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, Downes studied at the Inner Temple and was called to the bar in 1642. He 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, he directed income from lands belonging to the Duchy of Cornwall to Parliament rather than to the King, and was active in the local administration of Sussex.

Downes 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, Downes was appointed to the High Court of Justice. 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 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. He 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. Downes returned to power briefly in 1659 when the Rump Parliament was recalled.

When he realised that the Restoration was inevitable, Downes published a vindication of his actions. However, this did not prevent his arrest as a regicide in June 1660. He was found guilty at his trial in October 1660 and condemned to death, but the sentence was revoked because of Downes' defence that Cromwell had bullied him into signing the King's death warrant against his better judgment. He 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