Downing, George (1623?-1684) (DNB00)

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DOWNING, Sir GEORGE (1623?–1684), soldier and politician, son of Emmanuel Downing of the Inner Temple, afterwards of Salem, Massachusetts, and of Lucy, sister of Governor John Winthrop, was born probably in August 1623 (Life of John Winthrop, i. 186; Sibley, Biographical Sketches of Graduates of Harvard College, p. 583). In Burke's ‘Extinct Baronetage’ and Wood's ‘Athenæ Oxonienses’ he is wrongly described as the son of Dr. Calybute Downing [q. v.] George Downing and his parents went out to New England in 1638, on the invitation of John Winthrop, and he completed his education at Harvard College, of which he was the second graduate (Sibley, p. 28). On 27 Dec. 1643 Downing was appointed to teach the junior students in the college. In 1645 he sailed to the West Indies, apparently as a ship's chaplain, preached at Barbadoes and other places, and finally reached England (ib. p. 30). In England he is said to have become chaplain to Okey's regiment (Ludlow, Memoirs, ed. 1751, p. 377), but his name does not appear in the lists of the New Model. In the summer of 1650 Downing suddenly appears acting as scout-master-general of Cromwell's army in Scotland. Numerous letters written by him in that capacity are to be found in ‘Mercurius Politicus’ and other newspapers of the period, also in the ‘Old Parliamentary History,’ among the Tanner MSS., and in Cary's ‘Memorials of the Civil War.’ After the war he was engaged in the settlement of Scotland, and Emmanuel Downing, probably his father, became in 1655 clerk to the council of Scotland (Thurloe, iii. 423). Downing's rise was much forwarded by his marriage with Frances, fourth daughter of Sir W. Howard of Naworth, Cumberland, and sister of Colonel Charles Howard, afterwards Earl of Carlisle. This marriage, which took place in 1654, is celebrated by Payne Fisher in a poem contained in his ‘Inauguratio Olivariana,’ 1654. In 1657 Downing is described as receiving 365l. as scout-master and 500l. as one of the tellers of the exchequer (‘A Narrative of the late Parliament,’ Harleian Miscellany, ed. Park, iii. 454). Downing was a member of both the parliaments called by Cromwell; in that of 1654 he represented Edinburgh (Old Parliamentary History, xx. 306),and in that of 1656 he was elected both for Carlisle and for the Haddington group of boroughs (Names of Members returned to serve in Parliament, 1878, p. 506). In the latter parliament he was loud in his complaints against the Dutch; ‘they are far too politic for us in point of trade, and do eat us out in our manufactures’ (Burton, Diary, i. 181). He was also distinguished by his zeal against James Naylor (ib. i. 60, 217), but above all by a speech which he made on 19 Jan. 1657 in favour of a return to the old constitution: ‘I cannot propound a better expedient for the preservation both of his highness and the people than by establishing the government upon the old and tried foundation’ (ib. i. 363). He thus headed the movement for offering the crown to Cromwell. But Downing's chief services during the protectorate were in the execution of Cromwell's foreign policy. In 1655, when the massacre of the Vaudois took place, Downing was despatched to France to represent Cromwell's indignation to Louis XIV, and also to make further remonstrances at Turin (credentials dated 29 July 1655, MASSON, Milton, v. 191). An account of his interview with Mazarin is given in the ‘Thurloe Papers’ (iii. 734), and many references to his mission are contained in Vaughan's ‘Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell’ (1838, i. 227, 260, 266). Downing was recalled in September 1655 before reaching Turin (Thurloe, iv. 31). More important was Downing's appointment to be resident at the Hague, which took place in December 1657 (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1657–8, p. 222). The post was valuable, being worth 1,000l. a year, and he continued to occupy it until the Restoration (for his letters of credence, vide Susan, Milton, v. 378). He was charged with the general duty of urging the Dutch to promote a union of all the protestant powers (see his propositions in Mercurius Politicus, 11–18 Feb. 1657–8), also with the task of mediating between Portugal and Holland and between Sweden and Denmark (Thurloe, vi. 759, 790–818). At the same time he actively urged the grievances of English merchants against the Dutch, and kept Thurloe well informed of the movements of the exiled royalists (ib. vi. 835, vii. 91). In Richard Cromwell's attempt to intervene between Denmark and Sweden Downing played an important and a difficult part (ib. vii. 520–32). He was reappointed to his post in Holland by the Rump in June 1659, and again in January 1660 (Whitelocke, f. 681; Kennett, Register, p. 23). This gave him opportunity to make his peace with Charles II, which he effected early in April 1660 through Thomas Howard (Carte, Original Letters and Papers, ii. 319–22). Howard, who was brother to the Earl of Suffolk, was no doubt selected for this purpose because a number of compromising papers relating to him had fallen into Downing's power (Thurloe, vii. 347). Downing laid the blame of his engagement in the Commonwealth service on his training in New England, ‘where he was brought up, and sucked in principles that since his reason had made him see were erroneous,’ promised if pardoned to endeavour to prevail with the army to restore the king, and communicated Thurloe's despatches to Charles. Thus at the Restoration Downing escaped with rewards, was continued in his post in Holland, made one of the tellers of the exchequer (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1660–1661, p. 74), and received a grant of land near Whitehall (ib. 1661–2, p. 408). A large number of his despatches from Holland between 1661 and 1565) are printed in the third volume of Lister's ‘Life of Clarendon.’ Downing was very eager to seize some of the regicides who had taken refuge on the continent, and obtained from the States-General permission to seize any to be found in Dutch territory. It is said that the States-General were unaware that any regicides were then in Holland, and intended secretly to favour the escape of any who might be in danger (Pontalis, Jean de Witt, i. 281–3). Downing, however, had secret information of the presence of Barkstead, Okey, and Corbet at Delft, summoned the estates to keep their promise, and superintended the arrest of the three regicides himself. Some accounts represent Okey as relying on his old connection with Downing and trusting the latter's false assurances that he had no warrant for his arrest (The Speeches and Prayers of Col. Barkstead, Okey, &c., together with an Account of the occasion of their taking in Holland, 1662). Pepys remarks on Downing's conduct: ‘Though the action is good and of service to the king, yet he cannot with a good conscience do it,’ and again, ‘All the world takes notice of him for a most ungrateful villain for his pains’ (Diary, 12, 17 March 1662). Fifteen months later Charles created Downing a baronet (1 July 1663). In the autumn of 1663 the colonial and trade disputes between England and Holland came to a head, and Downing was instructed vigorously to demand redress for the losses suffered by English merchants (Lister, iii. 258). Burnet represents him as purposely preventing satisfaction in order to bring on a war (Own Time, i. 343, ed. 1823). Temple, on the authority of De Witt, tells a long story to the same effect (Works, ed. 1754, iii. 93), and this seems to be to some extent confirmed by contemporary French despatches (Pontalis, De Witt, i. 324). Clarendon, who is throughout hostile to Downing, describes him as strongly prejudiced against the Dutch on commercial grounds, and extremely unconciliatory as a diplomatist (continuation of Life, §§ 516–22). This is borne out by Downing's letters to Clarendon, which at the same time afford ample proof of his ability and knowledge of commercial questions (Lister, iii. 249, 385). Thanks to judicious bribery he was extremely well informed of all the debates and counsels of the States-General, and boasted to Pepys that he had frequently had De Witt's pockets picked of his keys and read his most important papers (Diary, 27 Dec. 1668). During the war Downing played an important part in the management of the treasury. According to Clarendon he suggested to Sir William Coventry and Lord Arlington that the cause of all the miscarriages in that office was the unlimited power of the treasurer, and proposed the insertion of a clause in the Subsidy Bill ‘to make all the money that was to be raised by this bill, to be supplied only to those ends to which it was given, which was the carrying on the war, and to no other purpose whatsoever.’ The proviso was strongly opposed by Clarendon as an invasion of the prerogative, but supported by the king, and became law (1665, 17 Charles II, c. i.). This proviso, which began the custom of the appropriation of supplies, led to a violent quarrel between Downing and Clarendon (cont. of Clarendon's Life, pp. 779–805). When the treasury was put in commission (May 1667) the commissioners chose Downing as their secretary. ‘I think in my conscience,’ comments Pepys, ‘that they have done a great thing in it; for he is active and a man of business, and values himself upon having of things do well under his hand’ (Diary, 27 May 1667). Downing, who represented Morpeth, was a frequent speaker on financial and commercial subjects in the sessions of parliament in 1669–70 (Grey, Debates, i. 100, 268, 313). In the autumn of 1671, when Charles had again determined to pick a quarrel with Holland, no fitter person could be found than Downing to replace the conciliatory Temple at the Hague. In addition to his official instructions ordering him to urge all the reasons for complaint which the states had given England since the treaty of Breda, he was secretly informed by the king that he was so offended by the conduct of the Dutch towards him that he had determined to treat with the king of France for declaring war at the earliest possible moment; that therefore he sent him, not to obtain satisfaction, but rather to employ all his wit and skill to embitter matters, so that the English might desire this war and concur in it with good heart (despatch of Colbert de Croissy, Mignet, Négociations relatives à la Succession d'Espagne, iii. 655). Downing's great unpopularity in Holland was well known when he was chosen for this mission. ‘When the king named him for that employment, one of the council said, “The rabble will tear him in pieces;” upon which the king smiled and said, “Well, I will venture him”’ (Temple, iii. 506). After about three months' negotiations Downing suddenly left the Hague, fearing the fury of the mob (Pontalis, De Witt, ii. 136–40). On reaching England he was sent to the Tower (7 Feb. 1672) for leaving his post contrary to the king's direct orders, but was released before the end of March (Hatton Correspondence, i. 78, 82; London Gazette, 5–8 Feb. 1672). In the House of Commons in 1672 he defended the royal declaration of indulgence, and in 1673 spoke against the condemnation of Lord Arlington (Grey, Debates, ii. 18, 314). In a tract published in 1677, and often attributed to Marvell, Downing is said to have received at least 80,000l. by the king's favour, and described as ‘the house-bell to call the courtiers to vote’ (A Seasonable Argument to persuade all the Grand Juries in England to Petition for a New Parliament, p. 14). In the second, third, and fourth parliaments of Charles II Downing represented Morpeth, but seems to have taken henceforth very little part in public affairs. In February 1682–3 he was removed from his commissionership of the customs, and in July 1684 he is mentioned as lately dead (Luttrell, Diary, i. 251, 313). The baronetcy became extinct in 1764 (Burke, Extinct Baronetage). Downing Street, Whitehall, derives its name from Sir George (Cunningham, Handbook of London, ed. 1850, p. 160); Downing College, Cambridge, from Sir George Downing [q. v.], grandson of this Sir George.

Downing's abilities are proved by his career, but his reputation was stained by servility, treachery, and avarice, and it is difficult to find a good word for him in any contemporary author. Pepys tells an amusing story of his niggardly habits (27 Feb. 1667), and Downing's mother complains of the meagre starvation pittance which her son allowed her when he himself was rich and buying lands (Sibley, p. 37). An American author says: ‘It became a proverbial expression with his countrymen in New England to say of a false man who betrayed his trust that he was an arrant George Downing’ (Hutchinson, apud Sibley, p. 72). Colbert de Croissy, in a letter to Louvois, terms him ‘le plus grand querelleur des diplomates de son temps’ (Pontalis, ii. 136), and Wicquefort describes him as one of the most dishonest (ib. i. 247).

A list of publications bearing Downing's name, mostly declarations and manifestoes in the Dutch language, is given by Sibley. In English are: 1. ‘A Reply to the Remarks of the Deputies of the States-General upon Sir G. Downing's Memorial of 20 Dec. 1664,’ 4to, London, 1665. 2. ‘A Discourse written by Sir G. Downing … vindicating his Royal Master from the Insolencies of a Scandalous Libel,’ &c. London, 12mo, 1672.

[Sibley's Biographical Notices of Harvard Graduates, i. 28–53, 383; Cal. of State Papers, Dom.; Thurloe Papers; Diary of Thomas Burton, 1828; Lister's Life of Clarendon, 1838; Life of the Earl of Clarendon, ed. 1849; Ludlow's Memoirs, ed. 1751; Debates of the House of Commons, collected by Anchitell Grey, 1763; Pontalis's Jean de Witt, 1884; Diary of Samuel Pepys.]

C. H. F.