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Recollecting Samuel Pepys: His Life, His Library, and His Legacy

by Patricia Fumerton

Samuel Pepys’s ballad collection cannot be fully appreciated without also understanding the man who collected it and his collecting practices generally, which resulted in a relatively large library (now housed at Magdalene College, Cambridge) of which the ballads are but a small, if important, part. If Shakespeare can be characterized, as he was by his contemporary Ben Jonson, as someone “not of an age, but for all time,” Pepys, I would say, can be described as someone who was very much of his time, though his legacy certainly lives on.1 And Pepys’s times, more so than many other times, were constantly a-changing, a fact he simultaneously embraced and resisted. This Janus-faced attitude to the changing times can be seen in Pepys’s professional career, his daily life, and his collecting practices.

Samuel Pepys

Pepys (usually pronounced “peeps”) indeed lived through very tumultuous times. Born in 1633 and dying in 1703, he personally witnessed the beheading of King Charles I in 1642 as well as the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 (he sailed with his uncle Lord Montague on the ship that brought the soon-to-be crowned Charles II back to England from the Netherlands). He also lived through the successive wars between the English and the Dutch (1652-54, 1665-1667, and 1672-1674), the Great Plague of London of 1665 (which killed up to one-fifth of London’s population), the Great Fire of 1666 (which destroyed much of London, including St. Paul’s cathedral), and the Glorious Revolution of 1688. In this so-called “bloodless revolution,” King James II (Charles II’s nephew and successor) fled the country in the face of growing unrest over his Catholicism, and in his stead Parliament invited the Dutch and Protestant William of Orange (husband to James’s eldest daughter, Mary) to ascend the throne. During these many uncertain times, Pepys hit some political potholes but on the whole was remarkably successful at enduring and advancing socially and politically.

Pepys’s natural and honed administrative talents, together with high-placed patronage, accounted for his professional success. Though he was the son of middle class parents (his father was a tailor, his mother the daughter of a butcher), his extended family tree had high branches. After he received a Bachelor of Arts in 1654 from Magdalene College, Cambridge, Pepys entered the employ of his father’s cousin Montagu, who later became 1st Earl of Sandwich. Pepys proved a most extraordinarily careful and efficient clerk to Sandwich and others, and with these unusual talents, together with the patronage of Sandwich and later of King James II, Pepys rose to the positions of Member of Parliament for Castle Rising in Norfolk and for Harwich, and between 1685 and 1689, occupied the influential post of Secretary for the Admiralty. In this post Pepys reorganized and made more efficient the administration of the Navy, becoming both powerful and seemingly indispensible. In the words of the Duke of Albermarle, Pepys was the “right hand of the Navy.”2 But Pepys’s upward trajectory was not without its low points, and he was imprisoned for brief periods no less than three times (in 1680, 1689, and 1690) on suspicion of aligning with traitorous Catholics (this charge, though it could never stick, was no doubt fueled by Pepys’s having in 1655 married a descendent of French Huguenot immigrants, and also by James II’s Catholic bent). Pepys’s civil career fell for good with James II’s fall, and Pepys resigned his secretaryship soon after James fled the country at the end of 1688.

But one man’s loss can also be the same man’s gain, and now financially fairly well off, Pepys used his new leisure time to pursue one of his passions: collecting manuscripts, books, and prints. I say one of his passions because, contrary to our modern stereotype of the meticulous civil servant as boring and staid, Pepys was a man of many passions: for women (with whom he had numerous illicit affairs), for the theater (which he frequented regularly), for alehouses (another favorite hangout), for music (he regularly played instruments and sang), for news or gossip (which he would gather at such key locales as Whitehall, Westminster, and the Royal Exchange), and—always curious—for science (Pepys was nominated fellow of the Royal Society for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge and became its president, 1684-1686).3 Many of Pepys’s indulgences in these pleasures of his times are documented in his diary, for which he is probably most well-known today.

Written between 1600 and 1669 in shorthand, and only stopped because Pepys feared he was losing his eyesight, the diary can now be read in translation entry by entry (each entry date matching the monthly date in today’s year) on the acclaimed blog created by Phil Gyford at Pepys’s devotion to his social/political and also to his personal passions are recorded in his diary (his sexual affairs usually told in a lingua franca of different foreign languages when he gets to the juicy parts). His passion for both work and sex may explain the high number of ballads he collected on the topic of the sea, on the one hand, and on sex, love, marriage and cuckoldry (sex outside marriage), on the other. But Pepys was curious about all the topics of his times, hence his collecting ballads on a variety of subjects: religion, history, the state, the latest murders and executions, drinking and good fellowship, frolics, etc. Indeed, Pepys’s ballad collection, like the other books and manuscripts and prints he collected, is simultaneously a reflection of the individual man—his motto, which appears with his picture at the beginning of each ballad volume, was “mens cujusque is est quisque” or “the mind is the man”—and also of the times that man occupied, even down to the most mundane daily details, which for Pepys never seemed to be mundane at all. Thus when Pepys, in the front matter to the first volume of his ballad collection, quotes John Selden’s saying that ballads, though seemingly mere “straws,” in fact play an important role in telling “how the Wind sits,” he is admitting both the triviality and significance for his times of the broadsides he collected. They told the weather of his times, about which Pepys was most curious. And if the day to day curiosities of his changing times were uncertain and constantly changing, so, in a less cataclysmic way, was the making of his library.

Just as Pepys tried to bring a tidy order to the Navy’s unruly administration in his capacity as Secretary for the Admiralty, so he tried to bring a meticulous order to his own constantly evolving and difficult to manage library. But libraries, like the details of history, can be difficult to keep under control. Contributing to the problem was the fact that Pepys was passionate about buying books. He kept trying to curtail his buying of books (telling himself early on that he would stop when he had filled two bookcases)4 but he couldn’t break the habit. He collected books in many different areas and especially later in life indulged his passions for music, naval books, popular literature, and prints. As his comments on the decline of black letter and of woodcuts in broadside ballads demonstrate (quoted by Egan and others in their essays on Ballad Culture and Printing), Pepys particularly appreciated the aesthetic quality of books and of ballads. He also loved fine bindings and often had the books he purchased rebound (significantly, he bequeathed mourning rings to a bookbinder and also to his binder’s lowly sewer, so important were they to Pepys’s vision for his library).5

Following his passion for visual aesthetics and order, Pepys resolved to have all his books bound alike and even arranged them by size on his bookshelves (the books were double rowed with the larger books placed in the back of the shelves and smaller ones placed in the front), and he even had lifts created for books (made to look like the book’s binding) so that all the books in any row would be of similar height. Following the drive to collect by uniform size, Pepys separated out books of like kind, even those of the same genre. He constantly shuffled his books around in this cause, to the extent that in early arrangements of his library, he actually divided up his six-volume diary (1660-69), dispersing the separate volumes to four separate parts of the library, because all but two of the books were different sizes.6 Pepys also insisted on numbering his books consecutively, rather than interlineating them in a system such as that used by the Library of Congress. This meant that when Pepys purchased new books, his whole numbering system had to be changed, and he many times recatalogued the books by number as well as alphabetically by authors’ names. As the library grew, cataloguing the books became a logistical nightmare, and impossible of being resolved in his lifetime. Books on Pepys’s shelves today have as many as nine numbers penciled in and crossed out on their flyleaves.7

Pepys’s ballads were renumbered in the same way, as Pepys repeatedly reshuffled the broadsides according to categories and repeatedly rebound the growing collection. Indeed, the ballads were the most unruly of Pepys’s holdings, since they were accumulated singly but needed to be rearranged and rebound as more came into his possession (see Nebeker’s essay on “Thinking Categorically”). Pepys mentions in his diary admiring and acquiring ballads in the 1660s, but it is likely that he didn’t begin his collection in earnest until relatively late in his life (Dr. Richard Luckett, emeritus Librarian of the Pepys Library at Magdalene College, suspects Pepys began focusing on ballads in the 1680s). Pepys likely began with the purchase of most if not all of the ballads originally owned by John Selden (he acknowledges his debt to Selden at the beginning of volume one of his collection). According to Leba M. Goldstein, the Selden ballads make up pages 18-467 of volume 1 of Pepys’s ballad collection.8

Pepys witnessed the break-up of many contemporary libraries on their owner’s death, such as that of John Selden, and such vulnerability to fluctuating times may explain Pepys’s obsession with regularizing his library, not only in cataloguing books with single numbers but also in making them conform to a uniform aesthetic “look.” With the loose broadside ballads and even the prints he collected, Pepys was also determined to bring them into a single “whole” aesthetic vision in another way—by cutting them down to a size that would fit in identical album sets (sometimes even cutting off imprints, text, or ornaments) and even segmenting two-part ballads on a single broadsheet into two pieces that would fit pasted onto separate album pages. Other ballad collectors of the period employed similar dismembering techniques in their acts of “preserving” ballads: John Selden, John Bagford, and the collectors for Robert Harley (probably Bagford and Humphrey Wanley, Harley’s librarian), whose expanded collection became known as the Roxburghe Ballads—all cut and pasted with abandon.9 If not lost to Time’s scythe, then, broadside ballads of the period, such as those collected by Pepys, typically survived by being reduced or cleaved by the collectors’ shears. EBBA hopes to bring back some of the original look of such ballads by reconstructing divided broadsides into unified wholes (Ballad Facsimiles).

On one front, Pepys was most successful in holding off the changing winds of time. At the urgings of Thomas Gale (married to Pepys’s cousin) and Pepys’s friend and fellow collector, John Evelyn, Pepys in his last days provided for the stability and lasting life of his treasured library. In two codicils to his will, he specified that his library should be “closed” by his nephew John Jackson (who fittingly rounded it off by his calculation to exactly 3,000 texts), named the exact place where the library should be housed (Magdalene College or, failing that, Trinity College, in its own special room), and even outlined such fine details as lending policies (books should not leave the library grounds and visitors should be allowed no more than ten books at a time).10 Such determination “to hold it together” won praise from Evelyn, who was keenly aware that the winds of time threatened the collector at every turn: “you have declared,” he wrote to Pepys, “that you will endeavor to secure what with so much cost and industry you have collected, from the sad dispersions many noble libraries and cabinets have suffered in these late times: one auction, I may call it diminution, of a day or two, having scattered what has been gathering many years.”11

As in his meticulous cataloguing of his books, a mini-database, so to speak, Pepys’s collecting practices thus sought to resist fragmentation—the fate of being “scattered”—and strove instead to create an integrated and enduring “whole” of his library. In many ways he could not escape the turmoil of the times, neither in his life nor in his collecting practices, but in one concrete way—the establishment of his library, which in his will he dubbed “Bibilotheca Pepysiana” (the inscription of which is carved into the stone of the current library’s walls)—Pepys’s legacy most assuredly endures.


1 Ben Jonson, “To the Memory of my Beloved, The Author Mr. William Shakespeare: And What he hath Left Us,” in the first folio of Shakespeare’s works (London, 1623). I am indebted for many of the details that follow regarding Pepys’s life and times to Claire Thomalin, Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self (London: Viking, 2002) and to the introduction to the diary and to the diary itself of Pepys, The Diary of Samuel Pepys, 1660, ed. Robert Latham and William Matthews, 11 vols. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press).

2 Duke of Albermarle, April 24, 1665; quoted in The Diary of Samuel Pepys, ed. Latham and Matthews, 1:xxxiv.

3 Diary of Samuel Pepys, ed. Latham and Matthews, 1:cxxxii and cvii.

4 Diary of Samuel Pepys, ed. Latham and Matthews (1668, Jan. 10), 9:18.

5 Howard M. Nixon, “Bindings,” vol. 6 of the Catalogue of the Pepys Library at Magdalene College, Cambridge (Wolfeboro, NH: D. S. Brewer, 1984), pp. xiii, xvi, xxiii.

6 Only in Pepys’s last catalogue of 1700 did the dismembered volumes of his life come together as a set on the same shelf; The Diary of Samuel Pepys, ed. Latham and Matthews, 1:lxviii. On Pepys’s use of “stilts” to raise books to make them even in height, see “Introduction,” Bibliotecha Pepysiana: A Descriptive Catalogue of the Library of Samuel Pepys, F. Sidgwick (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, Ltd., 1914), p. xvi. See also “Introduction” to Facsimile of Pepys’s Catalogue, ed. David McKitterick, in Catalogue of the Pepys Library at Magdalene College Cambridge (Wolfeboro, NH: D. S. Brewer, 1991), VII: xi-xxxv.

7 Nixon, “Bindings,” p. xiv.

8 Interview with Richard Luckett conducted by Patricia Fumerton, July 10, 2007. Luckett lists all the instances where Pepys refers to ballads in his diary in “The Collection: Origins and History,” in Catalogue of the Pepys Library at Magdalene College Cambridge, II.ii, compiled by Helen Weinstein (Wolfeboro, NH: D. S. Brewer, 1994), p. xiv. On the Selden ballads, see Leba M. Goldstein, “The Pepys Ballads,” The Library, 5th series, 21 (1966): 296-288; Goldstein argues that missing consecutive numbers on the Selden ballads indicate that some of Selden’s ballads did not make it into Pepys’s collection; 290.

9 The one notable exception to this seventeenth-century practice of collecting via physically dismembering or cutting apart ballads and then rearranging their constituent parts can be found in the case of Anthony Wood. Wood preserved his broadside ballad collection as a collection of whole artifacts. Instead of cutting apart his broadsides and pasting them into albums, Wood folded the broadsides and placed them in select piles with the intent of having them stitched together into volumes backed by cardboard (inevitable trimming of the edges of the ballads nevertheless occurred in the course of their binding). This “holistic” practice by Wood, however, likely reflects not a different attitude to the ballad artifact from his contemporaries but rather Wood’s lack of funds, which may well have prohibited him from purchasing additional paper (onto which he could then paste his ballads) or the expensive binding of those sheets into albums.

10 See Sidgwick’s “Introduction,” Bibliotecha Pepysiana, pp. i-xix, which includes the two codicils Pepys made to his will on May 12, 1703 and May 13, 1703, detailing what the finished library should look like, where it should be placed, what it should be named (“Bibliotecha Pepysiana”), and how it may be used (pp. vii-x).

11 12 August 1689, in William Bray, ed., Diary and Correspondence of John Evelyn. vol. 3; new edn. with life of Evelyn and preface by H. B. Wheatley (London: Bickers, 1906), 3:447-48.

Works Consulted

Evelyn, John. Diary and Correspondence of John Evelyn. Ed. William Bray. Vol. 3. New edn. with additions by H. B. Wheatley. London: Bickers, 1906.

Facsimile of Pepys’s Catalogue. Vol. 7, Part 1: “Catalogue” and “Alphabet” and Vol. 7, Part 2: “Appendix Classica.” In Catalogue of the Pepys Library at Magdalene College, Cambridge. Ed. David McKitterick. Wolfeboro, NH: D. S. Brewer, 1991.

Goldstein, Leba M. “The Pepys Ballads.” The Library, 5th series, 21 (1966): 296-288.

Jonson, Ben. “To the Memory of my Beloved, The Author Mr. William Shakespeare: And What he hath Left Us.” In the first folio of Shakespeare’s works. London, 1623.

Latham, Robert and William Matthews, eds. The Diary of Samuel Pepys. Vol. 1 (1660). Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995.

Luckett, Richard. “The Collection: Origins and History.” In vol. 2, part 2, of Catalogue of the Pepys Library at Magdalene College Cambridge, compiled by Helen Weinstein. Wolfeboro, NH: D. S. Brewer, 1994.

⸻. Interview conducted by Patricia Fumerton. July 10, 2007.

McKitterick, David, ed. “Introduction” to Facsimile of Pepys’s Catalogue. In vol. 7 of Catalogue of the Pepys Library at Magdalene College Cambridge. Wolfeboro, NH: D. S. Brewer, 1991.

Nixon, Howard M. “Bindings.” In vol. 6 of Catalogue of the Pepys Library at Magdalene College, Cambridge. Wolfeboro, NH: D. S. Brewer, 1984

Sidgwick, F. “Introduction,” Bibliotecha Pepysiana: A Descriptive Catalogue of the Library of Samuel Pepys. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, Ltd., 1914.

Thomalin, Claire. Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self. London: Viking, 2002.