The Ordeal of Mr. Pepys’s Clerk

John Harold Wilson


History / Europe / Great Britain
150 pp. 6x9br/>

$19.95 paper 978-0-8142-5360-1
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Sam Atkins, an engaging young clerk on the staff of Mr. Samuel Pepys during the time that the famous diarist first served as secretary to the Lord High Admiral of England, rose from obscurity to fame on one memorable, terrifying occasion. At the age of twenty-one, Sam was accused of complicity in the Popish Plot, that ingenious fabrication of the infamous Titus Oates, which brought a hysterical nation to the verge of panic, and profoundly influenced the literature and history of Restoration England.

Summoned without warning on Friday, November 1, 1678, to the office in Whitehall of the British secretary of state, the bewildered Sam was quickly removed to Winchester House, where he was brought before the secret committee formed by the House of Lords to investigate the plot. Interrogated by the powerful Lord Shaftesbury, Sam learned that he was suspected of complicity in the murder of a Protestant magistrate, Sir Edmund Bury Godfrey.

Actually, the accusations made against Sam were intended to involve his master, Mr. Pepys, in the Popish Plot, as a part of the Protestant conspiracy to exclude the Catholic James, duke of York, from the succession to the throne. Although Pepys was a known Protestant, he had been the duke’s favorite when York was the Lord High Admiral—before the Text Act forced the duke, as a Catholic, to resign his post—and there was evidence that, although he deplored his former patron’s religion, the secretary remained loyal to him. Lord Shaftesbury, the archenemy of the Catholic duke, hoped to use Sam Atkins’s confession against Pepys, and through the secretary to involve the duke of York in a conspiracy to commit murder.

Though a most unlikely candidate for a role in the high drama of events that ultimately served to determine the course of a great nation, Sam Atkins, the guileless victim, brought fortitude and a not inconsiderable measure of heroism to the trials he was destined to suffer. In an account of his ordeal that does full justice to Sam the human being, he emerges as one of those figures, rare in both history and fiction: the simple man of courage who rises, with dignity and grace, to meet the challenge of fateful circumstances that are not of his creation and that lie totally beyond his control.

John Harold Wilson, professor emeritus of English at the Ohio State University, is the celebrated author of many distinguished books on the history and literature of the English Restoration, including Nell Gwyn: Royal Mistress and All the King’s Ladies.