Samuel Pepys At St Olave’s
In anticipation of the forthcoming exhibition Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution opening at National Maritime Museum in Greenwich on 20th November, I visited Pepys’ parish church in the City
Do you see Elizabeth Pepys, leaning out from her monument and directing her gaze across the church to where Samuel sat in the gallery opposite? These days the gallery has long gone but, since her late husband became celebrated for his journal, a memorial to him was installed in 1883 where the gallery once was, which contains a portrait bust that peers back eternally at Elizabeth. They will always see eye-to-eye even if they are forever separated by the nave.
St Olave’s on the corner of Seething Lane has long been one of my favourite City churches. Dating from the eleventh century, it is a rare survivor of the Great Fire and the London Blitz. When you walk in from Hart St, three steps down into the nave immediately reveal you are entering an ancient building, where gothic vaults and medieval monuments conjure an atmosphere more reminiscent of a country church than one in the City of London.
Samuel Pepys moved into this parish when he was appointed Commissioner of the Navy Board and came to live next to the Navy Office at the rear of the church, noting his arrival at “my house in Seething Lane” in his journal on July 18th 1660. It was here that Pepys recorded the volatile events of the subsequent decade, the Plague and the Fire.
In Seething Lane, a gateway adorned with skulls as memento mori survives from that time. Pepys saw the gate from his house across the road and could walk out of the Navy Office and through it into the churchyard, where an external staircase led him straight into the private Navy Office pew in the gallery.
The churchyard itself is swollen above surrounding ground level by the vast number of bodies interred within and, even today, the gardeners constantly unearth human bones. When Elizabeth and the staff of the Navy Office took refuge from the Plague south of the river, Pepys stayed behind in the City. Countless times, he walked back and forth between his house and the Navy Office and St Olave’s as the body count escalated through the summer of 1665. “The sickness in general thickens round us, and particularly upon our neighbourhood,” he wrote to Sir William Coventry in grim resignation.
The following year, Pepys employed workers from the dockyard to pull down empty houses surrounding the Navy Office and his own home to create fire breaks. “About 2 in the morning my wife calls me up and tells me of new cries of fire, it being come to … the bottom of our lane,” he recorded on 6th September 1666.
In the seventeenth century vestry room where a plaster angel presides solemnly from the ceiling, I was able to open Samuel Pepys’ prayer book. It was heart-stopping to turn the pages. Dark leather covers embossed with intricate designs enfold the volume, which he embellished with religious engravings and an elaborate hand-drawn calligraphic title page.
Samuel and Elizabeth Pepys are buried in a vault beneath the nave. Within living memory, when the Victorian font was removed, a hole was exposed that led to a chamber with a passage that led to a hidden chapel where a tunnel was dug to reach the Pepys vault. Scholars would love to know if he was buried with his bladder stone upon its silver mount, but no investigation has yet been permitted.
If you seek Samuel Pepys, St Olave’s is undoubtedly where you can find him. Walk in beneath the gate laden with skulls, across the graveyard bulging with the bodies of the long dead, cast your eyes along the flower beds for any shards of human bone, and enter the church where Samuel and Elizabeth regard each other from either side of the nave eternally.
St Olave’s at the corner of Seething Lane
“To our own church, and at noon, by invitation, Sir W Pen dined with me and Mrs Hester, my Lady Betten’s kinswoman, to dinner from church with me, and we were very merry. So to church again, and heard a simple fellow upon the praise of Church musique, and exclaiming against men’s wearing their hats on in the church, but I slept part of the sermon, till latter prayer and blessing and all was done without waking which I never did in my life…” SAMUEL PEPYS, Sunday 17th November, 1661
Samuel Pepys’ memorial in the south aisle
Samuel Pepys’ prayerbook
Engraved nativity and fine calligraphy upon the title page of Pepys’ prayerbook
Door to the vestry
The oldest monument in the church, 1566
Memorial of Peter Capponi, a Florentine merchant & spy, 1582
Paul Bayning, 1616, was an Alderman of the City & member of the Levant company
A Norwegian flag hangs in honour of St Olave
The gate where Pepys walked in from the Navy Office across the street
Sculpture of Samuel Pepys in the churchyard
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