George Downing – Morpeth MP, preacher and spymaster

GEORGE Downing was MP for Morpeth for over 20 years, from 1660, when England was a Commonwealth or republic, until his death in 1684.

When he was 15, George emigrated with his parents to Salem, Massachusetts.

He entered Harvard College, graduated in 1642, became a non-conformist preacher, and, having returned to England via the West Indies, became a chaplain in the New Model Army. His first commanding officer was Colonel John Okey.

He then joined Sir Arthur Hasilrig’s regiment, was based for a time in Newcastle, and somehow came to the notice of Cromwell himself.

He moved to Scotland and in 1649 became Scoutmaster-General there, with a salary of £365 per annum. His job was military intelligence and the recruitment and managing of spies.

He fought at the battle of Dunbar in 1650 when Cromwell defeated a stronger Scottish force, and received three wounds to his arm.

A year later he was present at the battle of Worcester, the last of the Civil War, after which Charles II went into exile.

Downing wrote the same evening from ‘Near Worcester, Sept. 3 1651; nine at night’, to an unidentified nobleman: ‘May it please your Lordship, – The Lord is still triumphing. This day last year was the great appearance at Dunbar, and this day again the Lord hath disposed for such a work.

‘This morning Lieutenant-General Fleetwood advanced with his horse and foot, to which were added Captain Goffe’s and Major-General Deane’s regiments of foot, (Major-General Deane being himself with him,) and Lieutenant-General Fleetwood and Colonel Twisleton’s regiment of horse.

‘Between one and two this afternoon, he got to Powick bridge, upon Tame, which was kept by them, with horse and foot: the dispute began very hot presently; they brought up the river with them 20 great boats, with planks.

‘My Lord General fell presently to work; and in half an hour one bridge was made over Severn, and another over Tame, just where both rivers run into one, and forthwith a party of foot ran down over the bridge over Severn; who began on the side of Tame towards Worcester to skirmish.

‘While Lieutenant-General Fleetwood was hot still in dispute with the enemy at Powick bridge, then Captain Ingoldsby’s and Captain Fairfax’s regiment were drawn over Severn also; then 20 horse; then the life-guard then my Lord General’s regiment of horse; and so, one party after another.

‘The dispute was from hedge to hedge and very hot; sometimes more with foot than with horse and foot. The life-guard made a gallant charge, so did my Lord General’s regiment of horse; and, indeed, all who came to it did their parts gallantly, through the Lord’s power in and upon them.

‘The dispute continued to the evening, all along with very great heat; and about sun-set, we had beaten into Worcester, and our men possessed of St John’s, at the bridge end.

‘While we were thus hot in debate, the enemy drew forth horse and foot on the other side of the town towards our men, who were left there; and after a while there was a very desperate charge on that side also, between them and ours, both horse and foot, where was Colonel Pride.

‘In conclusion, our men there also put them to the rout, and pursued them to the very town, possessed the great fort, and also that part of the city of Worcester. Truly our work is all wonders.

‘I can inform your lordship but little what is done, only that, so far as my eyes could on the hurry take up, there are more slain than at Dunbar … Our word was ‘The Lord of Hosts’.

‘In the evening, we could see them fly out of the further side of Worcester, horse and foot.

‘Night cuts off our pursuit, but Major-General Harrison is sent after them, and notice given to Colonel Lilburne and others.

‘Captain Howard is wounded; Major-General Lambert’s horse shot.

‘Your lordship will I hope pardon my hasty scribbling. We long for the appearance of the day; when we also look for the Lord’s further approvance.

‘I am, My Lord, Your lordship’s most humble servant, G. Downing.’

The conspicuous piety of Downing’s letter not only reflects his old occupation of preacher, but was normal practice throughout the New Model Army. Everybody, from Oliver Cromwell down to the lowliest trooper, thought and spoke the same way. If not, you were in trouble.

Two other observers, Thomas Scott and R. Salway, wrote that, ‘.. Captain Howard of Naward, captain to the life guards to his excellency, has received divers sore wounds … Captain Howard did interpose very happily at a place of much danger, where he gave the enemy (though with his personal smarts) a very seasonable check, when our foot, for want of horse, were hard put to it.’

Howard’s regiment was the Lifeguards.

The life in question was Cromwell’s, so that he was, like Downing, close to the great leader. Their friendship probably dates from this time.

Conspicuous piety was even more necessary for Charles Howard than for the generality of officers and men.

He was the son of Sir William Howard of Naworth, the family being at that time greater gentry rather than nobility.

He was brought up a Roman Catholic and was suspected of being a Royalist. He nevertheless persuaded Cromwell that he was loyal to Parliament, and became a Presbyterian.

By the time of the battle of Worcester he had gone further and joined a radical sect of Puritans in Soper Lane, St Pancras, led by George Cockayne, who had been chaplain to Fleetwood’s regiment.

After the Restoration, however, Howard reverted to a moderate Anglicanism.

Preacher or no preacher, espionage was a job George Downing excelled at. He was recalled to London, and in February 1652 Colonel Lilburne wrote to Cromwell from Dalkeith: ‘I have severall times given your lordshippe an account of what intelligence came to my hand, and by the last sent two letters inclosed to Mr Downing that hee might waite uppon your lordship with them; …’

Four days later, Lilburne wrote again, begging Cromwell ‘to dispatch those officers hither that are att London … having outstaid their passes for many monthes.’

And, he adds in a postscript: ‘I desire that an Adjutant Generall of horse and another of foote may come down .. as also some body to looke after intelligence; I desire Mr Downing would appoint a couple, one to lie att Stirling and the other att the Blaire of Atholl.’

In April 1653 Cromwell ejected the Rump, i.e. what was left of the Long Parliament after the Presbyterians and moderates had been excluded.

It was followed by four so-called parliaments, the first being known as Barebone’s Parliament.

They were in effect nominated assemblies of people deemed sufficiently loyal and godly.

The last was summoned by Cromwell’s son, Richard, in 1659.

Downing, who was evidently regarded as trustworthy, sat in all of the last three, once for Edinburgh and twice for Carlisle.