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George Downing
Portrait by Thomas Smith, c. 1675–1690
Teller of the Exchequer
In office
Ambassador to the Dutch Republic
In office
Member of Parliament
for Morpeth
In office
April 1660 – 1684
Member of Parliament
for Carlisle
In office
Member of Parliament
for Edinburgh
In office
Personal details
Bornc. 1623
Dublin, Ireland
Diedpr. 19 July 1684 (aged 59)[1]
Frances Howard
(m. 1654; died 1683)​
Children6, including Sir George Downing, 2nd Baronet
Alma materHarvard College
  • Statesman
  • Soldier
  • Diplomat
  • Spymaster
  • Preacher
Military service
AllegianceCommonwealth of England
CommandsScoutmaster-General of Commonwealth Forces in Scotland

Sir George Downing, 1st Baronet (c. 1623 - c. 19 July 1684) was an Anglo-Irish diplomat and financial reformer, who held office first under the Commonwealth of England, then Charles II. As Teller of the Exchequer, he carried out major reforms in public finance, including securing passage of the Navigation Acts, intended to protect English maritime commerce, especially from the Dutch Republic.

He played a significant role in acquiring New York City from the Dutch in 1665. Two New York streets are named after him, one in Greenwich Village and one in Brooklyn, as well as Downing Street, London.

Personal details

George Downing was born c. 1623 in Dublin, Ireland, eldest son of Emmanuel Downing, and his second wife, Lucy Winthrop, younger sister of John Winthrop, Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony.[3] [a] His father was a barrister of the Inner Temple in London, and a Puritan who undertook missionary work, first in Ireland, and later in New England.[5]

In 1654, he married Frances, sister of Charles Howard, 1st Earl of Carlisle and distantly related to the Duke of Norfolk, the leading Catholic family in England.[6] They had a number of children, including his eldest son and heir George (c. 1656 – 15 April 1740), William (1663–1704), Charles (died 15 April 1740), Frances (died 1681), Philadelphia (died 8 March 1676), Mary (died 1728), and Lucy (died 1711).

Early career

In 1636, he was in school in Maidstone, Kent.[4] His family joined Winthrop in America in 1638, settling in Salem, Massachusetts.[5] Downing attended Harvard College and ranked second out of nine students in the first graduating class of 1642. He was hired by Harvard as the college's first tutor. During his later life, he was frequently insulted because of his obscure origins and supposedly dubious New England education.[7]

In 1645, he sailed for the West Indies on a ship that also carried slaves, as a preacher and instructor of the seamen, and arrived in England some time afterwards, becoming chaplain in the regiment of Colonel John Okey, who had allegedly sponsored Downing's education in America.[4]

Service under Cromwell

The regicide Colonel John Okey; from 1646 to 1648, Downing served as chaplain in his regiment

Between 1647 and 1651, Downing pursued a military career, having abandoned preaching, and took part in the battles of Dunbar in 1650 and Worcester in 1651. In this period, he was a strong upholder of the republican cause and supported the execution of Charles I.[8] He was appointed scoutmaster-general of Cromwell's forces in Scotland in November 1649, and as such received in 1657 an annual salary of £365 and, from 1656, he received £500 as a Teller of the Exchequer.[9]

In 1654, Downing was elected Member of Parliament for Edinburgh, then for Carlisle in 1656 and 1659.[3] His first diplomatic appointments were to France in 1655 to remonstrate on the massacre of the Protestant Vaudois and as envoy to the Duke of Savoy in 1656. In December 1657, he was appointed Ambassador to the Dutch Republic, resident at The Hague.[9] Although in his earlier years, Downing was strongly anti-monarchical, he was one of the first to urge Cromwell to take the royal title and restore the old constitution.[5]

As scoutmaster-general, Downing had been in charge of gathering intelligence and managing a network of spies. As English ambassador, Downing viewed intelligence gathering about Dutch intentions and Royalists plots as a major part of his function, tactics he later employed against regicides and other republicans there.[10] Cromwell's aims were to effect a union of the Protestant European powers, to mediate between Portugal and the Dutch Republic and between Sweden and Denmark, but also to defend English commercial interests against Dutch competition. Political union between the two nations had already been rejected by the Dutch in 1654, as was a proposal for a military alliance against Spain in return for a promise to exempt the Netherlands from the provisions of the Navigation Act, but Cromwell persisted.[11]

Although Downing was unable to realise Cromwell's plans during his first period in the Netherlands, he gained insight into the Dutch Republic's system of public finance. He applied the same principles in reforming royal finances during the early Restoration period of 1660 to 1665.[12]


Downing Street, now Official residence of the Prime Minister, awarded to Downing in 1660

Downing showed himself to have been an able diplomat for the Protectorate, and kept his post during the period of political turmoil that followed the fall of Richard Cromwell in May 1659. As a Stuart Restoration became increasingly likely, he used this position to reconcile with Charles II. He did so first by leaking the contents of John Thurloe's despatches, then declaring his abandonment of "principles sucked in" in New England, of which he now "saw the error". After Charles returned to England in May 1660 Stuart Restoration, Downing was knighted and reappointed to the embassy at The Hague.[13] He was also confirmed as Teller of the Exchequer, and rewarded with a valuable piece of land adjoining St James's Park for building purposes, now known as Downing Street.[5]

During the Restoration period, Downing was instrumental in 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 his former commander and sponsor John Okey. Against considerable opposition from the Dutch, they were taken to England and executed.[14] Samuel Pepys, who characterised his conduct as odious if 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."[5]

Embassy at The Hague

Downing returned to The Hague as ambassador in May 1661, where he had to deal with Johan de Witt, the Grand Pensionary of Holland, who controlled the foreign policy of the Netherlands. De Witt realised that his country could never win a war with England or France conclusively, and therefore worked for European neutrality in which Dutch commerce could flourish. In the aftermath of the Restoration, de Witt hoped that Charles II would be amenable to the negotiation of a defensive triple alliance between the Netherlands, England and France that would cover trade, maritime issues and defence. However, trade disputes and enactment of the English Navigation Act 1660 made agreement difficult, although Charles wished for at least a treaty of friendship.[15]

Downing was a champion of English mercantilism, and therefore hostile to the Dutch, who were their chief commercial rivals. He had emphasised the importance of Baltic markets for English merchants to Thurloe during his first embassy, which had given him an insight into the economic policies of the Dutch government, and his intelligence network then had allowed him to discover how its traders were able to evade the Navigation Act 1651. This knowledge enabled Downing to be instrumental in strengthening and clarifying the provisions of the earlier act in the Navigation Act 1660.[16]

Despite Dutch opposition to this legislation, they were willing to continue discussions, but were frustrated by English demands for them to honour certain provisions of the 1654 treaty that ended the First Anglo-Dutch War which the Dutch East India Company representatives in Asia had ignored and for compensation for English merchants' outstanding claims. The talks continued until early 1662, when Charles' improving financial position and Downing's advice not to offer concessions led to further English demands.[17] The conclusion of a Franco-Dutch treaty including a defensive alliance in 1662, which gave the Netherlands protection against an English attack, ended the possibility of an Anglo-Dutch treaty that would settle outstanding differences, and the treaty signed in September 1662 satisfied neither government.[18]

The existing commercial tensions between England and the Netherlands escalated between 1662 and 1664, involving English provocations in North America and West Africa. Although negotiations to avoid the outbreak of war took place throughout much of 1664, both sides refused to compromise what they considered were their vital interest.[19] In 1664, Lord Arlington, gained royal favour and he and his client, Sir Thomas Clifford, began to cooperate with the king's brother James, Duke of York.[20] The three men coordinated a policy of reprisals against Dutch ships, anticipating significant personal gains as a result.[21]

Although Downing has been accused of being the principal cause of the deterioration of Anglo-Dutch relations, it appears he did not initiate policies, but acted on instructions from Arlington and Clifford. In turn, Charles II, without explicitly endorsing war with the Netherlands, used Clifford and Downing to further his plans to gain advantages from the Dutch even if this policy risked war.[22]

Downing also consistently reported to London in 1664 and 1665 that the Dutch Republic was politically divided and would submit to English demands rather than go to war. Even after the Royal Navy began seizing Dutch ships and attacked their possessions in West Africa, he claimed in August 1664 that the Dutch would probably accept this, although contemporary Dutch sources reported growing resistance to these provocations.[23] Downing had been in contact with the Orangists since 1661 and believed they would collaborate with England against their republican enemies.[24] He used Henri de Fleury de Coulan de Buat in an attempt to procure an Orangist coup in an attempt to end the war and overthrow de Witt, but de Buat's treasonable correspondence with England was discovered, leading to his rapid arrest, trial and execution.[25]

During the summer of 1664, Louis XIV attempted to avert the threatened Anglo-Dutch war or, failing that, to confine it to Africa and America. These efforts to mediate an agreement failed, and the war commenced with a declaration of war by the Dutch on 4 March 1665, following English attacks on two Dutch convoys off Cadiz and in the English Channel.[26] After the declaration of war, both Downing and the Dutch ambassador in London remained at their posts until Downing was expelled later in 1665 for organising espionage.[27]

Downing combined the roles of parliamentarian and diplomat, so was close to the centres of English decision-making. He represented a king who was financially weak and not in full control of his parliaments against a wealthy Dutch state in which de Witt had considerable control over finance and foreign affairs, even if this ultimately required the consent of a majority of the Dutch provinces.[28] His main failing in following the agenda of Arlington and Duke of York is that he did not realise until too late that there were limits to the concessions that the Dutch were prepared to make, and that at some point English provocations would lead to war, not to the desired concessions. He also underestimated the Dutch willingness to accept the heavy financial burden of a war to protect their trade. De Witt also failed to realise the strength of English feeling against the Netherlands, although neither he nor Downing can be wholly blamed for not preventing the outbreak of the Second Anglo-Dutch War, when its roots lay in the unsatisfactory conclusion to the First Anglo-Dutch War in 1654.[29]

Capture of New York

The Treaty of Hartford (1650), which was supposed to define the boundary between the Dutch colony of New Netherland and the English one of Connecticut, had been made between the governors of these two colonies and, while accepted by each colony's administration and the Dutch West India Company as reflecting the reality of expanding English settlement, it was not ratified by the English government, which disputed Dutch claims to the western half of Long Island and to the territory east of the Hudson River. During the First Anglo-Dutch War, a force of New England colonial militia was assembled to attack the New Netherland settlements, but the war ended before it began its campaign.[30]

During the remainder of the Protectorate and in the first years of the Restoration, the status quo of the Hartford Treaty remained in force, although the presence of the New Netherland colony allowed settlers in the English colonies to sell their produce to Dutch traders in defiance of legal restrictions.[22] During the period from 1657 to 1664, Downing, with his New England background and residency in The Hague, was ideally placed to advise Charles II on the political situation in North America and the Dutch Republic. Charles and his Lord Chancellor, the Earl of Clarendon, faced with the Dutch delays in implementing the terms of the 1654 peace, widespread smuggling operations based on New Amsterdam and the exclusion of English traders from the East Indies and West Africa,[31] decided to assert English claims to New Netherland, and to use Downing as their agent to claim to de Witt that Charles was merely asserting his rights, not making a declaration of war.[32]

Downing was one of the individuals said to be well acquainted with the affairs of New England that advised the Council for Foreign Plantations in January 1664 to attack New Amsterdam in support of the claim of Connecticut to land to the west of the 1650 boundary, and he supported the dispatch of a naval and military force to support the local militias to capture that town.[33]

Parliamentary career

Downing was 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.[34]

In 1665, after his expulsion from the Netherlands and 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.[35] This previously little-used move, opposed strongly by Lord Clarendon as an encroachment on the royal prerogative,[5] 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).[36] 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,[5] and he took part in the management and reform of the Treasury.[35]

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 of London on 7 February 1672, then released a few weeks afterwards. He defended the Royal Declaration of Indulgence the same year, and made himself useful in supporting the court policy.[5]

Death and legacy

Downing was buried in a vault he had built in All Saints' Church, Croydon, Cambridgeshire

His wife Frances died on 10 July 1683, followed by Downing himself a year later, with probate granted on 19 July 1684.[1] He was buried in the family vault built in All Saints' Church, Croydon, Cambridgeshire, leaving a substantial fortune, which critics claimed he had amassed partly through his exceptional meanness about money.[3] This characteristic was echoed by Samuel Pepys, although Downing's rise was considered undesirable in a generally conservative society, and an achievement that generated suspicion and envy.[37]

Despite his undoubted political, diplomatic, and financial ability, Downing has often been maligned due to his willingness to betray former comrades in order to win favour from his current masters.[38] His modern reputation is undergoing a revision as his contributions in the fields of financial reform and diplomacy are again recognised.[39]

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).[5]


  1. ^ This is the generally accepted date and location, although some authors have suggested he was born in London in 1625.[4]


  1. ^ a b Muskett 1900, p. 99.
  2. ^ Burke 1914, p. 382.
  3. ^ a b c Scott 2004.
  4. ^ a b c Shipton 1873, p. 28.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Downing, Sir George". Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 8 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 459.
  6. ^ Scott 2003, p. 336.
  7. ^ Scott 2003, p. 334.
  8. ^ Scott 2003, pp. 341–343.
  9. ^ a b Scott 2003, p. 343.
  10. ^ Scott 2003, pp. 344–345.
  11. ^ Rommelse 2006, p. 23.
  12. ^ Scott 2003, p. 338-339.
  13. ^ Downing & Rommelse 2011, p. 71.
  14. ^ Downing & Rommelse 2011, pp. 85–87.
  15. ^ Downing & Rommelse 2011, pp. 91–93.
  16. ^ Downing & Rommelse 2011, pp. 81, 84.
  17. ^ Downing & Rommelse 2011, pp. 88–89.
  18. ^ Downing & Rommelse 2011, pp. 95–96.
  19. ^ Downing & Rommelse 2011, pp. 103, 127–129.
  20. ^ Downing & Rommelse 2011, p. 111.
  21. ^ Downing & Rommelse 2011, p. 169.
  22. ^ a b Rommelse 2006, p. 103.
  23. ^ Downing & Rommelse 2011, p. 132.
  24. ^ Downing & Rommelse 2011, p. 143.
  25. ^ Downing & Rommelse 2011, p. 148.
  26. ^ Downing & Rommelse 2011, pp. 138, 145.
  27. ^ Downing & Rommelse 2011, pp. 138, 142.
  28. ^ Downing & Rommelse 2011, pp. 165–166.
  29. ^ Downing & Rommelse 2011, p. 171.
  30. ^ Roper 2014, p. 673.
  31. ^ Roper 2014, pp. 673–674.
  32. ^ Rommelse 2006, pp. 104, 112.
  33. ^ Roper 2014, pp. 684, 688–689.
  34. ^ Downing & Rommelse 2011, p. 81.
  35. ^ a b "Sir George Downing". Encyclopædia Britannica (online). Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. Retrieved 29 August 2015.
  36. ^ Maitland 1908, pp. 309–310.
  37. ^ Scott 2003, pp. 336–337.
  38. ^ Jordan & Walsh 2012, pp. 263–278.
  39. ^ Downing & Rommelse 2011, pp. 165–168.


1893 text

George Downing was one of the Four Tellers of the Receipt of the Exchequer, and in his office Pepys was a clerk. He was the son of Emmanuel Downing of the Inner Temple, afterwards of Salem, Massachusetts, and of Lucy, sister of Governor John Winthrop. He is supposed to have been born in August, 1623. He and his parents went to New England in 1638, and he was the second graduate of Harvard College. He returned to England about 1645, and acted as Colonel Okey’s chaplain before he entered into political life. Anthony a Wood (who incorrectly describes him as the son of Dr. Calybute Downing, vicar of Hackney) calls Downing a sider with all times and changes: skilled in the common cant, and a preacher occasionally. He was sent by Cromwell to Holland in 1657, as resident there. At the Restoration, he espoused the King’s cause, and was knighted and elected M.P. for Morpeth, in 1661. Afterwards, becoming Secretary to the Treasury and Commissioner of the Customs, he was in 1663 created a Baronet of East Hatley, in Cambridgeshire, and was again sent Ambassador to Holland. His grandson of the same name, who died in 1749, was the founder of Downing College, Cambridge. The title became extinct in 1764, upon the decease of Sir John Gerrard Downing, the last heir-male of the family. Sir George Downing’s character will be found in Lord Clarendon’s “Life,” vol. iii. p. 4. Pepys’s opinion seems to be somewhat of a mixed kind. He died in July, 1684.

This text comes from a footnote on a diary entry in the 1893 edition edited by Henry B. Wheatley.

31 Annotations

First Reading

Douglas Long  •  Link

This is the George Downing who built - and after whom is named - Downing Street, home to British prime ministers since 1723.

David Gurliacci  •  Link

Downing's idealistic youth:

Downing's ties to the Puritans of the Commonwealth (both Cromwell's in England and the one in Massachusetts) ran deep. For the Puritans, this likely made the sting more acute when he broke with them and became such an ardent supporter of Charles II.

Downing was the nephew of a famed New England Puritan, Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop (whose sister, Lucy, married Downing's father, Emanuel). At Winthrop's suggestion, the Downings moved to the colony in 1638. They settled in Salem.

In 1642, Downing became the second graduate of the new Harvard College. Winthrop wrote about Downing in his posthumously published "History of New England from 1630 to 1649" in this passage (2:240-3) which makes Downing (then a young preacher) look like one of the shock troops in the vanguard of the Puritan crusade:

"The scarcity of good ministers in England, and want of employment for our new graduates [of Harvard College] here, occasioned some of them to look abroad. Three honest young men, good scholars, and very hopeful, viz. a younger son of Mr. Higginson, to England, and so to Holland, and after to the East Indies, a younger son of Mr. Buckley, a Batchelor of Arts to England, and Mr. George Downing, son of Mr. Emanuel Downing of Salem, Batchelor of Arts also, about twenty years of age, went in a ship to the West Indies to instruct the seamen. He went by Newfoundland and so to Christophers and Barbados and Nevis, and being requested to preach in all these places, he gave such content, as he had large offers to stay with them. But he continued in the ship to England, and being a very able scholar, and of a ready wit and fluent utterance, he was soon taken notice of, and called to be a preacher in Sir Thomas Fairfax his army, to Colonel Okye his regiment."

Despite his family connections and early history, Downing moved away from hardline Puritanism and republicanism by 1660. In fact, his enthusiasm for the rising star of Charles II left a distaste in the mouths of many observers, including Pepys, who could see the spectacular rewards Downing snagged from the flip. (Pepys, of course, also changed his colors -- but who likes to be reminded of that?)

The quote from Winthrop's book I found at this website (where Downing's slight connection to Newfoundland history is discussed):…

PHE  •  Link

The link puts Axe yard directly on the present day Downing St. George Downing owned a house in Axe Yard. According to the annotation by Douglas Long, Downing built Downing St. Was this a case of him rebuilding on his own land after the Great Fire?

David Gurliacci  •  Link

Downing and the Salem Witchcraft Trials

Downing apparently was the landlord to John Proctor, the first man accused of witchraft in the Salem witch trials hysteria of 1692.

Anyone who has seen Arthur Miller's play about the witchcraft hysteria, "The Cruciable," may remember Proctor as a significant character (apparently Miller took some liberties with the facts of Proctor's life). Proctor was hanged with five others on August 19, 1692. His wife, Elizabeth, was spared because she was pregnant.

Here's how Downing (who left Massachusetts in the 1640s and may well have never met Proctor) came to have a tenuous connection with the man:

Downing's father, Emanuel, had bought property in Salem when he and his family (including George) moved there in 1638. Emanuel moved to Scotland in 1656. But before he left he leased his farm outside of Salem to Proctor, who also took over a tavern Downing had operated in what is now Peabody, Mass., just outside of Salem.

Emanuel died in Edinburgh on Sept. 25, 1660. The tavern and other property apparently passed down to George Downing, although Emanuel had other children, some of whom remained in Massachusetts. But eight years after the hysteria, in 1700, it was Charles Downing, the son of Sir George, who sold the farm to Thorndike Proctor, son of the executed John Proctor.

It remained in the Proctor family in 1851, and the Downing/Proctor house still stands at 348 Lowell St., Peabody, Mass.

Most of these details come from a web page devoted to Emanuel Downing, part of a website operated by an organization of Downing family descendents. The society was founded in 1988 at the site of the former Downing home in Salem (NOT the tavern building).

So what's the importance to Samuel Pepys of a link to someone with a link to someone who was a victim of the Salem witchcraft trials? Well, er -- it's an interesting story, isn't it?

Here's a link to the Emanuel Downing web page:…

Here's a link to their George Downing web page:…

And here's a link to a web page giving a good summary account of the trial and tribulations of John Proctor:…

David Bell  •  Link

A quick check shows that Downing Street is on the edge of the site of Whitehall Palace, which was destroyed by fire in 1698. It would need a bit of careful checking to see just how Axe Yard was related to the Palace complex, though it seems tolerably obvious that it was just outside the boundary.

Pepys was certainly living close to the centre of power in England.

language hat  •  Link

A description of Downing
from Arthur Bryant's Pepys bio:

Pepys' second employer was not an amiable man. A rough, pushing, young careerist, George Downing had been bred in Massachusetts and had taken to the r

David Gurliacci  •  Link

John Evelyn's low opinion of Downing

From his diary (12 July 1666):

"Sir Geo: Downing (one that had been a greate [a blank space here of about seven spaces] against his Majestie but now insinuated into favour, & from a pedagoge & fanatic preach(e)r, not worth a groate, becoming excessive rich) . . . "

-- "The Diary of John Evelyn," edited by E.S. de Beer (Oxford), p. 492. (I suppose the blank was in the diary itself. Perhaps Evelyn was searching for the right word. I found no explanation for it anywhere in the book.)

David Gurliacci  •  Link

Downing During the Interregnum

Downing moved on from his post as preacher in Fairfax's army and by 1650, as a "scout-master-general," was in charge of spying for Cromwell's forces in Scotland. By 1653 he ws also commissary general to the army there, according to the online 1911 of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (link is below).

Downing's 1654 marriage to Frances, daughter of Sir William Howard of Naworth, and sister of the first earl of Carlisle, helped further his career. He was a member of parliament in 1654, 1656 and 1659 and was among the first to urge Cromwell to be crowned king (in January 1657).

In 1656, when the case of a Quaker accused of blasphemy was brought before parliament, Downing was one of those insisting loudly that the man's tongue be bored through with a hot iron. Although others, including Cromwell, tried to get a lighter sentence for the Quaker, the harsh punshment was carried out. "You ought to do something with that tongue that has bored through God," Downing said (quoted in Claire Tomalin's "Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self," 2002, p. 56). "You ought to bore his tongue through."

Somewhere along the line, somehow, Downing became a friend of the premier poet of the age, John Milton (Tomalin, p. 70). Another friend was Arthur Haslerig, a parliamentary leader in 1659 with whom Downing had become familiar when both served in the army in the 1640s (Tomalin, p. 93).

Downing was sent on diplomatic missions -- one to the Duke of Savoy and another, in 1655, to France. By 1657 Downing was making a salary of 665 pounds, which included 300 pounds as a "teller" supervising the Exchequer. (Actual management of the office was given to people hired by the tellers.)

In 1657 Downing also was appointed to the diplomatic post at The Hague. According to a web page of the Downing Family Historical Society of America (… ), Downing "spent more time spying on English loyalists living in Holland, along with Dutch politicians and military men, than attending to his diplomatic chores. He sent his coded reports in diplomatic pouches to Cromwell's spymaster John Thurloe."

He may also have performed another service which proved vital to his career -- telling Charles II that there was a plot to assassinate him.

"The King's life was popularly supposed to be in danger from assassination at the hands of the English government. . . . A story of Charles visiting Mary at the Hague in disguise, and being warned that he was in danger of his life by the Protectoral envoy there, Sir George Downing, is probably apocryphal." (Antonia Fraser, "Royal Charles: Charles II and the Restoration," 1980, p. 154)

Here's the web address of the George Downing entry in the "1911 Encyclopedia" website:…

D. QuidnuncGurliaci  •  Link

Consensus Opinion on Downing: Serviceable Villain

"By 1660 he may have had enough of near-anarchy in England; he was also clear in his mind that he cared more for power and money than for any principle, and saw that he could sell his abilities to whoever was in a position to bid for them," Claire Tomalin writes in "Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self," (p. 94). She also writes of "Downing's combination of bigotry and cruelty" (p. 57).

"Downing was undoubtedly a man of great political and diplomatic ability," according to the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, "but his talents were rarely employed for the advantage of his country and his character was marked by all the mean vices, treachery, avarice, servility and ingratitude. 'A George Downing' became a proverbial expression in New England to denote a false man who betrayed his trust." (The same thing happened to Benedict Arnold in the American Revolution and Norway's Vidkun Quisling in World War II, only their names are still bywords for "traitor.")…

"[A]n unscrupulous man," biographer John Hearsey calls Downing in "Young Mr. Pepys" (1973), "a loud and loyal servant of the Commonwealth."

"Known to exiled royalists as 'the fearful gentleman,' he was particularly loathed for having persuaded the Dutch to drive Charles out of Holland," Tomalin writes (p.93). "They hoped either to assassinate or to hang him."

D. QuidnuncGurliaci  •  Link

Pepys's Attitudes Toward Downing

"What is certain is that Pepys's new boss was an ogre who commanded his clerk's hatred and admiration in equal measure, for George Downing showed Pepys how hard, how vain and how ruthless a successful man of affairs could be," writes Stephen Cootes in his "Samuel Pepys: A Life" (2000; p. 26). "Downing . . . had his eye constantly on the main chance. . . . Downing was, none the less, a man of vision, and in his company Pepys became familiar with the profoundly influential idea that Britain should destroy the naval power of the Dutch and so break their monopoly on the carrying trade."

Pepys's mentions of Downing in the diary are "almost always with some expression of dislike," Henry B. Wheatley says in "Samuel Pepys and the World He Lived In" (1880). Pepys thought Downing was niggardly, sometimes to ridiculous lengths, Wheatley wrote.

"Pepys, who characterized his [Downing's] conduct as odious though useful to the king, calls him a 'perfidious rogue'" the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica notes, "and remarks that 'all the world took notice of him for a most ungrateful villain for his pains.'" (Diary: 12, 17 March 1662)

"Downing saw that Pepys was talented," Claire Tomalin writes in "Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self" (2002; p. 56), "but Pepys, though always respectful of Downing's intellectual powers, never liked him."

Years later, after the memory of working for Downing had worn a bit (and perhaps after Pepys gained a wider perspective), he praised Downing's good qualities, essentially describing him as an able public servant who would perform well in an appointment he had just been given: "[H]e is active and a man of business, and values himself upon having of things go well under his hand." (Diary: 27 May 1667)

David Plant  •  Link

More on Downing Street
Downing Street was apparently built on the site of John Hampden's former London home. The John Hampden Society ( regards it as "a disgrace that, for over 300 years, the official residence of the Head of Government of the United Kingdom should be named after a man so despicable as George Downing - a turncoat and hypocrite". The Society has been running a campaign to have it renamed "Hampden Street". Details here:…

Ishbel Beatty  •  Link


from Sir George's will, 24 August 1683:

"my houses in or neare King Street ... lately called Hampden House, which I hold by a long Lease from the Crowne, and Peacock Court there neare adjoyning which I hold by lease from the Collegiate Church of St Peter, Westminster, all which are now demolished and rebuilt or rebuilding, and called Downinge Street."

Downing died in 1684 and there is no evidence that he resided in the street. Overseers' accounts show that he lived in the neighbourhood of New Palace Yard.

Quoted from SURVEY OF LONDON, Vol 14, London County Council 1931

Pepys records November 9-10, 1666 an incident in which 'Captain Downing' demonstrated his knowledge of sign language with the deaf. How was it that he knew this language? (And was said to have had a network of deaf spies, employed because they could not speak, even
under torture, and reveal secrets.)

George's Suffolk parents had moved to London during his boyhood, and fearing an outbreak of plague they sent George and his brother to school near Maidstone, Kent (J D Beresford, Godfather of Downing Street, 1925). Here they seem to have lived in a community where congenital deafness was widespread, and resulted in deaf and hearing alike communicating freely with one another in sign. (In the Blood - God, Genes & Destiny, Steve Jones 1996)

Many of these people later migrated to Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, and a study of their descendants showed that, although marriage with outsiders had diluted the extent of the congenital inheritance, older members of the community could remember a time when, as the title of the book shows - 'Everyone Here spoke Sign Language' by Nora Ellen Grouce, 1985.

Ishbel Beatty

S. Spoelstra  •  Link

The extent of Downings ruthlessness is apperent in the next extract (from… ) especially if one realises that one of these three "regicides" is the same Colonel John Okey (… )
Downing started out with as a chaplain.

"Okey, Barkstead, and Corbet went to Delft in March 1662, and Downing hastened to take advantage of his opportunity. He secured an order from De Witt for the arrest of these men, and with a few English officers arrested them at the house of Kicke. Yet the municipality of Delft would not permit the prisoners to be removed from its jurisdiction until Downing had obtained an order from De Witt for their extradition; and then, not without danger of rescue from the sympathetic Hollanders, the men were conveyed to the coast and thence to England."
(Where they were executed.)

vincent  •  Link

a short list of Downings treachery
"...John Barkstead, d.1662
Barksted was arrested by George Downing, returned to England and hanged, drawn and quartered in 1662
John Okey, 1606-62
He was extradited by George Downing and hanged, drawn and quartered with John Barkstead and Miles Corbet.
Son of a knightly Norfolk family, MP for Yarmouth
Corbet fled to Holland at the Restoration but was extradited by George Downing. He was hanged, drawn and quartered. ..."…

JWB  •  Link

Sam @ St. Paul's
"...when Sam put in for a leaving exhibition at St. Paul's, Downing was chairman of the judges who awarded it to him, and so played a crucial part in helping him to go on to Cambridge" C Tomalin.

vicenzo  •  Link

here is the authority to speak for Cromwell.
'that Mr. Downing have Credentials from the Parliament, unto the States-General, and the Provinces of Holland, as to the Ratification of that Treaty, and the Business of the Sound...."

From: British History Online
Source: House of Commons Journal Volume 7: 30 June 1659. Journal of the House of Commons: volume 7, (1802).…
Date: 13/03/2005

Pedro  •  Link

George Downing's observation to his own government in 1664...

"You have infinite advantages upon account of the form of government of this country (United Provinces) which is such a shattered and divided thing; and though the rest of the provinces give Holland their votes, yet nothing is more evident or certain than that Holland must expect to bear the burden. Even Zeeland can do very little, for that is very poor, and the other provinces they neither can nor will."

(Boxer...The Dutch Seaborne Empire)

GrahamT  •  Link

There is an interesting article here about George Downing and his hunting down of the regicides:… (I don't know how long this will remain active)
It also states that the picture shown on the main article here is "now thought to be of someone else"

Second Reading

Bill  •  Link

George Downing went into the army, and was scoutmaster general of the English army in Scotland. He was afterwards in great favour with Cromwell, who sent him ambassador to the States, and upon the restoration he turned with the times, and was sent or kept by the King in the same employ, had the merit of betraying, securing and sending over several of the regicides (he had been captain under one of them, Col. Okey) was knighted and in favour at court, and died in 1684. His character runs low with the best historians in England; it was much lower with his countrymen in New-England; and it became a proverbial expression, to say of a false man who betrayed his trust, that he was an arrant George Downing. Oliver Cromwell, when he sent him agent or ambassador to the States, in his letter of credence says, "George Downing is a person of eminent quality, and after a long trial of his fidelity, probity and diligence in several and various negotiations, well approved and valued by us. Him we have thought fitting to send to your Lordships, dignified with the character of our agent," &c. (Milton's letters.) In his latter days he is said to have been very friendly to New-England, and when the colony was upon the worst terms with King Charles the second. An article of news from England in 1671, says, "Sir George Downing is in the Tower, it is said because he returned from Holland, where he was sent ambassador, before his time: As it is reported, he had no small abuse offered him there. They printed the sermons he preached in Oliver's time and drew three pictures of him. 1. Preaching in a tub, over it was wrote, This I was. 2. A treacherous courtier, over it, This I am. 3. Hanging on a gibbet, and over it, This I shall be." Prints of that sort were not so common in England in that day as they have been the last twenty years.

"Downing was sent to make up the quarrel with the Dutch, but coming home in too great haste and fear, is now in the prison where his master lay that he betrayed." MS. letter Lond. March 4, 1671-2. By his master, no doubt Okey is intended. His son was one of the Tellers in the Exchequer in 1680. Sir George died in 1684. He was brother-in-law to governor Bradstreet, and kept up a correspondence with him.

---The History of the Colony of Massachuset's Bay. T. Hutchinson, 1765 (discussing the first graduates of Harvard College in 1642)

Bill  •  Link


THE late Sir George Downing, of Gamlingay in Cambridge, bart. had left his estate to the late Sir Jacob Garrard, and his heirs male; and for want of such issue, to the Rev. Mr. Peters, late lecturer of St. Clements Danes, and his heirs male; both of whom having died without issue, the estate was to be applied towards founding a college in Cambridge. The original of the family was Dr. Calybeat Downing, one of the preachers in the rebel army, and a great man with the Rump; and his son, afterwards Sir George Downing, and the first baronet of the family, was made envoy from Cromwell to the States-General, and got a great estate, owing to the following incident. When King Charles the Second was travelling in disguise in Holland, to visit the queen mother, attended only by Lord Falkland, and putting up at an inn, after he had been there some time, the landlord came in to these strangers, and said there was a beggar man at the door, very shabbily dressed, who was very importunate to be admitted to them; on which the king seemed to be surprized, and after speaking to Lord Falkland, bid the landlord admit him. As soon as this beggar-man entered, he pulled off his beard, (which he had put on for a disguise) fell on his knees, and said he was Mr. Downing, the resident from Oliver Cromwell; that he had received advice of this intended visit from his majesty to the queen, and that if he ventured any farther, he would. assassinated; and begged secrecy of the king, for that his life depended upon it, and departed. The king was amazed at this, and said to Lord Falkland, how could this be known; there were but you and the queen knew of it; therefore the queen must have mentioned this to somebody, who gave advice of it to his enemies. However, the king returned back, whereby the design was prevented. Upon this, after the restoration, Mr. George Downing was rewarded, made a baronet, and farmer of the customs, &c. &c. whereby this large estate was raised.

---A Collection of Interesting Anecdotes, Memoirs, Allegories, Essays, and Poetical Fragments. Joseph Addison, 1793

Bill  •  Link

Upon the death of Sir George Downing, 3rd Baronet in 1749, the wealth left by his grandfather, Sir George Downing, who served both Cromwell and Charles II and built 10 Downing Street (a door formerly from Number 10 is in use in the college), was applied by his will. Under this will, as he had no direct issue (he was legally separated from his wife), the family fortune was left to his cousin, Sir Jacob Downing, and if he died without heir, to three cousins in succession. If they all died without issue, the estates were to be used to found a college at Cambridge called Downing.

---Wikipedia, 2013

Sasha Clarkson  •  Link

When Downing employed Pepys as a clerk in the Exchequer, it was as a favour to Pepys' patron Montagu, later Lord Sandwich. It may have also have pleased Pepys' father's cousin Sir Richard (d 1659), who had been Baron of the Exchequer, and was Chief Justice in Ireland where Downing had many interests.

Many people changed sides during the Civil Wars and aftermath, for a variety of reasons, and were usually not regarded as contemptible turncoats. But Col John Oakey, one of those Downing had apprehended, had been Downing's patron and sponsor. Indeed, Downing had been chaplain to Oakey's regiment. Downing's extraordinarily zealous delivery of Oakey to suffer the "vile death of traitors" might well have been seen generally as a betrayal too far even in those callous times.

Bill  •  Link

DOWNING, Sir GEORGE, first baronet (1623?-1684), soldier and politician; second graduate of Harvard College; scout-master-general of Cromwell's army in Scotland, 1650; M.P. for Edinburgh, 1654, for Carlisle and Haddington boroughs, 1656; headed movement for offering crown to Cromwell; sent to remonstrate with Louis XIV on Vaudois massacre, 1655; resident at the Hague, 1657, 1659, and 1660; teller of the exchequer, 1660; procured the arrest of three regicides, Barkstead, Okey, and Corbet, at Delft, 1662; created baronet, 1663; began the custom of the appropriation of supplies during the Dutch war, which he promoted, 1665; M.P., Morpeth, 1669-70; resident at the Hague, 1671; compelled by his unpopularity to leave the Hague, 1672. Colbert called him 'le plus grand querelleur des diplomates de son temps.'
---Dictionary of National Biography: Index and Epitome. S. Lee, 1906.

Bill  •  Link

Sir George Downing, a poor child, bred upon charity; like Judas, betrayed his Master. What then can his country expect? He drew and advised the oath of renouncing the king's family, and took it first himself. For his honesty, fidelity, &c. rewarded by his Majesty with 80,000l. at least, and is a commissioner of the customs, the house bell, to call the courtiers to vote at six o'clock at night, an Exchequer teller.
---A Seasonable Argument. Andrew Marvell, 1677.

San Diego Sarah  •  Link

Harvard is researching and sharing info on its ties to slavery. I haven't read the whole thing yet, but this gives us an idea of Downing's assumptions about race:

By 1700, New Englanders had made at least 19 voyages to Africa and then to the West Indies, the chief route of the slave trade, as well as many more voyages between Massachusetts Bay and the Caribbean.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony’s Body of Liberties, written in 1641, made such exchanges lawful. The first legal code governing slavery in British North America, it prohibited “bond-slavery,” “unless it be of lawfull captives, taken in just warrs, and such strangers as willingly sell themselves, or are solde to us,” leading one historian to note, “the word ‘unless’ has seldom carried more baggage.”⁠

Even as it paid homage to the Magna Carta, the Body of Liberties permitted the buying, selling, and trading of Indigenous people and Africans. Slavery would not officially end in Massachusetts until 1783.

So, too, was slavery integral to Harvard. Over nearly 150 years, from the University’s founding in 1636 until the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court found slavery unlawful in 1783, Harvard presidents and other leaders, as well as its faculty and staff, enslaved more than 70 individuals, some of whom labored on campus.⁠

Enslaved men and women served Harvard presidents and professors and fed and cared for Harvard students. Moreover, throughout this period and well into the 19th century, the University and its donors benefited from extensive financial ties to slavery. These profitable financial relationships included, most notably, the beneficence of donors who accumulated their wealth through slave trading; from the labor of enslaved people on plantations in the Caribbean islands and in the American South; and from the Northern textile manufacturing industry, supplied with cotton grown by enslaved people held in bondage.

The University also profited from its own financial investments, which included loans to Caribbean sugar planters, rum distillers, and plantation suppliers along with investments in cotton manufacturing.⁠

The balance of the University’s financial ties shifted over time; with the development of industrial capitalism in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the plantation economy evolved, and cotton began to take center stage.

Northern textile industrialists interacted with the institution of slavery through the cotton trade; enslaved laborers produced the cotton that was the engine of textile production and, therefore, of the region’s economy. Senator Sumner called this vital economic link between the industrial North and the slaveholding South an “unhallowed alliance between the lords of the lash and the lords of the loom.”⁠

San Diego Sarah  •  Link


Harvard’s donors in this period — and their wealth — were vital to the University’s growth. They allowed the University to hire faculty, support students, develop its infrastructure, and, ultimately, begin to establish itself as a national institution.

Still today, early Harvard benefactors who accumulated their wealth through slavery are memorialized throughout campus in statues, buildings, student houses, and endowed professorships — and in other educational, civic, and cultural organizations across Massachusetts. These individuals’ involvement as critical players in the University’s early development, and the commemorations of their contributions still visible in the campus landscape, are an important part of the history with which we must now reckon.


I have removed the footnotes, which are informative.

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