Born 1620 Died 1706
John Evelyn was born at Wotton House, near Dorking, Surrey, on the 31st of October 1620. He was the younger son of Richard Evelyn, who owned large estates in the county, and was in 1633 high sheriff of Surrey and Sussex. When John Evelyn was five years old he went to live with his mother's parents at Cliffe, near Lewes. He refused to leave his too indulgent grandmother for Eton, and when on her husband's death she married again, the boy went with her to Southover, where he attended, the free school of the place. He was admitted to the Middle Temple in February 1637, and in May be became a fellow commoner of Balliol College, Oxford. He left the university without taking a degree, and in 1640 was residing in the Middle Temple. In that year his father died, and in July 1641 he crossed to Holland. He was enrolled as a volunteer in Apsley's company, then encamped before Genep on the Waal, but his commission was apparently complimentary, his military experience being limited to six days of camp life, during which, however, he took his turn at trailing a pike. He returned in the autumn to find England on the verge of civil war. Evelyn's part in the conflict is best told in his own words:
12th November was the battle of Brentford, surprisingly fought. I came in with my horse and arms just at the retreat; but was not permitted to stay longer than the 15th by reason of the army marching to Gloucester; which would have left both me and my brothers exposed to ruin, without any advantage to his Majesty ... and on the 10th December I returned to Wotton, nobody knowing of my having been in his Majesty's army.
At Wotton he employed himself in improving his brother's property, making a fishpond, an island and other alterations in the gardens. But he found it difficult to avoid taking a side; he was importuned to sign the Covenant, and finding it impossible to evade doing very unhandsome things, he obtained leave in October 1643 from the king to travel abroad. From this date his Diary becomes full and interesting. He travelled in France and visited the cities of Italy, returning in the autumn of 1646 to Paris, where he became intimate with Sir Richard Browne, the English resident at the court of France. In June of the following year he married Browne's daughter and heiress, Mary, then a child of not more than twelve years of age. Leaving his wife in the care of her parents, he returned to England to settle his affairs. He visited Charles I at Hampton Court in 1647, and during the next two years maintained a cipher correspondence with his father-in-law in the royal interest. In 1649 he obtained a pass to return to Paris, but in 1650 paid a short visit to England. The defeat of Charles II at Worcester in 1651 convinced him that the royalist cause was hopeless, and he decided to return to England. He went in 1652 to Sayes Court at Deptford, a house which Sir Richard Browne had held on a lease from the crown. This had been seized by the parliament, but Evelyn was able to compound with the occupiers for £3,500, and after the Restoration his possession was secured. Here his wife joined him, their eldest son, Richard, being born in August 1652.
Under the Commonwealth Evelyn amused himself with his favourite occupation of gardening, and made many friends among the scientific inquirers of the time. He was one of the promoters of the scheme for the Royal Society, and in the king's charter in 1662 was nominated a member of its directing council. Meanwhile he had refused employment from the government of the Commonwealth, and had maintained a cipher correspondence with Charles. In 1659 he published an Apology for the Royal Party, and in December of that year he vainly tried to persuade Colonel Herbert Morley, then lieutenant of the Tower, to forestall General Monk by declaring for the king.
From the Restoration onwards Evelyn enjoyed unbroken court favour till his death in 1706; but he never held any important political office, although he filled many useful and often laborious minor posts. He was commissioner for improving the streets and buildings of London, for examining into the affairs of charitable foundations, commissioner of the Mint, and of foreign plantations. In 1664 he accepted the responsibility for the care of the sick and wounded and the prisoners in the Dutch war. He stuck to his post throughout the plague year, contenting himself with sending his family away to Wotton. He found it impossible to secure sufficient money for the proper discharge of his functions, and in 1688 he was still petitioning for payment of his accounts in this business.
Evelyn was secretary of the Royal Society in 1672, and as an enthusiastic promoter of its interests was twice (in 1682 and 1691) offered the presidency. Through his influence Henry Howard, Duke of Norfolk, was induced to present the Arundel marbles to the university of Oxford (1667), and the valuable Arundel library to Gresham College (1678). In the reign of James II, during the Earl of Clarendon's absence in Ireland, he acted as one of the commissioners of the privy seal. He was seriously alarmed by the king's attacks on the English Church, and refused on two occasions to license the illegal sale of Roman Catholic literature. He concurred in the revolution of 1688, in 1695 was entrusted with the office of treasurer of Greenwich hospital for old sailors, and laid the first stone of the new building on the 30th of June 1696. In 1694 he left Sayes Court to live at Wotton with his brother, whose heir he had become, and whom he actually succeeded in 1699. He spent the rest of his life there, dying on the 27th of February 1706. Evelyn's house at Sayes Court had been let to Captain, afterwards Admiral John Benbow, who was not a polite tenant. He sublet it to Peter the Great, who was then visiting the dockyard at Deptford. The tsar did great damage to Evelyn's beautiful gardens, and, it is said, made it one of his amusements to ride in a wheelbarrow along a thick holly hedge planted especially by the owner. The house was subsequently used as a workhouse, and is now almshouses, the grounds having been converted into public gardens by Mr Evelyn in 1886.
It will be seen that, Evelyn's politics were not of the heroic order. But he was honourable and consistent in his adherence to the monarchical principle throughout his life. With the court of Charles II he could have had no sympathy, his dignified domestic life and his serious attention to religion standing in the strongest contrast with the profligacy of the royal surroundings. His Diary is therefore, a valuable chronicle of contemporary events from the standpoint of a moderate politician and a devout adherent of the Church of England. He had none of Pepys's love of gossip, and was devoid of his all-embracing curiosity, as of his diverting frankness of self-revelation. Both were admirable civil servants, and they had a mutual admiration for each others sterling qualities. Evelyn's Diary covers more than half a century (1640-1706) crowded with remarkable events, while Pepys only deals with a few years of Charles II's reign.
Evelyn was a generous art patron, and Grinling Gibbons was introduced by him to the notice of Charles II. His domestic affections were very strong. He had six sons, of whom John (1655-1699), the author of some translations, alone reached manhood. He has left a pathetic account of the extraordinary accomplishments of his son Richard, who died before he was six years old, and of a daughter Mary, who lived to be twenty, and probably wrote most of her father's Mundus Muliebris (1690). Of his two other daughters, Susannah, who married William Draper of Addiscombe, Surrey, survived him.
Evelyn's Diary remained in manuscript until 1818. It is in a quarto volume containing 700 pages, covering the years between 1641 and 1697, and is continued in a smaller book which brings the narrative down to within three weeks of its author's death. A selection from this was edited by William Bray, with the permission of the Evelyn family, in 1818, under the title of Memoirs illustrative of the Life and Writings of John Evelyn, comprising his Diary from 1641 to 1705/6, and a Selection of his Familiar Letters. Other editions followed, the most notable being those of Mr H. B. Wheatley (1879) and Mr Austin Dobson (3 vols., 1906).
Being the entry for EVELYN, JOHN in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.