|Teller of the Exchequer|
|Member of Parliament for Morpeth|
April 1660 - 1684
|Member of Parliament for Carlisle|
Serving with Thomas Craister
|Member of Parliament for Edinburgh|
Serving with Samuel Desborrow
Dublin, Kingdom of Ireland
|Died||pr. 19 July 1684 (aged 59)|
(m. 1654; died 1683)
|Children||6, including Sir George Downing, 2nd Baronet|
|Alma mater||Harvard College|
|Allegiance||Commonwealth of England|
|Commands||Scoutmaster-General of Commonwealth Forces in Scotland|
|Battles/wars||Third English Civil War|
Sir George Downing, 1st Baronet (c. 1625 – c. 19 July 1684) was an Anglo-Irish statesman, soldier, diplomat and spymaster and preacher, whose allegiances notably changed during his career, and after whom Downing Street in London is named. As Teller of the Exchequer he is credited with instituting major reforms in public finance. His influence on the passage and substance of the mercantilist Navigation Acts was substantial. The Acts protected English maritime commerce from competition, especially competition from the Netherlands, and led to the increase in the size of the English merchant fleet and of the Royal Navy that protected it. They are credited with contributing to the security of the English state and its ability to project its power abroad, but may have stunted potential developments in shipbuilding and operation by stifling competition.
He was the son of Emmanuel Downing, a barrister of the Inner Temple in London, himself the son of an Ipswich schoolmaster. Emmanuel was a Puritan who undertook missionary work, first in Ireland, and then (at the invitation of Massachusetts Bay Governor John Winthrop) in New England. His mother, Lucy Winthrop, was the younger sister of Governor Winthrop and she married Emmanuel in April 1622.
There is some doubt about Downing's birthplace and the year of his birth. These are stated to be either circa 1624 in Dublin during his father's mission there, or in 1625, in London During his later life, he was frequently insulted because of his obscure origins and supposedly dubious New England education.
In 1636, he was in school in Maidstone, Kent. His family joined Winthrop in America in 1638, settling in Salem, Massachusetts. 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 on a ship that also carried slaves, 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).
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 the 3rd Baronet's cousin, Sir Jacob Downing, 4th Baronet, died in 1764.
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. 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.
In 1654, he married Frances, sister of Charles Howard, 1st Earl of Carlisle and daughter of Sir William Howard of Naworth Castle and Mary (née Eure, daughter of William Eure, 4th Baron Eure). Frances was the great-great granddaughter of the fourth Duke of Norfolk. Downing's marriage into the powerful Howard family aided his advancement.
In Cromwell's parliament of 1654, Downing represented Edinburgh, and he represented Carlisle in those of 1656 and 1659. 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 resident at The Hague. Although on 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.
As scoutmaster-general, Downing had been in charge of gathering intelligence and managed a network of spies. During this residency in the Netherlands, Downing considered that gaining intelligence, both about Dutch intentions and any plots by exiled royalists, was a major part of his function, and he employed similar tactics later against regicides and other republicans there. 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 the interests of the English traders against competing Dutch merchants. Political union between the two nations had already been rejected emphatically 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.
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, which he first applied to the royal finances the early Restoration period of 1660 to 1665, allowing them to be reformed in imitation of Dutch practice.
Downing showed himself to have been an able diplomat for the Protectorate, and was maintained in his post during the interregnum subsequent to the fall of Richard Cromwell. He was thus enabled in April 1660 to make his peace with Charles II, to whom he made himself useful by communicating 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 reappointed to the embassy at the Hague, 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.
During the Restoration period, Downing was instrumental 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, and their removal to England against considerable Dutch popular opposition, where they were speedily tried and executed. 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."
Downing arrived in 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 to a 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 of 1660 made agreement difficult, although Charles wished for at least a treaty of friendship
Downing had from the first been a champion of English mercantilism, and was therefore hostile to the Dutch as the commercial rivals of England. 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 of 1651. This knowledge enabled Downing to be instrumental in strengthening and clarifying the provisions of the earlier act in the Navigation Act of 1660.
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. 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 actually signed in September 1662 satisfied neither government.
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. In 1664, Lord Arlington, gained royal favour and he and his client, Sir Thomas Clifford M.P., later Lord Clifford, began to cooperate with the king's brother James, Duke of York. They coordinated their efforts to reduce Dutch competition through a policy of reprisals against Dutch ships, and expected significant personal gain from this policy.
Downing supported this aggressive policy: although he has been accused of being the principal cause of deteriorating of Anglo-Dutch relations, 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.
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 English fleet began seizing Dutch ships and an attack on Dutch possessions in West Africa, he had reported in August 1664 that the Dutch would probably accept reducing their share of overseas trade in favour of England, although contemporary Dutch sources reported strengthening Dutch resistance to these provocations. Downing had been in contact with the Orangists since 1661, and believed they would collaborate with England against their republican enemies. 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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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 eventually assembled to attack the New Netherland settlements, but the war ended before it began its campaign.
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. 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, 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.
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.
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.
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. This previously little-used move, opposed strongly by Lord Clarendon as an encroachment on the royal prerogative, 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). 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, and he took part in the management and reform of the Treasury.
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 Royal Declaration of Indulgence the same year, and made himself useful in supporting the court policy.
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, and to brutally betray former comrades in order to win favour from his current masters. Today his reputation is undergoing a revision among scholars of the period as his contributions as a financial reformer and diplomat are again recognised. Many of his contemporaries accused him of meanness, and his miserliness is recorded in some detail by Samuel Pepys, although Downing's rapid rise from obscure poverty to riches was considered socially undesirable in a generally conservative society, and it generated suspicion, envy accusations of a range of vices.
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).
His wife, Frances, died 10 July 1683, and he died in Cambridge just over a year later, around 19 July 1684, when his will was proved, after 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). He was succeeded in the title by his eldest son Sir George Downing, 2nd Baronet. He had two younger sons, William and Charles, and four daughters: