24 July 2008

Famous People: John Evelyn

By Anita Davison

The words 'diarist' and 'restoration' tend to conjure the name Samuel Pepys, but an equally prolific diarist of the time was John Evelyn (1620-1706). Sam Pepys wrote his diary over a period of ten years, but John Evelyn began his as a schoolboy and wrote it almost until his death. Whether he imagined his life was important enough to be recorded in detail is not certain, but he gives us a vivid picture of not only his domestic life, but Royal and political life in Restoration England. By the standards of his age, Evelyn was a man of dignity, philanthropy and loyalty. Samuel Pepys, who was usually regarded as a typical 17th century man, received bribes, (allegedly) deceived his wife and beat his servants.

Evelyn was an adult during the Civil War, lived through the Commonwealth, saw the return of Charles II, witnessed the Great Plague and the Fire of London, survived unscathed the reigns of James II, the Glorious Revolution, William III and Mary II, including the tragedy of Queen Mary's death from smallpox at the age of 32, and the beginning of Queen Anne's reign.

He was close friends with Samuel Pepys, the philosopher Robert Boyle and architect Sir Christopher Wren and also introduced the woodcarver, Grinling Gibbons to Charles II. Pepys, who occasionally found Evelyn conceited and some of his books boring, made a revealing observation of Evelyn by one of his friends, "he being a very ingenious man, and the more I know him, the more I love him," (29 April 1666).

As a Commissioner for Sick and Wounded Seamen, a post he refused to leave during the Plague Year, Evelyn was appalled at the number of maimed and destitute sailors and soldiers begging on the streets of London after the Dutch and Jacobite wars in Ireland and France. He and Samuel Pepys, Christopher Wren and Queen Mary II, founded the Greenwich Hospital where these men were offered a home for the rest of their lives. He was also a founder member of the Royal Society as well as a celebrated gardener and authority on trees.

John’s grandfather, George Evelyn, manufactured gunpowder during the latter part of the reign of Elizabeth I and grew wealthy on the proceeds. Richard Evelyn, was the only son of his second marriage, of whom George, the eldest son inherited the estate in 1640. A respected landowner, George Evelyn sat in Parliament under Charles II, and William and Mary.

In 1637, their second son, John, was admitted into the Middle Temple in London to study law and a year later went up to Balliol College at Oxford. Some of his almanacs survive and they show that, by our standards, he was barely literate.

In the years leading up the Civil War, although a staunch Royalist, Evelyn decided to: "absent my selfe from this ill face of things at home." He left England in late 1643 and spent the next few years exploring France, Italy and Switzerland and came into contact with the exiled court of Charles II. Evelyn met the king's ambassador to France, Sir Richard Browne and in 1647 married Browne's daughter Mary.

In 1649, Evelyn bought Sayes Court, Deptford from his father-in-law; a run-down Elizabethan manor-house adjacent to the naval dockyards. An insalubrious location, but the available land and its proximity to London made up for it. Their eldest son, Richard, suffered a series of fits and a fever during an appalling winter of 1658 and died at the age of five. The following morning their fourth son, seven month old George, died too. Their second son had died as an infant and only the third, John, survived to adulthood. The impassioned account of Richard's life and death in John’s diary belies our belief that parents in an age of chronic infant mortality coped better with losing a child, as Evelyn and his wife were reduced to despair.

Evelyn was one of the first environmentalists, and after the Great Fire in 1666, he presented the King with a plan to rebuild the City. His tracts "Fumifugium" and "A Character of England" had already suggested removing the pollutive industries to more distant locations. Christopher Wren also planned a remodeled city, but neither plan was put into operation with the excuse that Londoners couldn't wait for the schemes of great men and simply built their houses back on their original footprints.

Evelyn had difficulty balancing his respect for Charles II with his outrage at the decadence of the Restoration court. The drinking, gaming, and parading of mistresses were "all dissolution" to him. When news came in January 1686 that Charles's most famous former concubine Nell Gwyn had been seen attending Catholic services, his comment was quoted as: "no greate losse to the Church."

"I saw this evening such a sceane of profuse gaming, and luxurious dallying & prophanesse, the King in the middst of his 3 concubines, as I had never before," (25 January 1685).

His diary shows that he loved his wife and children, and was concerned for the welfare of his servants. When his beloved daughter, Mary died at nineteen in 1685, he mourned her deeply. That same year, his seventeen year old daughter, Elizabeth eloped with a young man from the Navy Office. Evelyn immediately disowned and disinherited her and when she contracted smallpox just weeks later, he visited her sickbed with a minister so she might take the last sacrament and seek forgiveness for her actions.

When God "took her out of this vale of misery," Evelyn's diary states that, "My Child was buried by her sister on 2d September in the Church of Deptford." He appears not to have attended the funeral, sending his youngest daughter, Susanna, instead and his words at the time were that Elizabeth's fate was God's punishment. A harsh attitude perhaps, but disobedience of a father was a grave sin in the 17th Century when children, especially daughters, were regarded as the property of their parents.

During the reign of James II (1685-88) Evelyn reached his highest official post as a Commissioner of the Privy Seal. He avoided having to apply the official seal to documents that troubled his conscience, like the printing of "Popish Books," by not turning up at meetings. Luckily James II's reign was over quickly enough for this not to be an issue.

Evelyn died in his house in Dover Street in 1702, and his wife, Mary Evelyn, three years later. Of his eight children, four lived to adulthood and only Susanna, outlived her parents.

Many of his books are stored at the British Library Museum. Some of his furniture is at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Geffrye Museum in Bethnal Green. The monument to his son Richard and his daughter Mary is still on the wall of the church of St. Nicholas, Deptford. The private Evelyn chapel in Wotton church has been closed since 1992, when the stone sarcophagi on the chapel floor was hacked open and Evelyn's, and his wife's skulls were removed. They have yet to be recovered.

Evelyn's thoughts after the death of King Charles II:
"...He was ever kind to me & very gracious upon all occasions, & therefore I cannot without ingratitude deplore his losse, which for many respects (as well as duty) I do with all my soule," (2 October 1685).

Mary Evelyn Miscarries
"My Wife receiving a fall from a stoole, miscarried of a fine boy, to our greate trouble," (18 October 1660).