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Sir George Downing, 1st Bt. (1623 – July 1684) was an Anglo-Irish soldier, statesman, and diplomat. Downing Street in London is named after him. He is my maternal 4th great grand uncle.

His father Emmanuel Downing joined Governor Winthrop in America in 1638, settling in Salem, Massachusetts.

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 Downing Street, in Manhattan and Brooklyn, New York.

He was born in Dublin, Ireland. 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 Sir Jacob Downing, 4th Baronet, died in 1764. 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).

Subsequently he seems to have abandoned preaching for a military career, and in 1650 he was scout-master-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.

His marriage in 1654 with Frances, daughter of Sir William Howard of Naworth, and sister of Charles Howard, 1st Earl of Carlisle, aided his advancement. In Cromwell’s parliament of 1654 he 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.

He 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.

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. During its continuance he took part at home in the management of the treasury, introduced the appropriation of supplies (meaning that Parliament gained the right to specify that taxes should be used only for a particular purpose, rather than spent as the government saw fit), opposed strongly by Clarendon as an encroachment on the prerogative, and in May 1667 was made secretary to the commissioners, his appointment being much welcomed by Pepys.

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 Declaration of Indulgence the same year, and made himself useful in supporting the court policy.

He died in July 1684 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).

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. Today his reputation is undergoing a revival among scholars of the period as his contributions as a financial reformer and diplomat are again recognised. On the other hand his least attractive personal quality- 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).


Note by Ed.

If anyone reading this story is a descendent of this branch of the Downing family there is a group page on Facebook which you are welcome to join by clicking here.