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The Plot Against Pepys

Alec Samuels

The 1670s and 1680s were troubled times. Louis XIVs France constituted a continuing and serious national threat. Anti-catholicism was extremely strong; James, Duke of York, the prospective next monarch was catholic, and Charles II was suspected of catholicism or catholic sympathies. The King and Parliament were locked in constant combat, the King seeking to rule without Parliament, and consequently being forced to rely upon Louis XIV for money. The London mob was liable to erupt at any moment. Party politics was developing, the Protestant Whigs wanting to exclude James from the succession, the Protestant Tories wanting to preserve the constitution. Charles was an astute monarch, and managed to survive, though he found his powers to be limited. James was not astute, he was inflexible, and ultimately came to grief.

In the late 1670s Pepys was Secretary to the Admiralty (what today we would probably describe as chief executive or permanent secretary). Though highly successful, and recognised as such, Pepys had his problems: he was a devoted servant of James, he was suspected of popery, and suffered the jealousy of lesser men.

The Titus Oates virulent anti-popery campaign was raging. An unprincipled rogue, Colonel Scott, a disaffected former servant of James, accused Pepys of treason, helping the French, a very serious accusation. Pepys felt obliged to resign his office, and was arrested and confined to the Tower and then the Marshalsea prison. Scott stooped to dishonesty, forgery, perjury. The law left much to be desired. Bail was very difficult to obtain, and huge sureties were required. Fortunately the Habeas Corpus Act 1679 proved a useful protection. The defendant was given little or no notice of the changes against him. He was not allowed a lawyer. Written evidence was usually not allowed. The defendant in effect had to prove his innocence. The delays were legendary.

As might be expected, in his customary thorough and methodical manner, Pepys set to work to assemble his defence and to discredit Scott. He benefited from his many friends who helped him in his investigations, especially Will Hewer; even Balty rendered some service. In the end, when the case came on for trial the prosecution offered no evidence, and Pepys was triumphantly discharged. But it could have ended in execution if it had gone wrong. So Pepys lived to tell the tale, and bureaucratically collected the papers, and returned to office. Public service, even of the quality of that rendered by Pepys, could be a precarious calling.