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Colonel John Downes (1609 – c. 1666) was a commissioner who signed the death warrant of Charles I of England. After the English Restoration he was found guilty of regicide and imprisoned for life.


John Downes' family had moved southwards from Cheshire to Warwickshire. They were said to be able to trace their Cheshire lineage back to 864 AD, according to John Parsons Earwaker's History of East Cheshire. It is said that when the King came hunting in Macclesfield Forest, a Downes held the King's stirrup whilst he mounted, while the Earl of Derby was to hold that of Downes. Derby refused on the basis of rank, instead pointing his whip at Downes' stirrup.

As far back as 864 AD there is mention of the family. It is said that certain Cheshire estates belonged to the ‘Ancient Family of Downes and Taxall’ which did service to Earl Edwin of Chester, brother in law to Harold, one of the Saxon kings of Mercia. The historian, Ormerod states that for many centuries these estates ‘were for many centuries owned by the ancient family of Downes and Taxall’.

According to Ormerod in 1339 year Queen Isabella of France granted, that in consideration of the fine which " Edmund, son of Edmund de Downes has made to us, we have pardoned to him as much as in us lies, the transgression which he made in taking to himself and his heirs, from his father, Edmund, a certain bailiwick \ballivani\ of Forestry in our Forest of Macclesfield

The Downes held various manors in Cheshire and Lancashire from as early as the 12th century. They were an ancient Forester family, like the Stanley,Grosvenor, Egerton and other Cheshire families whom they married into. They held the manors of Overton, Taxall, Shrigley, Sutton Downes and Wardley. Ormerod in his 'History of Macclesfield states that a Downes, styled the Great Lord of Downes, was Royal Forester to King Harold, the Saxon king of Mercia. This legend recounts how the Downes family acquired the coat of arms of the white stag. The King was hunting in Macclesfield Forest and became lost. Whilst all went to look for him, the Royal Forester, Downes, was resting when a white stag approached and led him to the King. The white stag was given to Downes by the King and became the family's arms. Ormerod claims the Downes family held their lands by a blast of the horn on Midsummer's Day and had many curious medieval rights including one to hang draw and quarter.

One member of the family, Roger Downes, a friend of the notorious libertine Lord Rochester, was killed in a London brawl, with his head apparently being sent to the family home at Wardley Hall. The Hall is supposed to be haunted by his ghost. They acquired Wardley Hall through marriage to a Worsley heiress.

Some of the Downes family were well known for their adherence to the Catholic faith, though in later centuries they remained Anglican. It was Francis Downes who retrieved the head of his martyred cousin Ambrose Barlow.


John Downes was born at Manby in Lincolnshire. He was grandson of Rev George Downes of Nuneaton, 'descended out of Cheshire'. He was appointed an auditor of the Duchy of Cornwall in 1633 and was elected MP for Arundel, Sussex in December 1641.[1]

A lawyer, he studied at the Inner Temple and was called to the bar in 1642. He did not fight in the English Civil War but amassed a fortune dealing in the confiscated Royalist estates. He was a close friend of Oliver Cromwell and received substantial land grants in Ireland and England.

John Downes was arrested on 18 June 1660.[2] When soon afterwards he petitioned King Charles II for an appointment, Robert Howcott stated that he was a servant of Mr Almery who was a relation of "Collonell Downes of Hampstead". A warrant had been issued by Sir Edward Nicholas for Downes to be arrested. Robert Howcott discovered and apprehended Downes before bringing him before the King who ordered Howcott to take Downes to General Monke, who passed him on to the "martiall Generall".[3]

On being found guilty of regicide, John Downes was condemned to death in October 1660, but the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment because he had tried to intervene on the King's behalf and only signed the death warrant after being intimidated by the other commissioners.[1]

Downes spent the rest of his life a prisoner in the Tower of London.


  1. ^ a b "David Plant, Biography of John Downes, British Civil Wars and Commonwealth". Archived from the original on 28 January 2013. Retrieved 15 February 2013.
  2. ^ "Commons’ Journals, viii, 61, 65, 68" as cited in "Dictionary of National Biography" edited by Leslie Stephen.
  3. ^ The National Archives: SP29/9

External links

8 Annotations

First Reading

vicenzo  •  Link

"John Downes -- Barrister of the Inner Temple and MP for Arundel, Sussex. During the King's trial, he was moved by the King's words and rose to protest, "Have we hearts of stone?" for which he was furiously rebuked by Cromwell, though he later served on the Council of State. He was arrested at the Restoration and condemned to death, then reprieved because of his defence that Cromwell had intimidated him into signing the death warrant against his better judgement. Spent the rest of his life a prisoner in the Tower".... lifted from…

Second Reading

Bill  •  Link

John Downes, member of the Long Parliament. He joined the Parliamentary army, and was made a colonel of militia. One of the king's judges who signed the death warrant. Elected to the Council of State, November 25th, 1651, and again, May 14th, 1659. At the Restoration he published "A True and Humble Representation touching the Death of the late King as far as he maybe concerned therein." Arrested at Hampstead, June 18th, 1660; condemned, but reprieved, and kept prisoner in Newgate. He was in the Tower in November, 1666.
---Wheatley, 1899.

Bill  •  Link

DOWNES, JOHN (fl. 1666), regicide; sat for Arundel in the Long parliament, 1642; prevailed upon, partly against his will, to sign Charles I's death-warrant; member of the council of state, 1651 and 1659; commissioner for the revenue, 1659; arrested (1660) for his share in the execution of Charles I, and kept a close prisoner in Newgate.
---Dictionary of National Biography: Index and Epitome. S. Lee, 1906.

Third Reading

San Diego Sarah  •  Link

Fortunately I had copied the entry:

Col. John Downes 1609-C.1666

Regicide whose life was spared because he claimed that Cromwell had bullied him into signing the King's death warrant.

Born at Manby in Lincolnshire, John Downes studied at the Inner Temple and was called to the bar in 1642.

John Downes became an auditor of the Duchy of Cornwall in 1633 and was elected MP for Arundel, Sussex, in December 1641. The election result was contested by a client of the Catholic Earl of Arundel, but with the support of Puritan MPs of the Long Parliament, Downes' claim was upheld.

During the First Civil War, John Downes directed income from lands belonging to the Duchy of Cornwall to Parliament rather than to King Charles, and was active in the local administration of Sussex.

John Downes MP was associated with the Independent faction in Parliament, but he did not play an active role until after Pride's Purge in December 1648 when he worked on the suppression of the protests against the purging of Parliament, and was appointed to the powerful Army Committee.

In January 1649, John Downes was appointed to the High Court of Justice.
During the King's trial, John Downes MP was moved by King Charles' words and rose to protest, "Have we hearts of stone?" — for which he was furiously rebuked by Oliver Cromwell. Downes withdrew from the High Court, but despite his reservations, he signed the King's death warrant, later claiming that he was forced to do so.

John Downes MP remained active in the administration of the Commonwealth and was appointed to the Council of State in 1651, but withdrew from public life after the establishment of the Protectorate.
John Downes MP returned to power briefly in 1659 when the Rump Parliament was recalled.

When John Downes MP realized the Restoration was inevitable, he published a vindication of his actions. However, this did not prevent his arrest as a regicide in June 1660.

John Downes MP was found guilty at his trial in October 1660 and condemned to death, but the sentence was revoked because of Downes' defense that Cromwell had bullied him into signing the King's death warrant against his better judgment.

John Downes MP spent the rest of his life a prisoner in the Tower of London and died around 1666.

Graham Edwards, The Last Days of Charles I, 1999
J. T. Peacey and Ivan Roots, John Downes, Oxford DNB, 2004

San Diego Sarah  •  Link

Highlights from:
“The lies of the Regicides? Charles I’s judges at the Restoration” -- by Dr Jason Peacey, Senior Lecturer in History at University College, London.

Those involved in the trial of King Charles, and alive in 1660, found themselves marked men. Vilified in public and in print, they faced choices about how to behave, and how to respond to the probability they would be punished by Charles II or parliament.

Some fled, to live out their days in relative safety, or to live troubled lives, either because of the threat of violence or of capture, and some lived in obscurity, covered their tracks and assumed new identities.
Some were eventually caught, and 3 were brought back to England, tried, sentenced and executed.

Others surrendered under the terms of a June 1660 proclamation, either in the hope of securing pardon or of mitigating their guilt, although it was always clear their fates depended upon the attitude of MPs, who were given the power to determine who should be punished and who should be pardoned.
As it turned out, MPs proved more vindictive than Charles II, resulting in the trial of 29 men in October 1660, 27 of whom pleaded guilty.
The author suggests the claims made by the regicides (which fall into 4 main areas) should be taken seriously.

First, some of the men protested they had played no part in planning the proceedings.

John Downes MP (1609 – 1666) professed that he ‘never was in consultation about the thing’, that he ‘was never of any junto or cabal’, and that he sat on no committees regarding the ordinance for the king’s trial; and this too may have been true, although he was at least nominated to one committee to consider the erection of the High Court.

Secondly, claims were made about the process by which the judges were nominated.

Simon Mayne MP (c.1640-1725) claimed to have tried to remove his name from the ordinance during a Commons debate, only to have been brow-beaten by Thomas Chaloner MP (1595–1661), while Downes insisted his name was initially omitted from the plans, only to be inserted against his wishes at a later date after he bumped into the trial’s organizers in a Westminster corridor.

Mayne’s story cannot be verified, as we lack evidence on parliamentary debates during the relevant weeks, and Downes' name seems to have been incuded when the first ordinance was submitted to Parliament on 1 January, 1649.
It is now clear the process of formulating legislation and picking judges was convoluted, the first ordinance was rejected, and there followed a process of personal lobbying and factional maneuvering which saw some names removed and others inserted before plans were approved on 6 January.

It now makes sense to argue the planning process was bedeviled by divisions over the intended outcome, which became manifest in debates over the nomination of individual judges, and the claims of both Downes and Mayne become more difficult to dismiss.

San Diego Sarah  •  Link


Thirdly, when the regicides explained their involvement in the trial, they often claimed youthful stupidity, ‘want of years’, respect for authority, pressure from elders and betters, and ‘ignorance’.

Downes talked of an ‘express order’ commanding his attendance, and of being ‘ensnared’ as a result of ‘weakness and fear’.

He claimed not to have known the king was brought to London ‘to take away his life’, but realized this was the intention when ‘the bill was brought into the House to erect a High Court of Justice’.

Fourthly, 4 regicides claimed to have intervened in the proceedings on 27 January, to support King Charles’ belated request for talks.

The most important was John Downes MP, who claimed to have protested the decision to ignore King Charles’ plea, to have spoken with other judges – William Cawley MP (1602–1667) and Valentine Walton MP (1593/4-1661) – and to have resisted Cromwell’s attempt to silence him, until he ‘started up in the very nick, when the president commanded the clerk to read the sentence’, in order to protest that ‘I am not satisfied to give my consent to this sentence, but have reasons to offer to you against it, and I desire the court may adjourn to hear me’.
Downes claimed it was his intervention which prompted President of High Court of Justice, John Bradshaw (1602-1659), to adjourn the court. In the meeting which followed, Downes claimed to have argued there was time to reach a settlement, reminded fellow judges about an earlier resolution that the trial could be interrupted in the event of an emergency.
Downes apparently said ‘if this were not an emergency, I could not tell what was’, and his order had been passed in the expectation the king would eventually recognize the need to recognize the power of the court.
For such comments John Downes MP claimed he incurred the ‘scornful wrath’ of Cromwell, who called him a ‘peevish tenacious man’, accused him of seeking to save ‘his old master’ (Downes once held minor office in the Duchy of Cornwall) and labelled him a malignant.
Downes’ response to such accusations, and to threats which followed, was to withdraw into the Speaker’s chamber, and to boycott the rest of the trial.

At their trial in October 1660, some regicides reiterated claims made earlier about the planning process for the trial, and made statements which are beyond scrutiny, but which cannot be dismissed entirely.
What comes into focus now is that some who were appointed as judges and who served on the High Court were odd appointments, whose political records and status did not mark them out as important radicals.

There is no evidence it was Downes, or any other commissioner, who provoked John Bradshaw’s decision to adjourn the court, or to corroborate the claims made about the conversation which took place in the Court of Wards.
Key witnesses – William Cawley MP (1602–1667) , Valentine Walton MP (1594-1661) – were in exile, and Oliver Cromwell was dead.

San Diego Sarah  •  Link


Nevertheless, Downes and Edmund Harvey MP (1601 – 1673) do seem to have withdrawn from the proceedings, and Downes’ story was not laughed out of court, and whatever we think about the motives of men like Cromwell, it is plausible to suggest more humble regicides questioned the sentence, especially when the sentence being considered was death, something on which the record is silent until 26 January.

The author’s third task was to examine the claims made after October 1660, and the stories spun by the regicides who evaded the death penalty. Here the aim was to explore the possibility that the fates of the regicides reflect not just that some had surrendered, but also that some were perceived to be less guilty than others, so credence was given to their excuses.

The 4 most interesting cases are those of George Fleetwood MP, Thomas Waite MP, John Downes MP and Capt. James Temple MP.

Lt-Col. William Wetton claimed to have observed the disturbance caused by Downes and Waite on 27 January, and to have been an eyewitness to the events in the Court of Wards.

Wetton testified that Downes and Waite ‘did strongly move that the king’s proposals might be heard, for he offered without the spilling of blood to settle the nation for the good of all’, and that Cromwell responded by asking whether the trial should be ‘obstructed by 2 or 3 peevish men’, as well as that neither MP returned to Westminster Hall.

Wetton was also called as a witness by Downes, in order to prove other judges were suspicious about his zeal for the trial, and to provide testimony about the events in the Court of Wards.

Wetton recalled hearing Downes speak ‘with a great deal of earnestness’, recalled hearing Cromwell describe him as ‘a peevish man’ who ‘pretended conscience and the public good’ while intending ‘the service of his own master’, and recalled he had been unable to spot Downes when the court reassembled.

Downes was also supported by his brother, Richard Downes, a London draper, who claimed to have witnessed the events of 27 January, and to have observed Downes did not resume his place after the adjournment, even if he had to admit to not being able to hear the interjection which prompted the pause in proceedings.
Richard Downes also reported the opprobrium heaped upon his brother by radical republicans, and to the legacy of bitterness which the episode caused.

George Almery recalled how, before the trial began, Downes told him ‘they would not take away His Majesties life, but only show their power to bring His Majesty to terms’, while another witness, Samuel Taylor, recalled how even in 1656 Downes feared being ‘ruined’ by Cromwell, such was the latter’s rage against him.

Whatever we make of the plausibility of such witnesses, who may all have been friends and kinsmen, some contemporaries must have listened, and in January 1662, John Downes MP’s name was ordered to be ‘struck out’ of the bill for execution.

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Chart showing the number of references in each month of the diary’s entries.