Who was John Evelyn?

By Guy de la Bédoyère



John Evelyn’s downloadable texts

In 1992 I wanted a break from writing about Roman Britain. I picked up a copy of John Evelyn's Diary in the local library and I was captivated. I wanted to find out more. But nothing on Evelyn was in print, including the Diary. I spent the next five years working on the original manuscripts then at Christ Church, Oxford, and then in London once they had been acquired by the British Library. Along the way I had the chance to put the Diary back into print, as well as produce an edited collection of Evelyn's own books and tracts. But the most fascinating experience was tracing the Letters he exchanged with his great friend, the much better-known diarist Samuel Pepys. These were published at the beginning of 1998 (see below for details of these and various links of interest to anyone studying the period or who wants to find out more).

To anyone interested in archaeology the seventeenth century is a revelation. Gone are the artefacts and trenches and in their place come real people living real lives in and amongst the places we know today. Evelyn lived in Deptford, south-east London and he passed his time at Greenwich, Woolwich, Wotton in Surrey, and in London. He also travelled around England, and in France and Italy. He saw the Great Fire, buried seven of his eight children before he died himself. You can walk around the world of John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys. I even have the enormous privilege of owning a book once in his library (left). He bought it in Paris in 1651. Evelyn had a vast library and it was sold at Christies in the late 1970s.



Evelyn and his world

John Evelyn lived from 1620-1706 and his diary is one of our principal literary sources for life and manners in the English seventeenth century. Written by a cultivated man of property and means it forms a comprehensive account of a life spent during a period of exceptional change. Evelyn lived through the Civil War, the Commonwealth, the Restoration, the reigns of Charles II and James II, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the reigns of William III and Mary II, and the first part of the reign of Anne. He saw his country move from being one of the lesser, and least influential, states in Europe into a nation on the brink of becoming a major world power. He witnessed and participated in the growth of a reasoned and critical approach to science which paved the way for the coming of the Industrial Revolution in the century after his death.

            From a human point of view Evelyn's Diary is a fascinating and moving record of a long life and all its experiences. Evelyn, unlike Pepys, whose Diary covers barely a decade, takes us from his childhood right up to a few weeks before his death. We see the transition from enthusiastic youth through marriage and family to an infirm old age when, with so many of his friends and family dead, he sensed his time had passed.

You can find versions of my text of Evelyn's Diary at http://www.personal.edu.psu/jth/acadmic.html and and also at http://astext.com/history/ed_main.html and http://www.geocities.com/Paris/LeftBank/1914/ed_main.html

            In his own time John Evelyn had a considerable personal reputation, both as a friend and associate of royalty and the famous, and also as a learned man. He was the author of a number of books on many different subjects, and translated others in Latin or French into English. He was a founding member of the Royal Society and his friends included Samuel Pepys, Robert Boyle and Christopher Wren. He was also a celebrated gardener and authority on trees. In short he was one of a vitally important and influential group of men at the centre of seventeenth century English society and learning.



Evelyn's grandfather, George Evelyn, had manufactured gunpowder during the latter part of the reign of Elizabeth I and had even enjoyed the grant of a royal monopoly. He grew extremely wealthy on the proceeds and married twice, fathering twenty four children. He was able to buy several estates in Surrey and one of these, Wotton, was inherited by Richard Evelyn, the only son of his second marriage when he died in 1603. Richard Evelyn married Elianor Standsfield and they had five children who grew to maturity, a large number by the expectations of the day. George, the eldest son, was groomed and educated to inherit the estate which he dutifully did on his father's death in 1640. Thereafter he lived a long life as a respected landowner and sat in Parliament under Charles II, and William and Mary.

            The diarist was the second son, born in 1620, and in this position was able to escape much of the pressure and duty imposed on his elder brother. He spent most of his childhood with his maternal step-grandmother in Lewes. He found this a secure environment and evaded his father's plans to send him to Eton, 'unreasonably terrified with the report of the severe discipline there'. His relaxed education only took a firmer direction when, in 1637, he was admitted into the Middle Temple in London to study law. In 1638 he went up to Balliol College at Oxford. Some of his almanacs survive in the college and they show that at this time he was, by our standards, barely literate.

            As a second son Evelyn had means but no obligation to the family estate. His mother had died several years before his father and this, coupled with the gradual decline of political stability in England in the years leading up the Civil War, left Evelyn with no particular need or wish to stay at home. He seized his opportunity and embarked on what turned out to be a long, active and creative life. It began with a period of travelling on the continent, Evelyn having decided to 'absent my selfe from this ill face of things at home', preferring 'the pursute of Vanity'. He has been criticised for this, especially in view of the fact that he was, by conviction, a staunch Royalist.

            But it is clear that he was not, on the whole, a man given to the active pursuit of passionate causes of any kind; at least not if doing so would involve him in taking unnecessary risks. This does not mean that he was in any sense a coward - he stayed at his post as a Commissioner for Sick and Wounded Seamen during the Plague Year without hesitation - but rather that he could see all too easily the folly of going through life driven by emotion. His most profound feelings were instead reserved for his devotion to the Protestant Church and God who, he believed, hounded sinners with an unforgiving vengeance. But even this he dealt with in a practical manner, recording sermons and his sins to appease the Almighty.

            Evelyn was not then what he or his contemporaries would have described as a 'Gallant', or what we would call a 'romantic'. He had difficulty balancing his respect for Charles II along with his outrage at the decadence of the Restoration court. The drinking, gaming, and parading of mistresses were 'all dissolution' to Evelyn. When news came in January 1686 that Charles's most famous former concubine Nell Gwyn had been seen attending Catholic services, well, that was 'no greate losse to the Church.' This slightly repressed image was largely his own creation and reflected his need to present himself as a man aware of the morally correct and Christian way to behave. But Pepys recorded a social evening at Evelyn's Deptford house:

Mr Evelyn's repeating of some verses made up of nothing but the various acceptations of may and can, and doing it so aptly upon occasion of something of that nature, and so fast, did make us all die almost with laughing .. Pepys's Diary, 10 September 1665.

So the serious side of his personality was undoubtedly balanced by a sense of humour which also occasionally reveals itself in the Diary. Evelyn was fascinated by his world but he always viewed it with a sense of detachment. Although he was in many senses a man typical of the best of his age, he never identified himself irrevocably with any political group or movement. While Pepys for example refused to continue in office after the arrival of William and Mary in 1688, Evelyn was more inclined to accept the situation and viewed the tide of change with interest.

            This detachment makes him all the more accessible to anyone taking an interest in his life for he seems somehow timeless. There is no doubt that Evelyn has tended to captivate the minds of those who study him. It is particularly interesting that he appears to have had exactly the same effect on some of his contemporaries. Pepys, who occasionally found him a little conceited and some of his books more than slightly boring, also made one of the most revealing observations ever made of Evelyn by one of his friends, 'he being a very ingenious man, and the more I know him, the more I love him.' Diary, 29 April 1666.

Much later, in 1701, Ralph Thoresby found him, 'above measure civil and courteous.' Quoted by Esmond S. De Beer, The Diary of John Evelyn, Oxford 1955, vol. I, 39.

Evelyn was undoubtedly a caring and considerate man and his Diary shows that he loved his wife and children, and was concerned for the welfare of his servants. But he was very aware of his status, and that of others. He was invariably respectful, if not obsequious, to those whom he knew to be his betters and patronised his inferiors. The introductory sections of the various editions of his most famous book, Sylva, illustrate this very well. Part of the dedication to Charles II includes the passage:

You are our God of the forest-trees, King of the grove, as having once your Temple, and Court too under that Holy Oak which you Consecrated with your Presence, and We celebrate with just Acknowledgement to God for your Preservation. Sylva, 1664, Dedication.

In later editions, for example the fourth (1706), a glossary of terms was attached but with the proviso:

let it be remember'd that I did not altogether compile this Work for the sake of our ordinary Rustics (meer Foresters and Wood-men) but for the more Ingenious; the Benefit, and Diversion of Gentlemen, and Persons of Quality. Silva (E changed the spelling), 1706, Advertisement.

However so as not to disadvantage those of 'meaner Capacities' an explanation of technical terms followed. Evelyn's élitism, intellectual and social, would be regarded as unacceptable today – but such a comparison is inappropriate. By the standards of his age Evelyn stood out as a man of dignity, philanthropy and loyalty. After all it was Pepys, usually regarded as so much more a man for all ages, who received bribes, deceived his wife and hit his servants.

            Evelyn was intensely conscious of his own need for self-expression and he also clearly had an aversion to anonymity. This does not mean that he was characterised by an overbearing egocentricity, but it did lead to his literary outpourings and also contributed to the writing of the Diary. Unlike Pepys who wrote only for himself and recorded everything which happened, however sordid his part may have been, Evelyn wrote a more formal diary which avoided such revelations. Instead he reported events in a much more bald and factual manner, only occasionally revealing his deeper feelings. He seems to have felt an obligation to act as a conscientious reporter of events, personal or public. Evelyn also wished to present himself as a pious, God-fearing man (which of course he was) and therefore made copious notes of sermons, abbreviated details of which appear in increasing numbers towards the end of the Diary. When he recorded family tragedies he tended to describe only his personal feelings, while references to his wife's reactions are rare and brief. This is especiallly the case with the descriptions of the deaths of his eldest son and daughter in 1658 and 1685 respectively. Evelyn was therefore, if not self-obsessed, certainly self-absorbed.

            After a visit to Holland and the Spanish Netherlands in 1641 a lingering, and well-timed, sense of duty propelled him to turn up at the Battle of Brentford in November 1642 just in time to witness the Royalist retreat. Rather than participate in this ignominious withdrawal Evelyn saw a much more sensible alternative. To have become involved in the fighting, he argued, would simply have been to help expose the Wotton estate to Parliamentary depradations 'without any advantage to his Majestie'. Equally it would not have fitted in with his plans to satisfy further his curiosity for new sights and impressions abroad which, we may be sure, he would have indulged whether there had been a civil war or not. After a few months making preparations, and exercising his tastes for landscaping at Wotton, he left England in late 1643 and spent the next few years exploring France, Italy and Switzerland. In 1646 he contracted smallpox in Switzerland but after a period of recuperation, returned to France later that year and came into contact with the exiled court of Charles II, meeting the king's ambassador to France, Sir Richard Browne. In 1647 he married Browne's daughter Mary.


The young virtuoso: writings, and private tragedies

Sir Richard Browne had no son living and Evelyn easily filled the vacant place. Their libraries were combined and many of their books were bound in a uniform style carrying their personal monograms, arms and mottos. In 1649 Evelyn returned to England without his wife in order to see about finding somewhere to live, having decided to accept the practical reality of the Commonwealth and to live with it. Eventually he accepted Browne's offer to sell Evelyn his estate at Sayes Court, Deptford. At the time the house was a run-down Elizabethan manor-house adjacent to the naval dockyards. He decided that this unsalubrious location was compensated for by the available land and its convenient, but not excessive, proximity to London. He bought the estate and returned to France in July 1649. Apart from a brief visit to England in the summer of 1650 this was his last journey abroad and he came back to England for good in early 1652.

            In the summer of 1652 he was followed by his wife Mary, pregnant with their first son and the Evelyns became firmly settled at Sayes Court where they lived until 1694. Evelyn himself entered his most productive phase of writing while at the same time laying out the gardens of Sayes Court, and virtually rebuilding the whole house, at considerable expense. He seems always to have been close to great events of the time, moving nearer to the centre stage once Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660.

But by then Evelyn and Mary had already suffered the loss of their eldest son, Richard. By the age of five he had turned out to be a gifted and captivating child but a series of fits and a fever in the midst of an appalling winter carried him off in January 1658. Evelyn and his wife were reduced to despair. He wrote to Browne on 14 February describing it as 'an accident that has made so great a breach in all my contentments, as I do never hope to see repaired'. The following morning their fourth son George, born the previous June, died too. Their second son had died as an infant some years before and only the third, John, survived to adulthood. The empassioned account of Richard's life and death belies our belief that parents in an age of chronic infant mortality were better equipped to cope with such a loss and serves as a rare instance of Evelyn revealing his inner feelings.

            Evelyn found solace both in writing and in the excitement of the collapse of the Commonwealth. His most celebrated works were produced in the early years of the reign of Charles II. He was best known in his own lifetime, and during the eighteenth century, for his book Sylva, or a Discourse of Forest Trees, a work produced in 1664 at the request of the Royal Society following his delivery of a paper on the subject in 1662. The idea was to draw attention to the damage done to England's wooded estates during the Interregnum and to encourage reforestation. Sylva was one of his most substantial works and he prepared three further editions in his lifetime. In the same year he produced a lavish translation of Fréart's The Parallel of the Antient Architecture, easily his most attractive book. Others produced in the 1650s and 60s included various tracts on fashion and manners (Tyrannus, A Character of England see Downloadable texts), pollution (Fumifugium and at Downloadable texts), art (Sculptura), and gardening (Kalendarium Hortense), and various translations.

            Evelyn's choice of themes reflect the age. Like many educated men of his time he was intrigued by the new developments which were taking place in the fields of scientific learning and academic study. Unencumbered by our modern obsession with exclusive disciplines, he had no hesitation in participating in or writing about anything which interested him. In 1661, for example, he produced a report on Tenerife despite never having been there. Although the presentation of experiments and novelties, and Evelyn's catholic choice of subjects, seem haphazard to us, this was a time when many classifications which we take for granted were being built up. It was only by exploring everything that a more rational way of understanding science and nature could be developed.

            In his Diary Evelyn recorded details of freaks on display at fairs, whales washed up on the Greenwich foreshore and blood-curdling tales of surgical operations. He was thought perfectly suitable to take part in a survey of old St Paul's in 1666, alongside Christopher Wren. He discovered the wood-carver Grinling Gibbons and presented him to Charles II. His garden at Sayes Court was a celebrated sight of the road to Kent. He served as a Commissioner for sick and wounded seamen during the Dutch Wars and was instrumental in founding Greenwich Hospital. He attended meetings of the Royal Society and watched experiments which might be concerned with anything from astronomy to a microscopic examination of worms.


Middle-age, and the friendship with Margaret Blagge

By the 1670s Evelyn's literary output began to wane. His work as a Commissioner for the sick seamen was time-consuming, while he was now over fifty. Moreover he, like many of his enlightened friends, had been demoralised by the disappointed hopes of the Restoration. Charles II was an engaging man but Evelyn found him ineffectual and far too interested in enjoying himself to be concerned with real problems. For example, the opportunities afforded by the Great Fire of London in 1666 had been wasted almost as soon as they appeared. Evelyn had been one of the first to present the King with a plan to rebuild the City as a better place in which to live. His tracts Fumifugium, and A Character of England had already pleaded the cause of removing the pollutive industries to more distant locations (Downloadable texts). Like the plan for the new London, Fumifugium had been received with enthusiasm but was quietly forgotten, though it is almost the only one of Evelyn's works which has been frequently reproduced in modern times. In 1674 he produced Navigation and Commerce which was concerned with the causes and consequences of the three Dutch Wars. It was intended to act as a preface to a full history of the conflict. However the Third Dutch War had ended that year and in the interests of peace the plan for the full history was abandoned, and unsold copies of the preface were recalled.

            Around the same time Evelyn became involved in a curious relationship. It has been seen as the most controversial phase of his whole life. Whatever the truth it is clear that it was the only time that Evelyn may have been distracted from common sense by emotion. The relationship concerned a young woman called Margaret Blagge, born in 1652. Evelyn first met her in 1669 when she was a maid of honour at court. However it was not until 1672 that they entered into a pact of 'inviolable' friendship whereby Evelyn was to become her spiritual guide and to act as a guardian of her interests. They met regularly to eat and pray together. It was an emphatically platonic relationship but Margaret Blagge's intense pursuit of devotional activities might now be considered possible evidence of a slightly unbalanced mind. Evelyn appears to have had honourable intentions but it is equally possible that he expressed in his power over her religious life, sexual feelings that another might have expressed in a more physical way. Although he discouraged her relationship with Sidney Godolphin, whom she secretly married in 1675, Evelyn certainly convinced himself that he had Margaret's best interests at heart as he described in his Life of Mrs Godolphin, not published until 1847, 'Freindshipp is beyond all relationships of flesh and blood, because it is less materiall.' Life of Mrs Godolphin, 1847, 37.

The most revealing facet of the whole episode is that Margaret married Sidney Godolphin without telling Evelyn. Evelyn, not unnaturally, felt his trust had been betrayed but it is very interesting that she avoided telling him her plans. It is difficult not to form the conclusion that she somehow feared his power over her. Margaret had been born at the same time as his eldest son Richard and this somehow seems to have contributed to the attachment _ Evelyn refers to the connection in his Life of Mrs. Godolphin. It is also interesting that Evelyn's second daughter, Elizabeth, did exactly the same as Margaret, ten years later, in 1685. She eloped with the nephew of a Surveyor of the Navy and married him. Her appalled father disowned and disinherited her. When Elizabeth contracted smallpox a few weeks later he wrote to his wife making it clear he thought the illness God's judgement.


.           Elizabeth died on 29 August 1685. Both she and Margaret Godolphin may have found Evelyn an overpowering and possessive figure whom they felt it necessary to deceive, knowing they would never have convinced him that they had needs beyond him. If this was true Evelyn would have been mortified, had he known. Margaret Blagge's marriage was short for she died in 1678 following the birth of her son. Her husband was so distraught that Evelyn was left to sort out her affairs and even the arrangements to transport her body to the Godolphin church in Cornwall. What Mary Evelyn's feelings were can only be guessed at but it is difficult to believe that the esteemed Mr Evelyn's behaviour did not provoke at least a little gossip behind closed doors.

            During the reign of James II (1685-88) Evelyn reached his highest official post as a Commissioner of the Privy Seal, despite his reservations about the new king's attitude to the Protestant church. Evelyn avoided having to apply the privy seal to documents that troubled his conscience by not turning up but James's reign was over sufficiently quickly for this not to become ever a major personal issue. The new regime of William and Mary of Orange was preferable to Evelyn simply because there was less abuse of royal privilege and Protestantism was once more in the ascendant.

Old age

In the latter part of his life Evelyn became much more preoccupied with ensuring the stability and security of the family, though he found time to be involved in the building of Greenwich Hospital. In the Diary historical events are recorded more often as paraphrases of public notices rather than the eyewitness accounts of the 1660s and 1670s. Sermons, the estate at Wotton and his grandchildren become dominant themes. Mary had borne altogether eight children, as well as suffering several miscarriages. But only the youngest, Susanna, outlived them. In fact all their three daughters survived childhood but the elder two, Mary, and Elizabeth, had died within months of each other in 1685 of smallpox at the ages of 19 and 17 respectively. Susanna married one William Draper in 1693 and produced several children. In 1694 John and Mary moved to Wotton to live with his brother George at the latter's request. The situation was not entirely satisfactory for Evelyn preferred to be closer to the centre of affairs, and as a result used his son's house in Dover Street in London while he was away in Ireland acting as a commissioner for the Irish revenue from 1692. Sayes Court was let to a series of tenants, one of whom was Peter the Great of Russia, in England to study ship-building. The 'Tsar of Muscovy's' only achievement as far as Evelyn was concerned was the destruction of the garden he had spent decades nurturing and cultivating.

            Evelyn's son John had never been a healthy individual and he came back to England in 1696, eventually dying in 1699 at the age of 44. Evelyn does not record the illness in detail but it seems evident that his son was profoundly depressed and had been for some time. This may have been a clinical condition expressed in physical deterioration and susceptibility to infection. Fortunately for the diarist he left a son, also called John but usually known as Jack. He became the most important person in John Evelyn's later life as the only living descendant by the direct male line. George's son had died in 1691 leaving George with only a daughter and grand-daughters. This became the occasion of a family dispute when the husband of one of George's grand-daughters sought to force a revised settlement of the Wotton estate. A new agreement was reached increasing the amount of the estate available to settle on George's female offspring. George himself died in late 1699 and the Wotton estate accordingly passed to Evelyn who now concentrated his efforts on making sure his grandson was married and employed. The solution lay through the auspices of Sidney, now Baron, Godolphin, for some years now Evelyn's patron. Godolphin, as Lord Treasurer, found a position for young Jack as a Treasurer for the Revenue and subsequently promoted him to act as a Commissioner of the Prizes. In the meantime a marriage settlement was arranged with Godolphin's niece Ann Boscawen, financed with the assistance of William Draper who provided funds for a mortgage on the Wotton estate.

            Evelyn's writings in later years were very limited, the principal work being a study of coins and medals called Numismata published in 1697. However it was not received with great enthusiasm largely because of the many typographical errors it contained and its rambling prose. Evelyn also prepared new editions of Sylva and the Parallel of the Antient Architecture.

            In his closing years Evelyn became more and more subjected to bouts of ill-health characterised by constipation and kidney trouble. However he found time to begin his revision of the Diary in 1700 and also to compose a short book of advice on running an estate for his grandson. Jack was safely married by late 1705 so that when he died in 1706 at his house in Dover Street, London, Evelyn must have felt confident about the future of his family and estate. Mary Evelyn died three years later. Both were buried at Wotton church.

Where to see John Evelyn

Many of Evelyn's books are now 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. His own tomb is no longer accessible as the private Evelyn chapel in Wotton church has been closed ever since the extraordinary break-in in 1992. Evelyn's, and his wife's, tombs were broken into and their skulls removed. No-one knows why or how, and the event remains a tragic mystery.


Books about John Evelyn and his writings, and Samuel Pepys, edited by Guy de la Bédoyère:

1. 'John Evelyn's Library Catalogue' in The Book Collector, 1994.

 2. The Writings of John Evelyn, Boydell and Brewer, Woodbridge 1995, including Fumifugium (see also Downloadable texts )


'[Evelyn's writings] display a shoddiness of execution which has been brought to light by the editor's work in annotating them... It is good to see such writings acquire a wider circulation...' English Historical Review

ISBN 0 85115 631 2

3. The Diary of John Evelyn, Boydell and Brewer, Woodbridge, 1995.

'Acute appraisal of his character and personality... knows his subject well... admirably geared to the needs of the general reader... a well made selection, excellently presented' History

ISBN 0 85115 639 8


4. Particular Friends. The Correspondence of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, Boydell and Brewer, Woodbridge, 1997. New revisied edition 2005.

'meticulously edited ... great virtue of this book is the intriguing insight into the minds of two exceptional men' Spectator

'an excellent way to appreciate the strengths and weakness of the great wave of intellectual curiosity that swept across English life during the reigns of the later Stuarts'. TLS. The texts from the 1660s and the 1690s are available here on this site.

ISBN 0 85115 690 8 (hardback - no longer available), 0 85115 697 5 (paperback). The revised paperback edition (2005) is now available from http://www.boydell.co.uk/

5. The Letters of Samuel Pepys, Boydell 2006. Now in preparation: 260 letters drawn from all parts of Pepys’s life, including several from Evelyn.

Other books 

I'm sorry to say that other books on John Evelyn are all but impossible to obtain. I thoroughly recommend the 1955 edition of his Diary by Dr Esmond S. de Beer for the Clarendon Press at Oxford but even if you can find it, it won't cost less than £500. Try searching http://www.abeboooks.com for books on Evelyn by W.G. Hiscock called John Evelyn and his Family Circle (1955) and .John Evelyn and Mrs Godolphin (1951).

More recently there’s Literary Surrey (John Owen Smith, 2005) by Jacqueline Banerjee with a chapter on Evelyn.

 For the books published by Boydell go to http://www.boydell.co.uk. You can find my versions of some Evelyn’s works at John Evelyn’s downloadable texts , versions of my text of Evelyn's Diary at http://www.personal.edu.psu/jth/acadmic.html and also at http://astext.com/history/ed_main.html and http://www.geocities.com/Paris/LeftBank/1914/ed_main.html courtesy of Anthony Sallis, as well as my transcriptions of the tracts Tyrannus, Fumifugium and my article for the Times Literary Supplement, ‘John Evelyn and the art of quoting’.

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