1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Downing, Sir George

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DOWNING, SIR GEORGE, Bart. (c. 1624-1684), English soldier and diplomatist, son of Emmanuel Downing, barrister, and of Lucy, sister of Governor John Winthrop, was born in England about 1624.[1] His family joined Winthrop in America in 1638, settling in Salem, Massachusetts, and Downing studied at Harvard College. In 1645 he sailed for the West Indies as a preacher and instructor of the seamen, and arrived in England some time afterwards, becoming chaplain to Colonel John Okey’s regiment. Subsequently he seems to have abandoned his religious vocation 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 the 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 Holland 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 diplomatist. 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.[2] Considering his past, he showed a very indecent zeal in arresting in Holland and handing over for execution the regicides Barkstead, Corbet and Okey. Pepys, who characterized 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.”[3] On the 1st of 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 war. During its continuance he took part at home in the management of the treasury, introduced the appropriation of supplies, 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.[4] He had been returned for Morpeth in the convention parliament of April 1660, a constituency which 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 Holland 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 unauthorized step he was sent to the Tower on the 7th of 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. Downing Street, London, is named after him, while Downing College, Cambridge, derived its name from his grandson, the 3rd baronet. The title became extinct when the 4th baronet, Sir Jacob G. Downing, died in 1764.

Downing was undoubtedly a man of great political and diplomatic ability, but his talents were rarely employed for the advantage of his country and his character was marked by all the mean vices, treachery, avarice, servility and ingratitude. “A George Downing” became a proverbial expression in New England to denote a false man who betrayed his trust.[5] 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).


  1. The date of his birth is variously given as 1623, 1624 and 1625 (Sibley’s Harvard Graduates, 1883).
  2. Cal. of St Pap.; Dom. (1661-1662) p. 408; Notes and Queries, ix. ser. vii. 92.
  3. Diary, March 12, 17, 1662.
  4. Ib. May 27, 1667.
  5. Sibley, i. 46.