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Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution Exhibit at the National Maritime Museum

Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution at the National Maritime Museum
Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution at the National Maritime Museum
Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution at the National Maritime Museum

Today is the 383rd birthday of famed London diarist, Samuel Pepys (February 23, 1633 – May 26, 1703). What better way to celebrate his important contribution to English history than to catch the exhibit: Samuel Pepys: Fire, Plague, Revolution at the National Maritime Museum.

Pepys is famous for being a voice and mirror to several pivotal events in Stuart England: The Interregnum (1660), the Restoration of the monarchy (1661), the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667), The Great Plague (1665), and The Great Fire of London (1666).

That’s a lot to witness in a short ten year span. From the ages of 26 to 36, he recorded his daily life in a diary; everything from the mundane to the spectacular, and the political and social affairs of the 1660s. Pepys lived through a particularly tumultuous, and difficult time in London. He offers first hand accounts of some of the most important events of that decade, if not the entire century.

The National Maritime Museum has put on a fantastic exhibit showcasing Pepys’ diary, important events, artefacts, and paintings from the period. It’s an in-depth look at Pepys’ life, his rapid rise to some of the highest political circles in London, and what his diary offers historians as a glimpse into the Stuart past. For those who love urban history and city life, as I do, this is a good opportunity to get a bird’s eye view of seventeenth century London from a Londoner who loved his city.

The exhibit has some spectacular art and artefacts, as well as clever digital displays. In no particular order, here are a few of my favourite bits:

The gloves of Charles I. Photo by visitgreenwich.org.uk
The gloves of Charles I. Photo by visitgreenwich.org.uk

The Gloves of Charles I
The gloves Charles I (1600-1649) wore, and then handed over to his chaplain-in-ordinary, William Juxton (1582-1663) right before he was executed, are on display. After Charles was behaded on January 30, 1649, people rushed forward to dip their handkerchiefs in his blood. Shortly after, a a Cult of Charles I was formed and the Anglican England canonised him as a saint. Pepys was in the crowd, at only 15.

The Coronation Procession of Charles II
The Coronation Procession of Charles II

The Court of Charles II
Pepys escorted Charles II back to England and attended his coronation on April 23, 1661. The story behind Charles II (1630-1685), his mistresses, his excess, and his sexual appetite were all captured in Pepys’ diary. What did he really think of this new monarch?

The court of Charles II was opulent, with Charles II bringing his ostentatious continental style to court. He had several several mistresses, the beautiful (and married) Barbara Villiers (1640-1709), and famous actresses Nell Gwyn (1650-1687) and Mary “Moll” Davis (1648-1708); all three are featured in stunning paintings in the exhibit. Pepys, humorously enough, thought Charles II’s court debauched but he exhibited the same attitudes; he was completely enamoured by Barbara Villiers, hobnobbed with the royal court, and had his share of extra-marital affairs.

The Great Plague of London 1665
The Great Plague of London 1665

The Plague of 1665
The Great Plague, which began in February 1665 and claimed almost 69,000 lives (but actually closer to 100,000) until the winter of that year, was another one of my favourite features of the exhibit. Pepys recorded this harrowing time in his diary and was lucky to have survived, as even his physician succumbed to the plague. Some fascinating articles were on display, such as objects that were considered to offer protection against the plague: a seventeenth century fumigating torch, a
tobacco box, and pomander (portable perfume containers, which took on medicinal role in plague as people believe it was spread by bad smells in the air).

The Story of the Great Fire of 1666: “It Made Me Weep to See It”
One of my favourite features was the three minute movie about the Great Fire of London. The fire ripped across the city from September 2-5, 1666 and destroyed over 100,000 homes, and leaving 6 dead.

In a brief exhibit talk, The Great Fire and the Age of Superstition, we learned that prophets and visionaries had been foretelling that bad things would happen in 1666 because of the “666″ in it and its associations with the Devil. Apparently, omens portending the city’s demise such as fish falling from the sky in Kent, a coffin seen hovering above the skies of Vienna, and comets sited in 1664 were all thought to be harbingers of doom. Pepys himself said that 1666 would be a year of great action. He was quite right.

Pepys’ diary offers a first hand account of the fire – as he tearfully watched it consume the city from a turret at the Tower of London. He called it, “evil”, “lamentable”, and “malicious”. Pepys jumped into a boat to Whitehall to tell the King after the Mayor, Sir Thomas Bloodworth (1620-1682) refused to spring into action to counteract the spreading flames. Bloodworth was called upon to stop the fire but he refused to start fire breaks against the advice of the city constables. He was more concerned about who would pay for the destruction of the houses and went back to bed. His inaction was believed to have spurred the fire. After hearing this from Pepys, the King ordered fire breaks. Thanks to Pepys, London may well have saved from further destruction. Sadly, even with his quick thinking, an astounding 85% of city was destroyed. Some people believed that the fire and plague had been meted out to London as punishment for the execution of Charles I, and debauchery of court of Charles II. The exhibit also feature a fasincating digital map that lights up and is slowly engulfed in flames in time with the mini movie.

Samuel Pepys digital diary at the National Maritime Museum. Photo by Clay Interactive.
Samuel Pepys digital diary at the National Maritime Museum. Photo by Clay Interactive.

Pepys’ Diary: Interactive
Last, but certainly not least, was Pepys’s diary. The diary was originally written in short-hand but the National Maritime Museum has created a touch-screen display where visitors can run their fingers over the screen and uncover what Pepys’ wrote, page by page. It’s a neat little feature to help people read Pepys’ diary.

The exhibit will run daily until March 28th, 10:00-17:00. 

~Sandra Alvarez

Click here for more information about visiting Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution

Follow the National Maritime Museum on Twitter: @NMMGreenwich

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