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Samuel Pepys 1633-1703

Samuel Pepys
Samuel Pepys

Maintaining the Royal Navy at its Cromwellian size and efficiency was a major problem. The man who rose to the challenge was Samuel Pepys, who, as well as being a famous diarist, worked first at the Navy Board and then effectively created the Admiralty as an efficient department of state. For the almost thirty years following the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660, Pepys dominated naval administration and brought it to a hitherto unseen peak of professionalism.

In 1660 Pepys had no experience of naval administration. He was appointmented as Clerk of the Acts to the Navy Board mainly because his patron was Edward Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich, a General-at-Sea during the Commonwealth era under Robert Blake and a major figure in the Restoration. Nevertheless, through his undoubted organisational skills and commitment to the navy he became a close advisor to the Lord High Admiral, Charles' brother and the future King James II. Pepys was credited with saving the navy's supply system from collapse during the Second Anglo-Dutch War, 1665-1667.

When James refused to comply with Parliament's Test Act in 1673 and resigned, Charles decided to take personal control over the Admiralty. For the next six years Charles and Pepys, now installed as Secretary to the Admiralty Board, directed naval affairs with little reference to the Board. Pepys was the navy's spokesman in Parliament and began a serious of major reforms including the introduction of examinations, standardising ship types, the provision for officers' pensions and payments for sailors' widows.

In the political scandal of the Popish Plot in 1679, Charles was forced to make concessions to Parliament, one of which was to relinquish control of the Admiralty. Pepys was falsely accused of treason and held for a time in the Tower of London. The new Admiralty Board appointed by Parliament proved to be a disaster dissolving Pepys' organisation and ordering a new fleet of ships that it had no means of maintaining.

Charles' position was sufficiently restored by 1684 for him to dismiss the Admiralty Board and reappoint Pepys in the more powerful position of Secretary for the Affairs of the Admiralty. Pepys was effectively a minister in his own right, similar in style to Colbert, Louis XIV's Minister of the Marine. He reinstated many of the reforms from his first term in office and in 1686 established a special commission on the requirements of producing a modern fleet. Its report, Memoires relating to the state of the Royal Navy, was published in 1690. After the Glorious Revolution in 1688 Pepys was forced to retire due to his association with King James II who had succeeded Charles in 1685.

Pepys' legacy to the Admiralty was primarily one of impartial service, as a civil servant would be expected to act today. He was determined to do his best for the service and as such was marked apart from many of his contemporaries who had wider political ambitions. He acted to root out corruption and improve discipline, training and conditions in the navy. Today Pepys is better known for the famous Diary, written between 1660-1669, which was published after his death and give an unparalleled insight into the Resoration era.

Further reading:

  • J.D. Davies "A Permanent Maritime Fighting Force, 1642-1689" in J.R. Hill (Ed.),
  • The Oxford Illustrated History of the Royal Navy (Oxford, 1995).
  • A. Lambert, War at Sea in the Age of Sail (London: 2000).
  • N.A.M. Rodger, The Admiralty (Lavenham, Suffolk: 1979).