of Charles I. He would witness the full cycle of this story; growing up through the turmoil of the Civil Wars, he would eventually play a role in the continuation of Charles’s dynasty.

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About BBC History Revealed

William Shakespeare had humble beginnings – how did he transform into England’s greatest playwright? We explore how the ‘upstart crow’ became so widely celebrated. Plus: The mysterious assassins of the medieval Muslim world are explored, we dig into the diaries of Samuel Pepys and take a look at the life of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians.