Sir George Downing, Bt
Portrait by Thomas Smith, c. 1675-1690
|Teller of the Exchequer|
|Member of Parliament for Morpeth|
April 1660 - 1684
|Member of Parliament for Carlisle|
Serving with Thomas Craister
|Member of Parliament for Edinburgh|
Serving with Samuel Desborrow
London Dublin, Kingdom of Ireland
|Died||pr. 19 July 1684 (aged 59)|
(m. 1654; her death 1683)
|Children||6, including Sir George Downing, 2nd Baronet|
|Alma mater||Harvard College (1642)|
|Allegiance||Commonwealth of England|
|Commands||Scoutmaster-General of Commonwealth Forces in Scotland|
|Battles/wars||Third English Civil War|
Sir George Downing, 1st Baronet (c. 1624/25 – c. 19 July 1684) was an Anglo-Irish preacher, soldier, statesman, diplomat, turncoat and spy, after whom Downing Street in London is named. As Treasury Secretary he is credited with instituting major reforms in public finance. His influence was substantial on the passage and substance of the mercantilist Navigation Acts. The Acts strengthened English commercial and Naval power, contributing to the security of the English state and its ability to project its power abroad.
More than any other man he was responsible for arranging the acquisition of New York from the Dutch, and is remembered there in the name of two other streets named after him in New York, one in Greenwich Village and one in Brooklyn.
He was the son of Emmanuel Downing, a barrister of the Inner Temple in London, and of Lucy Winthrop, who married in April 1622. He was born likely in London in 1625, while others list his birthplace circa 1624 in Dublin. His mother was the younger sister of Massachusetts Bay Governor John Winthrop.
In 1636, he was in school in Maidstone, Kent. His family joined Winthrop in America in 1638, settling in Salem, Massachusetts. Downing attended Harvard College and was one of nine students in the first graduating class of 1642. He was hired by Harvard as the college's first tutor. In 1645 he sailed for the West Indies with slaves in tow, as a preacher and instructor of the seamen, and arrived in England some time afterwards, becoming chaplain to Colonel John Okey's regiment (who had originally sponsored Downing's education in America).
While Downing Street, London, is named after him, Downing College, Cambridge derives its name from his grandson, Sir George Downing, 3rd Baronet. The title became extinct when the 3rd Baronet's cousin, Sir Jacob Downing, 4th Baronet, died in 1764.
Subsequently, Downing seems to have abandoned preaching for a military career, and in 1650 he was scoutmaster-general of Cromwell's forces in Scotland, and as such received in 1657 a salary of £365 and £500 as a Teller of the Exchequer.
In 1654, he married Frances, sister of Charles Howard, 1st Earl of Carlisle and daughter of Sir William Howard of Naworth Castle and Mary (née Eure, daughter of William Eure, 4th Baron Eure). Frances was the great-great granddaughter of the fourth Duke of Norfolk. Downing's marriage into the powerful Howard family aided his advancement. In Cromwell's parliament of 1654, Downing represented Edinburgh, and Carlisle in those of 1656 and 1659. He was one of the first to urge Cromwell to take the royal title and restore the old constitution. In 1655, he was sent to France to remonstrate on the massacre of the Protestant Vaudois. Later in 1657 he was appointed resident at The Hague, to effect a union of the Protestant European powers, to mediate between Portugal and the Dutch Republic and between Sweden and Denmark, to defend the interests of the English traders against the Dutch, and to inform the government concerning the movements of the exiled royalists.
Downing showed himself in these negotiations an able diplomat. He was maintained in his post during the interregnum subsequent to the fall of Richard Cromwell, and was thus enabled in April 1660 to make his peace with Charles II, to whom he communicated Thurloe's despatches, and declared his abandonment of "principles sucked in" in New England of which he now "saw the error". At the Restoration, therefore, Downing was knighted (May 1660), was continued in his embassy in Holland, was confirmed in his tellership of the exchequer, and was further rewarded with a valuable piece of land adjoining St. James's Park for building purposes, now known as Downing Street.
During the Restoration period, he was instrumental organising the spy-rings which hunted down many of his former comrades. He engineered the arrest in Holland of the regicides John Barkstead, Miles Corbet and John Okey, his former commander and sponsor. Samuel Pepys, who characterised his conduct as odious though useful to the king, calls him a "perfidious rogue" and remarks that "all the world took notice of him for a most ungrateful villain for his pains."
On 1 July 1663, he was created a baronet.
Downing had from the first been hostile to the Dutch as the commercial rivals of England. He had strongly supported the Navigation Act of 1660, and he now deliberately drew on the fatal and disastrous Second Anglo-Dutch War, in the first year of which, 1665, he was expelled by the Dutch because of his intrigues and spying activities and returned home. That year, as a member of parliament, Downing attached a clause to a bill to fund the war's continuation that specified that the money could only be used for the war effort. This previously little-used move, opposed strongly by Lord Clarendon as an encroachment on the royal prerogative, effectively made permanent the parliamentary appropriation of supplies (meaning that Parliament gained the right to specify that tax revenues should be used only for a particular purpose, rather than spent as the King's government saw fit). In May 1667, in the war's final year, Downing was made secretary to the commissioners of the treasury, his appointment being much welcomed by Pepys, and he took part in the management and reform of the Treasury.
He had been returned for Morpeth in the Convention Parliament of April 1660, a constituency that he represented in every ensuing parliament till his death, and he spoke with ability on financial and commercial questions. He was appointed a commissioner of the customs in 1671. The same year he was again sent to Holland to replace Sir William Temple, to break up the policy of the Triple Alliance and incite another war between the Dutch Republic and England in furtherance of the French policy. His unpopularity there was extreme, and after three months' residence Downing fled to England, in fear of the fury of the mob. For this unauthorised step he was sent to the Tower on 7 February 1672, but released some few weeks afterwards. He defended the Royal Declaration of Indulgence the same year, and made himself useful in supporting the court policy.
Downing was undoubtedly a man of great political, diplomatic, and financial ability, but his character has often been maligned by his enemies because of his willingness to make the most of changing political circumstances, and to brutally betray former comrades in order to win favour from his current masters. Today his reputation is undergoing a revision among scholars of the period as his contributions as a financial reformer and diplomat are again recognised. On the other hand, one of his many less attractive personal qualities - miserliness - is well-documented.
He published a large number of declarations and discourses, mostly in Dutch, enumerated in Sibley's biography, and wrote also "A True Relation of the Progress of the Parliament's Forces in Scotland" (1651), Thomason Tracts, Brit. Mus., E 640 (5).
His wife, Frances, died 10 July 1683, and he died in Cambridge just over a year later, around 19 July 1684, when his will was proved, after having acquired a substantial fortune, and was considered to be the largest landowner in Cambridgeshire (critics claimed he amassed the fortune partly through his exceptional meanness about money). He was succeeded in the title by his eldest son Sir George Downing, 2nd Baronet. He had two younger sons, William and Charles, and four daughters:
|Parliament of England|
| Member of Parliament for Morpeth
with Ralph Knight 1660-1661
Henry Widdrington 1661-1666
Viscount Morpeth 1666-1679
Daniel Collingwood 1679-1684
Sir Henry Pickering, Bt
| Teller of the Exchequer
|Baronetage of England|
|New creation|| Baronet
(of East Hatley)