How did Samuel Pepys celebrate his birthday? Presents and cake just didn't cut it for the world's greatest diarist.
Samuel Pepys was born on 23 February 1633 above his father’s tailor’s shop in Salisbury Court in east London. The fifth child, and second son, of Margaret and John Pepys, by 1640, Samuel was the oldest surviving of the Pepys children.
When he began his diary in 1660 Pepys was 26 years old. The entry for 23 February of that year begins, ‘My birthday: now 27 years’. Beyond this fleeting mention there is little to mark out the occasion as a special day. In fact, none of the ten birthdays that feature in the diary (1660–69) appear to be far out of the ordinary run of things. Other than recording his age (apart from 1668 when he fails to mention his birthday at all), there are no mentions of any notable celebrations that we would associate with birthdays: no big parties, presents or cake but instead Pepys goes about his usual business, attending the Navy Office, Whitehall or Westminster, sees a play (or two) and enjoys dinner or a glass of wine with his wife and friends.
On his 33rd birthday in 1666 he combined, by his own admission, three of his favourite things: theatre, music and women. He spent an entertaining afternoon with the actress, and his one-time mistress, Elizabeth Knepp who regaled him with performances and gossip from the King’s playhouse in Drury Lane. Pepys took pride and pleasure in teaching her to sing his self-composed song Beauty Retire: ‘a very fine song it seems to be’ and ended his birthday entry with sanguine fulfilment, ‘mightily pleased to find myself in condition to have these people come about me and to be able to entertain them, and have the pleasure of their qualities, than which no man can have more in the world’.
Perhaps Pepys’s most eventful birthday took place three years later when it coincided with Shrove Tuesday. Pepys took his wife and cousins to see the tombs at Westminster Abbey, seemingly a Lent-time tradition. Gruesomely, he describes how he paid his respects to Queen Katherine of Valois, consort of Henry V, by kissing the mouth of her 230-year-old skeletal remains which were displayed there. With satisfaction he writes, ‘this was my birth-day, thirty-six years old, that I did first kiss a Queen’. The day finished with the more conventional birthday pursuits of going out for supper, a little music and some dancing.
Almost all entries for 23 February see Pepys acknowledging his gratitude for another birthday reached and, ‘by the blessing of Almighty God’, for his health and happiness. He is clearly aware of his own fortune and mortality. Pepys saw many of his siblings die at a young age and was lucky to survive a major near-death experience a few years earlier: a major operation to remove a large bladder stone on 26 March 1658. For the first few years after his operation, Pepys celebrated its anniversary with a banquet of the finest food with family and friends which he called his ‘stone feast’. This seems to have had more significance for Pepys than his birthday and was certainly more lavishly celebrated.
Nevertheless, we wish Samuel Pepys a very happy birthday!