An Unequal Marriage
Samuel Pepys was born 23rd February 1633, the son of tailor John Pepys, who served the thriving law courts in London. Samuel was the fifth child, two of his siblings died before he was born. A further six children were born after him. Of the eleven children only four reached adulthood. Only the last daughter, the second Paulina, and Samuel outlived their father.Samuel was educated at Huntingdon School. Samuel and his brother Thomas had been sent into Cambridgeshire to avoid the plague. Samuel then moved on to St Paul’s School in London, probably before the age of eleven[i]. In 1650 Pepys attended Cambridge, having had two exhibitions[ii] at St Pauls. Pepys was granted his degree in 1654.
In 1653 Pepys senior was admitted to the ranks of the Merchants Taylors Company, one of London’s Livery Companies, the same year that Oliver Cromwell made himself Protector of the country. On Cromwell’s coat tails came Edward Montagu, one of his neighbours and kin to the Pepys family.Elizabeth Pepys was born Elisabeth de St Michel in Bideford on 23rd October 1640. She was the daughter of Alexander de St Michel, a Frenchman converted to the Protestant religion. Her brother Balthasar was born the same year. Elisabeth’s mother apparently inherited land in Devon. And the St Michels moved there from Ireland, where they met. Over the next few years any money they had disappeared, as the small family wandered around Europe. Alexander took a variety of jobs, including soldiering and working for a time at the court in exile of Queen Henrietta Maria. In 1652, left alone in Paris, Elisabeth’s mother placed her daughter in an Ursuline convent, and her brother Balthasar was made a page to the Papal Nuncio. Infuriated by his wife’s actions Alexander St Michel carried the family off to London.
Elizabeth was just 15 when she married[iii]. Nothing is known about how she met Pepys, but he was obviously swept off his feet by this bi-lingual pretty but penniless young girl. Pepys possibly persuaded himself that two can live as cheaply as one and the couple were officially married on 1st December 1655 in St Margaret’s Westminster. This was their official wedding date, but the date they celebrated every year was the 10th October. The marriage was consummated that night and it may be assumed that the couple had an illegal wedding on that day[iv]. Elizabeth suffered from ‘painful humours and swellings’ in her vaginal region; so intercourse cannot have been as pleasant for her as for Samuel.In December too, Edward Montague was called to the Admiralty Commission. In January he found himself joint commander of the English battle fleet. Samuel was selected to look after his important relative’s affairs at home and his apartment at Whitehall, during Montague’s absence on fleet duties.
Unquiet TimesThe disparity in age and education did not make for a happy marriage and Pepys’ in-laws looked down upon his lowly birth (throughout his marriage Pepys never visited the St Michel’s). Samuel and Elizabeth were living in one room, possibly in the attics at Whitehall, with little money. Neither set of parents were able to help the couple. Samuel for the first few years suffered the complications of his kidney stone and Elizabeth too suffered from ill health. She had no servants and the young girl, fed on French romantic novels, had a fiery temper. Samuel as well had a temper that would flare up to meet hers. Relatively early in the marriage Elizabeth walked out without notice to her husband and did not return. It would appear that she stayed with a lawyer named Palmer and his family. Palmer possibly encouraged a reconciliation between the married couple.
In March 1658 Samuel Pepys successfully underwent an operation to remove his stone. He was nursed by his cousin Jane Turner. The anniversary of the operation was one of the high days of the Pepys household.‘This day it is two years since it pleased God that I was cut of the stone at Mrs Turner’s at Salisbury Court. And did resolve while I live to keep it a festival, as I did last year at my house, and for ever to have Mrs Turner and her company with me.’[v]
By now Pepys was working as a clerk for George Downing, diplomat, MP and an official at the Treasury. This work was in addition to looking after Montague’s affairs in his absence with the fleet. Samuel and Elizabeth took advantage of the situation and now rented half a house in Axe Yard, which must have reduced some of the pressures within the marriage.In May 1660 Pepys accompanied Montague’s fleet sent to escort the new king Charles Stuart back to his kingdom. On the 13th July 1660, Samuel was made Clerk of the Acts to the Navy Board; a post in which he was to be exceptionally effective. This new job brought him into contact with the king’s brother the Duke of York. In September Pepys was made a Justice of the Peace and in 1662 was made a younger brother of Trinity House[vi].
Momentous EventsOn 5th July 1665 Pepys, now working in the Navy Office, moved his family to Woolwich, following a severe outbreak of the plague in the city. The plague was an intermittent problem, re-occurring every few years. In June the numbers falling ill and dying in London started to increase.
Samuel’s career was not interrupted by the plague, nor was his private life. Pepys stayed in London, working at the Navy Office, despite the thousands of Londoners dying every week. At the end of the year the family returned home.
The following September another disaster hit the capital. It was Pepys who informed the king and his brother of the fire in London on 2nd September. It was his advice to blow up the buildings in the path of the fire to create breaks, that helped stop the spread of the devastation.
‘And word was carried to the King, so I was called and did tell the King and Duke of York what I saw, and that unless His Majesty did command houses to be pulled down, nothing could stop the fire.’[vii]That lunch time Pepys and Elizabeth were expecting guests for dinner and Pepys went home after walking through the streets, observing Londoners fleeing with their goods and chattels. It was all noted for posterity. There were five to dinner and a good time was had by all. The party went out after dinner to observe the continuing mayhem.
By the time Samuel and Elizabeth returned home, after spending the evening in an ale-house on Bankside, Pepys was aware that the fire was moving in their direction. Carts were organised as Samuel had his gold and books of accounts brought up from the cellar. Pepys arranged a navy lighter to take his possessions to Bethnal Green for storage at the house of a colleague. The wine was buried in the garden.‘In the evening Sir W. Penn[viii] and I did dig another and put our wine in it, and I my parmazan cheese as well as my wine and some other things.’[ix]
Pepys had buildings around the Navy Office blown up, in an attempt to save the building.By now the Pepys were camping out in their home. On the 5th Elizabeth woke Pepys to inform him that the fire was burning at the bottom of Seething Lane. He took her back to Woolwich, where she had stayed during the plague. The house was not burnt and Pepys ordered it cleaned. Meanwhile he took time out to dally with a couple of female acquaintances, one of whom Samuel was carrying on a long-term illicit relationship with. Mrs Bagwell was the wife of a ship’s carpenter (hoping for a promotion from the liaison) from Deptford. Elizabeth came home the next day.
‘And so home and unloaden them by carts and hands before night, to my exceeding satisfaction: and so after supper to bed in my old house, the first time I have lain there; and lay with my wife in my old closet upon the ground, and Balty[x] and his wife in the best chamber, upon the ground also.’[xi]A Marriage Under Pressure
The Pepys marriage would have been happier if Samuel had been less willing to drop his breeches at the slightest encouragement. Indeed on numerous occasions he informs us that he was sexually assaulting lower class women, if not actually raping them.‘Finding Mrs Bagwell waiting at the office after dinner; away elle and I to a cabaret where elle and I have été before; and there I had her company toute l’après-dîner and had mon plein plaisir of elle.’[xii]
Elizabeth did not take her husband’s infidelities and chasing after women lying down:‘And so home, where my wife in mighty pain, and mightily vexed at my being abroad with these women – and when they were gone, called them “whores” and I know not what; which vexed me, having been so innocent with them.’[xiii]
Indeed, Pepys betrayed Elizabeth with her companion Deborah Willett, who joined the household in September 1667, but left precipitately thirteen months later, after Elizabeth found Deb and Samuel in a heavily compromising position:‘For my wife, coming up suddenly, did find me imbracing the girl con my hand sub su coats; and endeed, I was with my main in her cunny’.[xiv].
This was the first and only time that Elizabeth caught her husband out in infidelity. The betrayal was even more poignant as Deborah had been treated as a member of the family, almost as a daughter by a couple who were unable to have children. Pepys had commenced his attack on Deb’s virtue in the March of 1668, when he sexually assaulted her. She was in a difficult position as she was totally dependent on his and Elizabeth’s goodwill. In November Deb admitted the affair to Elizabeth, who insisted on her dismissal, offering to slit Deb’s nose if Pepys did not stay away from her. Pepys even agreed to be tailed by his man Will Hewer to allay any suspicions Elizabeth might be harbouring.Yet when Elizabeth was attracted to a man, or conducted a mild flirtation, Pepys was outraged.
‘And so, well pleased, home – where I find it almost night and my wife and the Dancing Maister alone above, not dancing but walking. Now, so deadly full of jealousy I am, that my heart and head do cast about and fret, that I could not do any business possibly, but went out to my office.’[xv]Then the couple would often argue, not necessarily over Elizabeth’s flirtations, but over some other matter picked up by the jealous husband. In the instance of the dancing master; in order to restore his supremacy over her Pepys complained of Elizabeth’s use of the word Devil some days later, after what appeared to Samuel to be further provocations on Elizabeth’s part. This is a frequent occurrence – Samuel has to be her master in all things.
The Final SeparationBut however much Samuel chased after other women, there is no doubt that he did love Elizabeth:
‘Sad for want of my wife, whom I love with all my heart.’[xvi]
Elizabeth died on 10th November 1669, of typhoid fever, not long after the couple’s return from a trip to the Netherlands. Samuel was grief stricken and for several weeks was unable to apply himself to business with his normal thoroughness. He had stopped writing the diary in May, due to his worsening sight problems. Samuel did not remarry. In 1672 he was made an Elder Brother of Trinity House and served twice as Master. In 1673 the position of Secretary of the Admiralty was given to Pepys and he was elected MP for Castle Rising in the same year.
Pepys remained in public service until the Glorious Revolution, when he lost his job as he would not switch allegiance from his patron James. Thereafter he lived in retirement.
Most of the evidence of the marriage between Samuel and Elizabeth comes to us from Pepys himself, via the medium of his diary. But even in his most private writings Pepys could not lie to himself. And so we have a picture that is relatively even-handed.
To judge Pepys by the morals of the 21st century is tempting. He was an abusive man, who attempted to control his wife through a variety of methods, including his gifts to her. He was also a serial sexual predator, by his own admission. But people and events must be considered within the context within which they lived or occurred. From 1660 on mores and morals were very different even from those prevalent fifty years earlier. By seventeenth century standards Pepys’ treatment of women would not have been considered extra-ordinary. In the reign of Charles II many men were quick to emulate the king’s promiscuity; not least of whom was Pepys’s patron, the Duke of York.
Samuel Pepys – the Man in the Making – Arthur Bryant, Collins Press 1947
Pepys’ Later Diaries – ed. CS Knighton, Sutton Publishing 2004
The Shorter Pepys – ed. Robert Latham, Penguin 1987
Samuel Pepys – the Unequalled Self – Claire Tomalin, Alfred A Knopf 2002www.en.wikipedia.org
[i] The headmaster of St Paul’s disliked taking boys for schooling over that age.
[iii] Marriage at this age was not unusual in the 17th century.
[iv] Church weddings were declared invalid in August 1653.
[v] Samuel Pepys – 26th March 1660
[vi] Responsible for training of ship’s pilots
[vii] Samuel Pepys - 2nd September 1666
[viii] Navy Commissioner
[ix] Samuel Pepys - 4th September 1666
[x] Elizabeth’s brother
[xi] Samuel Pepys - 13th September 1666
[xii] Samuel Pepys - 23rd January 1665 – Pepys recorded his sexual adventures in a mix of French, Latin, English and Spanish
[xiii] Samuel Pepys – 9th May 1666
[xiv] Samuel Pepys – 25th October 1668
[xv] Samuel Pepys --15th May 1663
[xvi] Samuel Pepys – 21st June 1663