Samuel Pepys

Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 1, Key stage 2, Key stage 3

Time period: Early modern 1485-1750

Curriculum topics: Events beyond living memory KS1, Local Histories, Political and social reform, The Stuarts

Suggested inquiry questions: Consider the purpose of a will and why it was worded in a particular way. What can wills reveal about people in the past? Why was Samuel Pepys a significant individual?

Potential activities: Investigate the sources using the questions provided. Research the wills of some other historical figures. Creative activities: Write an ‘inventory’ of your favourite possessions, explaining why you wish to leave them to particular people, following the structure of Samuel Pepys’ will revealed by these extracts.

What does his will reveal?

The purpose of this lesson is to explore some extracts from the will of Samuel Pepys made in 1701 and later added to in 1703. You may have already ‘met’ Samuel Pepys whilst finding out about the Great Fire of London in 1666 and read his descriptions of the fire in his famous diary.   

The National Archives has a huge collection of wills and they are important sources for finding out about people in the past. A will is a legal document in which a person records their wishes as to how their possessions and property are to be disposed of after their death. The document always names a particular person to ensure that people listed in the will receive what is due to them. 

Through this lesson you will discover more about Samuel Pepys and the different features that make up a will.


Tasks

Look at Source 1, an extract from Samuel Pepys’ will.

Now you have looked at the document, have a go at reading it. Use the transcripts to help if you need to. 

  • Can you spot the name Samuel Pepys in this document? 
  • Do you know who Samuel Pepys was? [If you don’t, can you find out?] 
  • How old is Samuel Pepys when he writes this document? 
  • This document was made in 1701, so can you work out when he was born? 
  • Can you find out where he lived from the document? 
  • This document is part of will. Do you know what that means? Can you find out? 
  • Why do you think there are different styles of handwriting in the opening lines of this will? 
  • Why was it important for Pepys to say he was in sound mind and memory? [Clue: ‘Sound’ means healthy]. 

Look at Sources 2a and 2b, two signatures by Samuel Pepys two years apart.

  • What is the difference between these two signatures? 
  • Can you explain why they are different? [Look at the dates of the signaturesalso note Pepys died on 26 May 1703.] 
  • How and why do you think the red wax was stuck next to each signature? 

Look at Source 3, an extract from Samuel Pepys’ will.

  • How many years did Pepys work for King Charles II and King James II? 
  • How do we know he thought that he did a good job for both kings? 

Look at Source 4, an extract from Samuel Pepys’ will.

  • What do these words suggest about the beliefs of Samuel Pepys in this part of his will? 
  • How do you think a private burial would differ from a public one? 

Look at Source 5a and 5b, two extracts from Samuel Pepys’ will.

These short extracts tell us about two of the people Samuel Pepys chose to remember in his will. His wife, Elizabeth, died just months after he finished keeping his diary on 10 November 1669, so she is not mentioned. (Catalogue ref: PROB 1/9) 

  • What sort of things do you think Pepys might have given to people named in his will? 
  • How long had he known Mary Skinner?   
  • Although he does not say it in his will, Mary lived with him and was treated by his friends as though she was his wife – do you think the language he uses suggestthey were more than just good friends? 

Look at Source 6, an extract from the first codicil to Samuel Pepys’ will.

  • Why did Samuel Pepys change his mind about leaving his property to his nephew, Samuel Jackson? 
  • Why do you think Pepys objected to his nephew’s marriage? 
  • When close relatives are left out of wills, this is called disinheritance. Can you think of other reasons why someone might not leave their property to their closest relatives? 

Look at Source 7, an extract from Samuel Pepys’ will.

  • How is William Hewer connected to Samuel Pepys? 
  • What does his job as executor mean? 
  • How much money has Pepys left to William Hewer? 
  • Using our money calculator can you work out how much this would be worth today? 
  • How long has Pepys known Hewer? 

Look at Source 8a and 8b, two extracts from the first codicil to Samuel Pepys’ will.

  • What else did Pepys leave William Hewer? 
  • Why is it perhaps not surprising that Pepys had a collection of these objects? [Clue: Find out where Pepys worked.] 
  • What two things did Pepys leave to his servants? 
  • How do you think servants’ mourning clothes would differ from those of their master? 
  • What do these bequests [gifts] tell us about Samuel Pepys?

Look at Source 9, an extract from the appendix to Samuel Pepys’ will.

This appendix to the will concerns the library owned by Samuel Pepys. In his lifetime he had collected a large number of books. They were left to his nephew John Jackson (catalogue ref: PROB 1/9). 

  • Who had Pepys left his library to in his will? 
  • Why do you think he wrote down his plan for the library after the death of his nephew? 
  • What does the existence of such a plan tell us about Samuel Pepys? 
  • As Samuel Pepys was very keen on books and ships, can you design a coat of arms for him? 

Background

Samuel Pepys wrote his famous diary between 1660 and 1669The diary is very interesting for historians as a source to find out about how people lived in the 17th century and about some major events in the past. In it he famously described the Great Fire of London and the coronation of Charles II.  

Pepys was also an important administrator for the Royal Navy. He made the Navy much more efficient and professional and reported on his work both to the King and to Parliament. 

Pepys’ final will was written many years after his diary ends, but he first made a will in 1660 and may have written many different versions in the time in between. In March 1660, he wrote, ‘So into London by water, and in Fish Street my wife and I bought a bit of salmon for 8d. [8 pence] and went to the Sun Tavern and ate it, where I did promise to give her all that I have in the world but my books, in case I should die at sea.’ He tore that will up during an argument with his wife in 1663. 

The main text of his final will was written by somebody else, probably a clerk working for Pepys or for his legal advisers. The opening phrase is clearer and larger as it is the first phrase in the document and because it is a prayer to God. The clerk has left spaces in the document for Pepys to insert his name and position, the names of the people to whom he left his land and property, and various sums of money. The remaining blank spaces have been filled with dashes to prevent anybody adding any extra names or amounts. 

The red wax is a personal seal of Samuel Pepys, probably created by melting sealing wax and impressing it with his signet ring. It was another way of confirming his identity, reinforcing his signature. Pepys lived to a good age (70) for the period. He was born on 23 February 1633 and died on 26 May 1703 and it is likely that his handwriting worsened in the period before his death as he became more physically frail.  

According to his will, Samuel Pepys left his library of books and papers to his younger nephew, John Jackson. Pepys also wanted Jackson to complete the collection according to his wishes. The library was to be kept together and all his books numbered and catalogued to help ensure that they could be found. There were 3,000 books and manuscripts in total. Pepys made these requests because he had put so much work into building his collection and wanted them kept for posterity and so his memory would live on. On the death of his nephew, he stated in his will that the library should then be kept by one of the colleges at either Cambridge or Oxford University. 

Today, Pepys’ original diaries, books and papers are housed in the Pepys Library at Magdalene College, Cambridge, where Pepys studied law as a young man. The library is open to members of the public and scholars alike. These items are still kept in the original bookcases designed by Pepys in 1666. 


Teachers' notes

You can find the full pages of the entirety of the will in our Discovery tool.

This lesson can be used to support teaching the curriculum theme Significant People, using the will of Samuel Pepys. It can also serve as a way of introducing students to original sources in order to find out about people in the past. For support on working with primary sources in the classroom, see the guidance here, found in our Significant People resource. 

There are nine short extracts from Pepys’s will used in this lesson, each comprising a word, a sentence or a paragraph. Teachers may choose to work on each extract together or assign different parts to small groups to work on, depending on time constraints. We have provided transcripts and simplified transcripts for all extracts of the will. Encourage your students to have a go at reading the original document first, but use both transcripts to help.

In the lesson, students examine key parts of Samuel Pepys’ will and can see how a will was structured. For example, the identification of its author (the testator), their place of residence and occupation or status, a statement about their mental or physical health, a religious statement (wills were proved in ecclesiastical courts until 1858), details of bequests and their recipients, the appointment of an executor, the date, the testator’s signature and signatures of witnesses. 

An executor would have to swear to make sure the will was carried out in accordance with the law at the relevant ecclesiastical court (in this case the Prerogative Court of Canterbury). They would have to list all the possessions in an inventory and identify the recipients of the bequests. They might have to sell assets in order to raise money to pay debts, and they would probably have to arrange the funeral.   

A testator might add one or more codicils at a later date to alter the terms of their will or to make arrangements if they had acquired further property. 


Extension ideas

  • Class research and create a family tree for Samuel Pepys. 
  • Create a timeline of the life of Samuel Pepys. 
  • Take a look at some extracts from Pepys diary on key historical events: Great Fire of London, Great Plague, Coronation of Charles II [www.pepysdiary.com/] 
  • The Pepys Diary website site also publishes daily extracts from the diary. Find his description of the Great Fire of London on 4th September 1666, famously burying his ‘parmazan cheese’: www.pepysdiary.com/diary/1666/09/04/ 
  • Teachers could also introduce their students to inventories as historical sources, although sadly Pepys’ inventory does not surviveAn inventory described the furniture and possessions found in each dwelling place. As sources, they can offer an insight into the arrangements of a particular houses and the day-to-day lives of the people who lived there. Take a look at this one on the education website for the possessions of James Butcher at the time of his marriage in 1732 and after his death in 1738, catalogue ref: (DEL 8/79 f.19)All of the rooms of his house and their contents are listed and priced in value. 
  • Take a look at the whole of Samuel Pepys’ will if you can. See how long the real document was and where these extracts come from!
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Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 1, Key stage 2, Key stage 3

Time period: Early modern 1485-1750

Curriculum topics: Events beyond living memory KS1, Local Histories, Political and social reform, The Stuarts

Suggested inquiry questions: Consider the purpose of a will and why it was worded in a particular way. What can wills reveal about people in the past? Why was Samuel Pepys a significant individual?

Potential activities: Investigate the sources using the questions provided. Research the wills of some other historical figures. Creative activities: Write an ‘inventory’ of your favourite possessions, explaining why you wish to leave them to particular people, following the structure of Samuel Pepys’ will revealed by these extracts.

Related resources

Great Plague of 1665-1666

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Significant People

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