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Samuel Pepys

The not so private sex life of Samuel Pepys

Image: Samuel Pepys | Public Domain

Sex: A Bonkers History explores how sexual behaviour through the ages has shaped civilisation in ways we are only now beginning to discover. Host Amanda Holden shines a light on history's most unknown and risqué sex stories, including Samuel Pepys' colourful diary entries in episode two.

Naval administrator, member of parliament, and president of the Royal Society – Samuel Pepys had many roles throughout his colourful life, but he’s remembered for keeping the most famous diary in British history.

Written between 1660 and 1669, the gossipy entries shed light on what the great and the good were up to in 17th century London. However, amid all the accounts of aristocrats and politicians hobnobbing in high society hangouts, he also details his many sexual adventures. They make for scandalous, even shocking reading – perhaps more so today than when they were written.

The mistress and her sister

Pepys expressed great affection for his wife Elizabeth, but that didn’t stop him from cheating on her with rampant abandon. One of his longer-lasting affairs was with a woman called Betty Lane, who ran a draper’s stall in central London.

She makes numerous appearances in his diary, with an August 1660 entry recounting a day of drinking culminating in Pepys taking her back to his place where he was ‘exceeding free in dallying with her, and she not unfree to take it’.

Cut to three years later and the affair was still going strong, with Pepys taking her for a slap-up lobster feast in a restaurant before they had another frolic. He clearly wasn’t put off by what he described as the ‘monstrous fat’ of her thighs.

Not only did their energetic romance continue well after she married and became Betty Martin, but Pepys also slipped in a few liaisons with her sister Dolly. ‘A bad face,’ Pepys admitted, ‘but good bodied’.

The coach incidents

One of the most audacious erotic exploits in the diary occurred during a December 1666 coach ride, on the way home from a christening no less. Having piled into the coach with his wife and a married couple, Pepys focused his attention on the other woman, Betty Mitchell.

Right under the noses of her husband and his wife, Pepys slipped off her glove and manoeuvred her hand under his coat to touch what he calls his ‘thing’. This intimate interaction continued, presumably while the two couples were chatting merrily away.

Later that month, the four of them again shared a coach. Pepys again tried to have his way with Betty, except this time she was reluctant. Pepys wrote very honestly about using ‘some little violence’ to make her ‘yield’, and even noted how she seemed ‘a little ill’ at the end of the journey.

The dark side of Pepys

That second incident in the coach was just one example of behaviour that would be regarded as beyond the pale in today’s world. We witness this dark side again in August 1667, when, while attending church of all places, he decided to make a move on a ‘pretty, modest’ woman who caught his eye.

Pepys refused to take the hint when the woman backed away from his groping hands to the point where she brandished a pin and threatened to ‘prick me if I should touch her again’. Unruffled, Pepys then casually turned his attention to ‘another pretty maid in a pew close to me’, and brazenly took her by the hand. ‘She suffered a little and then withdrew,’ according to the ever-honest Pepys.

It's possible that Pepys was an extreme sex pest even by the legally lax standards of his time. But the fact that he wrote so nonchalantly about these moments can certainly be regarded as a shaming indictment of 17th century attitudes towards what is outright sexual assault.

He certainly exhibited a casual sense of sexual entitlement that was likely common among influential men of the time. In December 1665, for example, he cheerfully reported taking advantage of a young sailor’s wife who asked if he can provide career assistance for her husband.

‘I had the opportunity here of kissing her again and again and did answer that I would be very willing to do him any kindness,’ Pepys wrote of the pregnant wife. A few years later, she approached him for a loan, but – since Pepys doesn’t have the opportunity to gain sexual favours – he refused.

The great obsession

When he wasn’t making advances to random women or ogling the hung-up underwear of one of King Charles II’s mistresses (‘saw the finest smocks and linen petticoats of my Lady Castlemaine’s… that ever I saw and did me good to look upon them’), Pepys was also nursing an erotic obsession with his housemaid Deb Willet.

Pepys was introduced to the girl – 17 years his junior – by his wife Elizabeth in September 1667. It was lust at first sight, with Pepys writing that he couldn’t keep Deb out of his mind. Then, on 25th October 1668, came the most famous entry in the whole diary, when Elizabeth walked in on Pepys ‘embracing the girl’ with his hand inside her underwear.

Pepys recounted a long, painful fallout, with the horrified Elizabeth calling him a ‘rotten-hearted rogue’, ‘crying and reproaching’ him for ‘preferring a sorry girl before her’, and even threatening to ‘slit the nose of this girl’.

Pepys also poured out his own feelings of guilt and self-pity, but despite all the wallowing he couldn’t shake Deb from his mind and propositioned her in a later encounter. Tellingly, when deciding to wrap up his diary on 31st May 1669, Pepys made a wistful reference to how his ‘amours to Deb are past’ – a sign of just how important his sexual escapades were to him and to the keeping of the diary itself.