This Valentine's Day our curator, Kristian Martin, looks at the notorious sex life of the famous diarist Samuel Pepys.
Samuel Pepys’s diary (1660–69) is notorious for its liberal accounts of his sexual liaisons with women across London. Despite his marriage to Elizabeth St Michel (from 1655), Pepys had regular mistresses and engaged in casual affairs with servants, barmaids and companions alongside the wives, daughters and mothers of friends and colleagues. He flirted with, fondled or slept with Mrs Lane, Mrs Martin, Mrs Tooker, Mrs Burrows, Mrs Pennington, Betty Michell and Elizabeth Knepp in their homes, the backrooms of taverns, in carriages, in theatre stalls and even church pews.
The diary suggests that Pepys’s most enduring and regular mistress was Mrs (probably Elizabeth) Bagwell who lived here in Greenwich. She is mentioned almost fifty times, from 1663 onwards, and appears to have still been in Pepys’s life a month before the end of the diary. Mrs Bagwell was the wife of a ship’s carpenter, William Bagwell, who worked at Deptford dockyard. It is possible that William’s job came out of his wife’s liaison with Pepys, who at this time was a Clerk at the Navy Board, and he perhaps encouraged the affair as a way of furthering his career – William eventually rose to become master shipwright at Portsmouth dockyard.
Pepys’s philandering also took place much closer to home. He had an eye for several of the young maids that worked in his household and engaged in a short, but intense, sexual relationship with his wife’s companion Deborah or ‘Deb’ Willet, which began around 1668. On 25 October of that year Pepys’s adultery was spectacularly uncovered when Elizabeth Pepys caught them ‘together’: ‘my wife, coming up suddenly, did find me imbracing the girl … and endeed, I was with my main in her cunny’. Elizabeth was angry and distraught, Deb was dismissed shortly afterwards and Pepys apparently ended the affair.
Although Pepys’s libido seems to have been insatiable, it was not always welcome. His opportunistic and predatory groping of women when the situation arose was resisted, fought-off and spurned by some. On 18 August 1667 Pepys wrote:
‘into St. Dunstan’s Church, where I … stood by a pretty, modest maid, whom I did labour to take by the hand and the body; but she would not, but got further and further from me, and at last I could perceive her to take pins out of her pocket to prick me if I should touch her again’.
Pepys sometimes showed remorse for his behaviour: ‘I went to her and played and talked with her and, God forgive me, did feel her; which I am much ashamed of’, yet he still recorded these intimate sexual experiences in his diary, concealing them with a comical combination of English, Spanish, French and Latin as if embarrassed to commit them to the page: ‘there did what je voudrais avec her, both devante and backward, which is also muy bon plazer’ (3 Jun 1666). Writing them down undoubtedly gave him pleasure and acted as absolution.
Pepys was not only preoccupied with his own extra-marital affairs but was also thrilled by the salacious gossip about the goings on in the King’s bedchamber. Charles II quickly gained a reputation for his voracious sexual appetite. His notoriety earned him the nickname, ‘Old Rowley’, after the most virile stallion in the royal stables, and his sexual prowess and impressive anatomy were immortalised in the poetry of infamous rake, John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester. Charles did little to crush this reputation – in fact he appears to have encouraged it – and his infidelity was certainly no secret. The King sired at least 12 children with a string of courtesans who resided in his palaces, while others, from actresses to aristocrats, passed through Whitehall via a side entrance on a nightly basis. Pepys was quick to judge Charles’s immorality but saw no hypocrisy in his own behaviour.
The unattainable women that accompanied the King were also objects of Pepys’s lust and are mentioned throughout the diary, perhaps none more than Barbara Villiers, Countess of Castlemaine. A clever and shrewd court beauty, she had met Charles before the Restoration and remained his mistress – on and off – until the King’s death in 1685. Barbara exuded sexual confidence and her reputation in the bedroom rivalled that of the King. Pepys records having an erotic dream about her – ‘the best that ever was dreamt’ – where he ‘was admitted to use all the dalliance’ he desired with her (15 August 1665). He also mentions the titillation of stumbling across Barbara’s undergarments in the privy garden at Whitehall: ‘the finest smocks and linnen petticoats … laced with rich lace at the bottom, that ever I saw; and did me good to look upon them’ (21 May 1662).
Like the King, Pepys was a married man. Despite his infidelity, it would be unfair to say that he didn’t care for his wife, Elizabeth. Both his diary and correspondence make it clear that he loved her very much. He was insanely jealous of any contact she had with other men – unfairly judging her in terms of his own behaviour – and despite rows which sometimes tipped into violence, they had much in common. Yet Elizabeth appears to have had serious gynaecological problems which may have stopped her from enjoying sex and Pepys bemoans her understandable lack of interest in it. Perhaps their sexual incompatibility – and the sheer thrill – was why Pepys therefore sought carnal gratification away from home.
Sameul Pepys, Sex and the Stuarts
To find out more about Samuel Pepys and Stuart London, visit Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution