Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution

The largest ever exhibition about the famous diarist will open on  20 November 2015, with 200 objects from national and international museums, galleries and private collections.

National Maritime Museum: 20 November 2015–28 March 2016

I do still see that my nature is not to be quite conquered, but will esteem pleasure above all things, though yet in the middle of it, it has reluctances after my business, which is neglected by my following my pleasure. However musique and women I cannot but give way to, whatever my business is. - Diary, March 9, 1665

Pepys, one of the most colourful and appealing characters of the 17th century, witnessed many of the great events that shaped Stuart Britain, bringing them brilliantly to life in his famous and candid diary. He lived through a time of turmoil which saw kings fighting for their crowns, and medieval London transformed into a world city following the devastation of the plague and the destruction of the Great Fire. He was a naval mastermind, a gossip and socialite, a lover of music, theatre, fine living and women. He fought for survival on the operating table and in the cut-throat world of public life and politics, successfully navigating his way to wealth and status until his luck, intimately entwined with the King’s fortunes, finally ran out.

Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution places this fascinating and multifaceted figure within a broader historical context, beginning at the moment a schoolboy Pepys played truant to witness the execution of King Charles I in 1649. It explores the turbulent times which followed, including the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658 in a year of personal crisis for Pepys as he underwent a life-threatening operation to remove a bladder stone the size of a snooker ball without anaesthetic or antiseptic. He was fortunate to survive the ordeal; his recovery perhaps, in part, due to being the first on the operating table that day, reducing the risk of infection. The grisly and extremely painful procedure is graphically brought to life by 17th-century medical instruments (Royal College of Physicians).

Pepys began his now-famous diary on 1 January 1660 and was on board the ship that carried Charles II out of exile at the restoration of the monarchy later that year. He met and conversed with the King and his brother, James, Duke of York (later James II), who promised Pepys ‘his future favour’. In the diary he records his disapproval of the debauchery at court during Charles II’s reign, including the King’s many mistresses. But Pepys himself was frequently unfaithful to his wife. The exhibition will display the famous Portrait of Charles II in Coronation Robes (Royal Collection), as well as objects connected to his mistresses including one of his love letters to Louise de Kéroualle which uses her nickname ‘Fubbs’, meaning chubby (Goodwood Collection).

During his lifetime Pepys was best known for his important work in running the naval affairs of England, a career that propelled him towards wealth and power and the creation of a truly ‘professional’ navy. His work also took him to the English colony of Tangier, a place notorious for drunkenness and immorality, all of which he observed and noted in his writings.

The penultimate section of Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution looks at the dawn of the scientific revolution. Pepys was president of the Royal Society when Newton’s Principia Mathematica (Royal Society) was published, placing him at the centre of scientific debate. Publications like Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (British Library), which Pepys thought ‘the most ingenious book that ever I read in my life’, made unseen worlds of lice and fleas visible. While the matters discussed at the Society interested him, he confessed not always to understand what he heard.

The exhibition ends with extraordinary events of the Glorious Revolution, which resulted in the overthrow of Pepys’s great patron, James II. It shows how intimately Pepys’s own career was intertwined with larger national events outside his control. With the accession of William and Mary in 1689, Pepys stepped down from office and began an active retirement, indulging his many passions.

Using the voice and personality of the famous diarist, Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution explores and interprets a remarkable time of great accomplishment, upheavals and excess. It was a formative era in British history that saw the repositioning of the monarchy and the development of Britain’s place as a maritime, economic and political force on the world stage.

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Notes to Editors:

  1. Royal Museums Greenwich incorporates the National Maritime Museum, the Royal Observatory Greenwich, the 17th-century Queen’s House and Cutty Sark. Royal Museums Greenwich works to illustrate for everyone the importance of the sea, ships, time and the stars and their relationship with people. This unique collection of attractions, which form a key part of the Maritime Greenwich UNESCO World Heritage Site, welcomes over 1.5 million British and international visitors a year and is also a major centre of education and research.
  2. Alongside the exhibition, there will be a full series of walks, talks, courses and evening events. Shake off the bad old days of Cromwellian austerity, and celebrate the return of the Christmas, and visit the exhibition after hours. Follow in Pepys’ footsteps with a number of themed walks, taking in the sites of Pepys’ Greenwich featuring a behind the scenes look at the archive at the National Maritime Museum. Book Slam, London’s longest running and best known literary event comes to Greenwich for one night only at the National Maritime Museum. Our popular Maritime Lecture Series will explore all aspects of Pepys’ world, from the reasons he kept a diary to the science of the Stuart era.
  3. Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution is accompanied by a richly illustrated book edited by Margarette Lincoln, with an introduction from Claire Tomalin. Published on 12 October 2015, the book explores the public and personal world of Pepys, not only a famous diarist, but also an energetic and talented man who rose from modest beginnings to become the greatest naval administrator of the age. Through a series of essays by leading experts, this publication reveals the rich diversity of his career and interests – from the theatre, to advances in science and the development of the Royal Navy. Also entitled Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution, it is published by Thames & Hudson and will retail at £29.95 for the hardback, or £25.00 for the paperback edition which will be available exclusively through the Museum website.

For further information or to request review copies please contact: Kate Cooper / / DL: 0207 845 5102

For further information or images, please contact:

Eloise Maxwell, Royal Museums Greenwich Press Office | Tel: 020 8312 6732 | 07903 547 268 or Email:

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