Samuel Pepys was born in London of humble origin, but through his skill, motivation, and patronage became an important man of his time. A series of government positions, most of them in the Navy department, eventually culminated in appointment to the secretaryship of the Admiralty and his first term in Parliament in 1673. He renewed the English Navy, controlling the largest spending budget of the state, and eventually doubled the strength of the Navy’s force. Pepys’s personal standards of efficiency, industry, and confidence established a distinguished administrative tradition, but they also bought him several enemies. In 1679, Pepys spent some months in the Tower of London after being falsely accused of treason by Lord Shaftesbury. He was elected president of the Royal Society in 1684 and moved in circles that included such thinkers as Isaac Newton, Christopher Wren, and John Dryden, as well as nearly all the great scholars of the period. After his retirement in 1689, he worked on his Memories of the Royal Navy (1690).
Pepys is most known for his Diary (not published until 1825), composed during the decade of the 1660s. In the Diary, he describes Reformation England with great art and explicitness, both revealing small details of his daily life and exploring large perspectives of the time. Historical events, such as the Great Plague of 1665, the Great Fire of 1666, the Dutch War, and accounts of famous people, such as Charles II, are woven into a rich and detailed narrative. Pepys wrote extensively in his Diary until 1669, when his eyesight failed him and his wife Elizabeth died. Pepys’s entire library, with its books arranged by size, remains intact—with neither additions nor deletions permitted—at Magdalene College, Cambridge.
This selection from the Diary for January 21, 1668, and following days is Pepys’s account of the suicide attempt of his cousin Kate Joyce’s husband, a tavern-keeper, and his own attempt to protect the estate from forfeiture to the Crown, as the law required in cases of suicide. Pepys’s observations are significant for their account of the effects of England’s forfeiture laws on a suicide’s family.
Diary of Samuel Pepys, 1668. Transcribed from the Shorthand Manuscript In The Pepysian Library Magdalene College Cambridge By The Rev. Mynors Bright. Project Gutenberg Release #4195. Entries for January 21, 22, 24, 1668.
from DIARY: JANUARY 21ST, 22ND, and 24TH, 1668
21st. Up, and while at the office comes news from Kate Joyce that if I would see her husband alive, I must come presently. So, after the office was up, I to him, and W. Hewer with me, and find him in his sick bed (I never was at their house, this Inne, before) very sensible in discourse and thankful for my kindness to him, and his breath rattled in his throate, and they did lay pigeons to his feet while I was in the house, and all despair of him, and with good reason. But the story is that it seems on Thursday last he went sober and quiet out of doors in the morning to Islington, and behind one of the inns, the White Lion, did fling himself into a pond, was spied by a poor woman and got out by some people binding up hay in a barn there, and set on his head and got to life, and known by a woman coming that way; and so his wife and friends sent for. He confessed his doing the thing, being led by the Devil; and do declare his reason to be, his trouble that he found in having forgot to serve God as he ought, since he come to this new employment: and I believe that, and the sense of his great loss by the fire, did bring him to it, and so everybody concludes. He stayed there all that night, and come home by coach next morning, and there grew sick, and worse and worse to this day. I stayed awhile among the friends that were there, and they being now in fear that the goods and estate would be seized on, though he lived all this while, because of his endeavouring to drown himself, my cozen did endeavour to remove what she could of plate out of the house, and desired me to take my flagons; which I was glad of, and did take them away with me in great fear all the way of being seized; though there was no reason for it, he not being dead, but yet so fearful I was. So home, and there eat my dinner, and busy all the afternoon, and troubled at this business. In the evening with Sir D. Gawden, to Guild Hall, to advise with the Towne-Clerke about the practice of the City and nation in this case: and he thinks that it cannot be found self-murder; but if it be, it will fall, all the estate, to the King. So we parted, and I to my cozens again; where I no sooner come but news was brought down from his chamber that he was departed. So, at their entreaty, I presently took coach to White Hall, and there find Sir W. Coventry; and he carried me to the King, the Duke of York being with him, and there told my story which I had told him: and the King, without more ado, granted that, if it was found, the estate should be to the widow and children. I presently to each Secretary’s office, and there left caveats, and so away back again to my cozens, leaving a chimney on fire at White Hall, in the King’s closet; but no danger. And so, when I come thither, I find her all in sorrow, but she and the rest mightily pleased with my doing this for them; and, indeed, it was a very great courtesy, for people are looking out for the estate, and the coroner will be sent to, and a jury called to examine his death. This being well done to my and their great joy, I home, and there to my office, and so to supper and to bed.
22nd. Up, mightily busy all the morning at the office. … after dinner to my cozen Kate’s, and there find the Crowner’s jury sitting, but they could not end it, but put off the business to Shrove Tuesday next, and so do give way to the burying of him, and that is all; but they all incline to find it a natural death, though there are mighty busy people to have it go otherwise, thinking to get his estate, but are mistaken. Thence, after sitting with her and company a while, comforting her: though I can find she can, as all other women, cry, and yet talk of other things all in a breath.…
24th. … I to St. Andrew’s church, in Holburne, at the ‘Quest House, where the company meets to the burial of my cozen Joyce; and here I staid with a very great rabble of four or five hundred people of mean condition, and I staid in the room with the kindred till ready to go to church, where there is to be a sermon of Dr. Stillingfleete, and thence they carried him to St. Sepulchre’s. But it being late, and, indeed, not having a black cloak to lead her [Kate Joyce] with, or follow the corps, I away, and saw, indeed, a very great press of people follow the corps.…