Pivotal role that our member of parliament played in history

10, Downing Street in 1907, by Charles E. Flower
10, Downing Street in 1907, by Charles E. Flower

BY the time of the battle of Worcester in 1651, which ended the Civil War, George Downing was gaining steadily in wealth and influence in the Puritan Commonwealth.

In 1654, he married Lady Frances, sister of Charles Howard of Naworth. A Narrative of the Late Parliament, 1657, has: ‘George Downing as Scoutmaster General, £365 per Annum; one of the Tellers in the Exchequer, £500; in all £865 per Annum. It’s said he hath the Captain’s pay of a troop of horse.’

Also in 1657, Downing was appointed on an embassy to Holland. Sibley’s Harvard Graduates, quoting C.W. Upham, says: ‘He held a constant correspondence with all the Courts of Europe, … It may be said, with almost literal truth, that by his agents, correspondents, servants, and spies, he was everywhere present. Not a ship arrived or sailed from a port in Europe that he did not communicate to Cromwell.

‘He watched the course of Charles Stuart and the other members of the exiled family, tracked their agents and adherents from court to court, and kept a list of their correspondents on the Continent and in England.’

In April 1660, when Charles left Brussels for Breda in Holland, Downing found himself in the right place at the right time. He made his peace with the King through his brother-in-law, Thomas Howard, revealing to him the contents of an encoded despatch from his chief, Secretary Thurloe.

Charles duly rewarded him with a knighthood, continued him in his tellership and embassy, and awarded him the land where Downing Street now stands.

In 1658, the young Samuel Pepys took a job under Downing as an assistant teller. He began his diary in January 1660, just as General Monck was crossing the Tweed.

In June, when he was all but sure of a place as Clerk of the Acts in the Navy Office, he wrote: ‘To Sir G. Downing, the first visit I have made him since he come. He is so stingy a fellow I care not to see him; I quite cleared myself of his office, and did give him liberty to take anybody in.’

And in March 1662: ‘This morning we had news that Sir G. Downing, like a perfidious rogue, though the action is good and of service to the King, yet he cannot with a good conscience do it, hath taken Okey, Corbet and Barkestead at Delfe.’

And on the 17th: ‘Last night the Blackmore Pinke brought the three prisoners to the Tower, being taken at Delfe in Holland; where, the Captain tells me, the Dutch were a good while before they could be persuaded to let them go, they being taken prisoners in their land. But Sir G. Downing would not be answered so, though all the world takes notice of him for a most ungrateful villaine for his pains.’

The arrest of the three regicides in Holland was unlawful, but what appalled Pepys more, and everybody else since, is that it was Okey who ‘gave him his first bread in England’ 16 years before. Okey had, moreover, told him of his intentions, and Downing had assured him and Barkestead that if they came into Holland, they would be ‘as free and safe there as himself’. He was rewarded for his treachery by being created Baronet in 1663.

Both at home and abroad, Downing got his way by bullying and bluster. In 1671 he was again sent to Holland, this time to pick a deliberate quarrel with the Dutch in pursuance of a secret treaty between Charles and the French. He was the ideal choice and was so successful at stirring up trouble that he had to flee the country.

Pepys wrote in 1666: ‘I do find Sir G. Downing to be a mighty talker, more than is true, which I now know to be so, and suspected it before.’

Despite this, when they met again some time later, Pepys could record that: ‘He greeted me very kindly, and I him.’

Whatever his feelings, he had no doubt of Downing’s ability.

In 1667: ‘The new Commissioners of the Treasury have chosen Sir G. Downing for their secretary; and I think in my conscience they have done a great thing in it; for he is active and a man of business, and values himself on having things do well under his hand; so that I am mightily pleased in their choice.’

And in 1668: ‘He told me that he had so good spies, that he hath had the keys taken out of De Witt’s pocket when he was a-bed, and his closet opened, and papers brought to him, and left in his hands for an hour, and carried back and laid in the place again, and keys put into De Witt’s pocket again.’

Downing was fluent in Dutch and observed how De Witt, another brilliant financier, managed the taxation there. He tried to persuade the Government to adopt similar practices here. He was partly successful, and in 1671 was made Commissioner of the Customs – at a salary of £2,000 p.a.

Although he was MP for Morpeth for 24 years, Downing had little to do with the town. Election results apart, the only thing Hodgson records of him is his name on a deed of the Earl of Carlisle giving £5 per year to Morpeth Grammar School out of his lands in Northumberland, which didn’t cost Sir George anything at all.

Having said that, he must have had to dip into his pocket to secure his election for the three parliaments in which he represented Morpeth. Given his experience with spies and informers, he may have preferred giving generous bribes, rather than relying on the uncertain results of general and public benefactions. It would be interesting to look through the Howard of Naworth papers at Durham to find out.

Opinions of Downing vary, not so much on the facts as on where to place the emphasis. Thus, the original article in DNB, by C.H. Firth, concludes that: ‘his reputation was stained by servility, treachery, and avarice, and it is difficult to find a good word for him in any contemporary author.’

But Jonathan Scott, in ODNB, follows Upham in emphasising his contribution to the public finances. He introduced the appropriation of supplies, whereby the House of Commons could require the funds they voted to be spent on their intended purpose. The King himself accepted the need, saying that he wished the Treasury to be managed by ‘rough and ill-natured men, not to be moved with Civilities or Importunities in the Payment of Money’.

Downing also promoted the Navigation Acts, which prohibited foreign vessels from carrying goods to or from Britain, hitting the Dutch hard, and laying the basis of Britain’s future domination of world trade.

Sir George bought large estates in Cambridgeshire, making his home at Gamlingay. He died there in 1684, Lady Frances having predeceased him by a year. They are buried in the family vault in the nearby parish church of Croydon.