Sir George Downing, 1623-84

Parliamentarian army chaplain, spymaster and diplomat who became notorious for his betrayal of exiled regicides after the Restoration.

Portrait of Sir George DowningGeorge Downing was born in Dublin in August 1623. His father, Emmanuel Downing, was an attorney and clerk of the Inner Temple. His mother, Lucy, was the sister of John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony. The Downing family returned from Dublin to London in 1626, where Emmanuel became an attorney at the Court of Wards. In 1638, at the invitation of John WInthrop, the family emigrated to Salem, Massachusetts, where Emmanuel's cousin Hugh Peter was minister.

From 1640, George Downing attended the newly-founded Harvard College. In 1642, he became the second ranking member of its first graduating class, and in 1643, he was appointed to teach junior students at the College. However, he left New England in 1645 as chaplain on a ship bound for the West Indies. From there, he made his way to England and was appointed chaplain to Colonel Okey's regiment of dragoons in the New Model Army.

By 1648, Downing was chaplain to Sir Arthur Hesilrige's regiment and accompanied Heselrige when he was commissioned governor of Newcastle-upon-Tyne during the Second Civil War. At the end of 1649, Downing was appointed scoutmaster-general to Cromwell's army in Scotland. His duties involved the supervision of scouts for reconnaissance work and spies for intelligence gathering. Although it was a civilian appointment, Downing was wounded fighting at the battle of Dunbar in September 1650. He also participated in Cromwell's great victory at Worcester in 1651 and wrote an important account of the battle.

With the ending of the civil wars, Downing became involved in the administration of the settlement of Scotland. He worked closely with the Council of State in London, and many of his commentaries on Scottish affairs were published in the official newsbook Mercurius Politicus. Downing's wealth and status increased significantly in 1654 when he married Lady Frances Howard (d.1683), sister of Charles Howard, the future Earl of Carlisle. He was elected to all three Protectorate parliaments as MP for Edinburgh in 1654 and for Carlisle in 1656 and 1659. Downing emerged as a firm supporter of the Protectorate government and was a leading member of the faction that offered the crown to Oliver Cromwell in 1657.

Downing's diplomatic career began in 1655 when he was sent to France to deliver Cromwell's protest over the massacre of Protestants in Piedmont. In December 1657, he was appointed England's envoy in the Netherlands with general instructions to encourage Protestant unity against the Catholic counter-Reformation. More specifically, he worked to deter Dutch support for Spain against Portugal, and for Denmark against Sweden. Downing was also active in lobbying the Dutch government to act against exiled English Royalists. He supervised an extensive network of spies and agents, through which he kept John Thurloe fully informed of Royalist activity in the Netherlands.

In April 1660, with the Restoration imminent, Downing sought a pardon from Charles II through an intermediary, claiming that his service to the Commonwealth and Protectorate had been a result of erroneous opinions assimilated in puritan New England, which he now repudiated. His explanation accepted, he was knighted in May 1660 and re-assigned to his diplomatic post in the Netherlands.

In 1662, Downing notoriously supervised the arrest and extradition of the regicides Okey, Barkstead and Corbet, apparently after reassuring Okey that he held no warrant for their arrest. Downing's personal intervention violated normal diplomatic procedure and was widely condemned as a betrayal, particularly as he had once been chaplain to Okey's regiment. However, the King was pleased and rewarded Downing with a baronetcy in 1663.

Downing's aggressive promotion of English mercantile interests was regarded as a cause of the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-7). He returned as ambassador to the Netherlands in 1671 but his extreme unpopularity forced him to abandon his post, for which he was briefly imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1672. Downing made important contributions to the management of the Treasury and introduced major reforms of the fiscal policies of the Restoration government, which were based upon his observation of Dutch practice. Towards the end of his life, he developed Downing Street off Whitehall in London, which subsequently became the official residence of British Prime Ministers. Downing died in 1684 having accumulated a substantial fortune, though he was almost universally reviled for his reputed meanness and unscrupulous self-interest.


C.H. Firth, Sir George Downing, DNB, 1888

Jonathan Scott, Sir George Downing, Oxford DNB, 2004

Jonathan Scott, Goodnight Amsterdam: Sir George Downing and Anglo-Dutch Statebuilding, English Historical Review, 2003