General Monck visits Morpeth, and George Downing is elected MP

General Monck.
General Monck.

MORPETH first sent members to Parliament in 1553, and for the next 100 years its representatives were members of the local gentry.

As far as I can tell, no members of the Dacre family, nor even their close relations, ever sat for Morpeth.

In 1640, in what turned out to be the Long Parliament – it lasted on and off for 20 years – Morpeth was represented by John Fenwick and Sir William Carnaby.

Carnaby sided with Charles I in 1642 and was excluded. Fenwick also disappears from the record, but for what reason is not known. Their places were taken by John Fiennes and George Fenwick, but when and how elected, and how long they sat, is likewise unknown.

Oliver Cromwell died in 1658 and his son Richard became Lord Protector. Morpeth was once more invited to send members, and as usual, chose them from the local gentry, this time Robert Delaval and Robert Mitford.

The younger Cromwell was not like his father, and both he and Parliament were ousted by the army in 1659.

A period of confusion followed in which General Lambert declared against Parliament and in favour of restoring the monarchy.

The man who ended the confusion and masterminded the transition to a restored monarchy was General Monck, Oliver Cromwell’s deputy in Scotland.

There were various manoeuvres against Lambert in the latter part of 1659, and it was actually Lord Fairfax who besieged Lambert’s associates in York.

He took the city on New Year’s Day without a blow struck, and such was his reputation that a large part of the forces there crossed over to join him.

It was after this, on January 2 (contrary to what some sources say) that Monck, with his own Regiment of Foot, later to be known as the Coldstream Guards, crossed the Tweed at Coldstream and proceeded to London. Whatever longer term plans they may have had, Fairfax’s victory at York and Monck’s entry into England were in defence of Parliament, not against it.

From Sykes Local Records: ‘1660 (Jan. 1) –General Monk (sic) with Lord Fairfax and other English friends passed the Tweed with six regiments of foot, and were followed the next day by four regiments of horse, in order to advance towards Lambert, who commanded superior forces in and about Newcastle, to oppose him.’

From Hodgson’s History of Morpeth: ‘1660 – Jan. 4, this day general Monck was attended at Morpeth by the sword-bearer of London, with an express of letters from the corporation of London. There came also the sword-bearer of Newcastle, with compliments and a kind invitation from that town.’

The City of London was firmly royalist by this time.

Sykes again: ‘January 6, Monk arrived at Newcastle, on the road to which place he was met by great multitudes of the common people, and welcomed by loud acclamations. General Lambert appears to have quitted Newcastle about the time that General Monk began his march from Coldstream.’

So, for a couple of days in January 1660, the people of Morpeth had the excitement of seeing 10 regiments of the New Model Army in all their glory, marching through the town in good order, without haste, over the old bridge and on towards Newcastle and London.

The Long Parliament was recalled one more time to make arrangements for its successor, and dissolved itself on March 16.

The elections for the new Parliament, known as the Convention Parliament, were the first free ones for 20 years.

The traditional processes of local influence were allowed to operate without central interference and the newly elected members were not required to swear an oath of loyalty, either to Parliament or the King.

In Morpeth, there was a break with tradition.

Edward Howard, eldest son of Charles Howard of Naworth, Lord of the Barony of Morpeth, was elected to represent it. Howard senior, though made Viscount Howard of Morpeth by Oliver Cromwell, was a commoner for parliamentary purposes and actually sat as MP for Cumberland. He was, however, shortly to become Earl of Carlisle and Viscount Morpeth.

The other member, Thomas Widdrington, was a cadet of an old local family.

His grandfather was Lewis Widdrington of Cheeseburn Grange, near Stamfordham, and his father, Sir Thomas Widdrington, a distinguished lawyer, recorder of both Berwick and York, sometime speaker of the House of Commons and sometime MP for Northumberland.

Sir Thomas stood for both Berwick and York in 1660, and being returned for both, opted to represent York.

The election of his son for Morpeth was irregular. Thomas was only 20, but he had been a freeman of Newcastle since 1657 and his election was not challenged. Not only so, but his uncle was Lord Fairfax. Fairfax was one of the delegates sent by the House of Commons to meet Charles II, who was then at Breda in Holland.

Young Widdrington did not sit on any Commons committees, and it was in them that most of the work of Parliament was done.

So, having little to occupy him, he was permitted to accompany his uncle to meet the future king. He got no further than The Hague, where he died of fever.

This sad event led to yet another break with tradition.

George Downing was born in Dublin, the son of Emmanuel Downing, lawyer, and his wife Lucy Winthrop. Both sides of the family came from Essex, which, along with other parts of East Anglia, was a hotbed of non-conformity.

Lucy was the sister of John Winthrop, Governor of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay. Winthrop invited them to join him there. Emmanuel accepted and in 1638 settled his family in Salem, Massachusetts.

Two years later, aged 17, George entered Harvard College, and in 1642 became its second ever graduate.

He studied for the ministry and in 1645 embarked as a ship’s chaplain for the Caribbean.

From there he returned to England, which was now in the grip of civil war.

Cromwell’s New Model Army throve on religion. George became chaplain, first to Okey’s Regiment, then Haselrig’s.

In December 1647, Haselrig was made Governor of Newcastle and Downing wrote to his uncle Winthrop that: ‘Sir Arthur Hezilridge (with whom I live) is appointed Governour of New Castle upon Tyne … and I am suddainely to go with him thither.’

He must have developed a very different aptitude from that required for making sermons because two years later Cromwell appointed him Scoutmaster-General in Scotland – his spymaster and head of military intelligence.

Lord Clarendon wrote of him: ‘He was of an obscure birth, and a more obscure education, which he had received in New England; he had passed through many offices in Cromwell’s army, and at last got a very particular credit and confidence with him, and under that countenance married a beautiful lady of a very noble extraction.’

This was Lady Frances Howard, sister of the future Earl of Carlisle.

She and Downing were married in 1654, by which time he was already a rich man.

He now, in 1660, became MP for Morpeth alongside his nephew.