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Pepys and Parliament

Alec Samuels

Pepys was always much interested in and much involved in public life and in politics. For much of his life as a senior civil servant he enjoyed direct access to the Duke of York and the King. In 1649 aged 16 he attended the execution of Charles I. His father’s first cousin was Sir Richard Pepys, MP for Salisbury in 1640, and another cousin Roger Pepys was MP for Cambridge in the 1660s. A young man during the Republic and Commonwealth, Pepys respected Cromwell, who became the Lord Protector after the dismissal of the Rump Parliament in 1653, and refused the Crown in 1657. Pepys described “Oliver” in the Diary as “a brave fellow” 12 July 1667. Cromwell’s exhumed head displayed on a spike in London in 1660 must have been seen by Pepys. 1660 Pepys’ patron Montagu took Pepys with him to Holland to bring Charles II back to England for the Restoration. Montagu was made the Earl of Sandwich, and Pepys soon became Clerk to the Navy Board.
The 1660s and 1670s were troublesome times for the Navy, because of the social and economic disruption caused by the 1665 plague and the 1666 fire of London, and because of the Dutch Wars which resulted from rivalry over sea power and trade and colonies. There was also the ever-present threat of France under Louis XIV. To quarrel with Holland when the real threat was France was madness.
In 1668 the Navy suffered a calamitous and humiliating setback when the Dutch sailed up the Medway, burned many English ships, and took away the flagship the Royal Charles. Pepys, an officer of the Navy Board, a public servant, was called before the House of Commons Committee on Miscarriages (sic) to explain what had happened. On 5 March 1668 Pepys and the others gathered in Westminster Hall. He drank some sack, and then a dram of brandy: “I did find myself in better order as to courage, truly”. Between 11 and 12 midday they were called into the Chamber, which was mighty full, and full of expectation and prejudice. Pepys was aware of the need to excuse himself for other men’s negligence; and fearful of prejudice. “I began the defence acceptably and smoothly and continued without any hesitation or loss with full scope and all my reason free about me as if it had been at my own table, from that time till past 3 in the afternoon and so ended without interruption, and one withdrew. All my fellow officers and all the world that was within hearing did congratulate me and cry up my speech as the best thing they had ever heard, and my fellow officers enjoyed in it. It is plain we have got gain and everybody says I have got the most honour that any could have the opportunity of getting. It was said that I was another Cicero, and that I spoke the best man in England and should put on a gown and plead at the Chancery Bar”. It may be remembered that in 1650 Pepys was enrolled as a student at Trinity Hall College, Cambridge, with a view to becoming a lawyer but was persuaded to change to Magdalene and to study classics, maths and philosophy.
The next day he happened upon the King and the Duke of York and was personally congratulated by the King, who said he was glad of Mr Pepys’ success yesterday.
Indeed, throughout his time with the Navy Board Pepys frequently attended the House of Commons to answer for and to defend the Navy Board, and became very familiar with the procedures of the House of Commons and the attitude of the members, which was usually critical.
The Palace of Westminster was very different in C17th from what it is in C21st. Then the Palace was a rambling jumble of buildings. The House of Commons, known as the Parliament House, sat in St Stephens’ Chapel, the crypt of which survives today. The House of Lords sat in the nearby Parliament Chamber. Adjoining St Stephen’s Chapel was Westminster Hall, originally built by William II but wondrously improved with that wonderful hammer beam roof by Richard II, and there sat the courts. After the abolition of the Star Chamber in 1640 the committees sat in that chamber. Westminster Hall was frequented by public officials and parliamentarians and the public, and Pepys was frequently there. There were two landing places or landing steps, Old Palace Yard upstream of Westminster Hall, 3,400 yards from London Bridge, and New Palace Yard, downstream from Westminster Hall. The Thames was the main highway in London, and constantly used by Pepys. In the fire of 1834 (wonderfully painted by Turner) the Palace was destroyed, except Westminster Hall and the Jewel House.
For long Pepys had the ambition to become an MP: “… and my great design… is to get myself to be a Parliament-man” Diary 5 December 1668. In 1673 the Duke of York resigned as High Admiral and was replaced by a Commission and a spokesman for the Navy was required in the House of Commons. A seat was found for Pepys for Castle Rising in Norfolk, thanks to sponsorship by the Duke of York and Henry Howard, who was Earl of Norwich and Baron of Castle Rising, both Catholics. Though Pepys had to spend some £700 for the election. The voting was 29 to 6. The Catholic sponsorship led to accusations that Pepys had Catholic sympathies, and the validity of the election result was challenged, albeit unsuccessfully. He did not have a very high regard for MPs, saying that they were tempted to become knaves to passion, faction and private interest. In the same year Pepys was appointed Secretary to the Board of Admiralty, a senior post which had been in abeyance since 1660, with direct access to the King, so a real advancement.
In C17th no verbatim record of parliamentary proceedings was kept, so the record of what actually was said and actually happened is necessarily unofficial and patchy and unreliable. The King governed by prerogative power so far as possible. Parliament did not meet very often, and then largely for the purpose of taxation and grants to the King, for the Army and the Navy. The Navy absorbed a large proportion of public expenditure, the army less so until the War of the Spanish Succession under Queen Anne and John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough.
In the 1670s Pepys obtained quite substantial funds for the Navy, ordering the construction of more ships, getting a grip on repair and supply contracts, regularising pay, introducing examinations for naval officers, and introducing half-pay for officers not needed for duty but available to be called upon if needed.
In 1679 Pepys was re-elected to Parliament, this time without trouble, for Harwich, a port of some significance. In C17th there was no incompatibility for a civil servant to serve as an MP, no separation of powers.
1679 Pepys ran into trouble. He was accused – falsely – of the old accusation of Catholicism and treachery. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London, and dismissed from his naval office. After a few months he was released, in July, though the charges against him were not finally dropped until June 1680. Pepys was now unemployed. However he remained in Parliament (unpaid). The Parliament elected in 1679, the third of Charles II Parliaments, known as the Cavalier Parliament, became redundant in 1681 as the King ruled through the prerogative without Parliament. There was a trade and economic boom in the 1680s, so he could manage on indirect taxes and secret money from Louis XIV.
1683 things began to look up again for Pepys. Tangier, administered by the Navy Board, had long been a problem. The governance was corrupt, the working conditions were very poor, and the surrounding Moors were a constant threat. Pepys was commissioned to go to Tangier to supervise the demolition of the harbour and withdrawal, which he did successfully. He visited Spain, and probably saw the rock of Gibraltar, captured in 1704 and retained under the Treaty of Utrecht 1714, a far more satisfactory base for the Mediterranean and Africa than Tangier. Back in England Pepys was back in royal favour.
1684 Pepys was appointed as Secretary to the Affairs of the Admiralty, the equivalent of the modern Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Defence 1685 Pepys’ patron the Duke of York became King James II.
1685 Pepys was re-elected MP for Harwich with Admiralty patronage. He was said to be an energetic MP for his constituency, as was Marvell as MP for Hull.
Under James II Pepys was particularly effective in office, setting up the new Navy Commission which provided proper leadership and administration to the Navy.
In the House of Commons Pepys was not a great success as a politician. He was not at ease in the cut and thrust of debate. In mindset as a public servant he tended to support government, because it was government, representing law and order, and defence of the realm. But he was able to bring real knowledge and expertise about the Navy to the House of Commons, a very real benefit. Unfortunately the suspicion of a touch of Catholicism dogged him throughout his public life. He never received a Knighthood – was this because of his relatively humble social origins, or the suspicion of Catholicism, or the sheer ingratitude of James II?
1688 William of Orange invaded England, by invitation, “The Protestant religion and the Liberties of England I will maintain”. James II fled the realm. Loyalty was an important virtue for Pepys, who had devotedly served James since 1660, whilst recognising James’ flaws of character. In February 1689, one week after the coronation of William III and Mary II, Pepys resigned his office, staying for two weeks to ensure an orderly handover to his successor. He was briefly imprisoned, but his conduct of his office was soon vindicated by a parliamentary enquiry.
Pepys did stand as a candidate for Parliament for Harwich in 1689, but he was defeated. He had served for 16 years. The political climate had greatly changed. So ended a remarkable career in public service, for the Navy as an administrator, the founder of the Admiralty office, and as an MP with considerable responsibilities as spokesman for the Navy. After nearly 30 years of distinguished public service Pepys retired, living on for another 14 years. The promised history of the Navy was never written, a pity in view of his knowledge, experience, public service and documentation (much of which is in the Pepys Library); though he did produce Memoirs Relating to the State of the Royal Navy of England, which was essentially a defence of his time in the Admiralty. So the greatest diarist in the English language, the founder of the proper administrative civil service for the Navy, and also a significant spokesman for the Navy in Parliament as an MP.


The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Robert Latham and William Matthews, Bell and Hyman, 11 volumes, 1985.
Samuel Pepys, Plague, Fire and Revolution, edited by Margarette Lincoln, Thames and Hudson, 2015, with full bibliography pp 278-279.
The three standard books on Pepys are Ollard (colourful), Coote (readable) and Tomalin (authoritative).