The Incredible Life Of George Downing

Downing Street is famous for being the home of both the UK’s Prime Minister and its Chancellor of the Exchequer, with Number 10 and Number 11 being seen as prime retail estate. But how many people know about the life of the man who gave the street its name? Not very many, which is an incredible shame, given the life that George Downing-the man who gave Downing Street his name-had was simply incredible.

There is some confusion over when George Downing was actually born and where he was born exactly. Some chronicles believe he was born around 1624 in Dublin or in 1625 in London, later in life he was frequently insulted because of his obscure origins. His father Emmanuel Downing was a barrister at the Inner Temple in London, and was a Puritan who for a time took part in missionary work in Ireland (hence the belief that Downing may have been born there) before returning to England.

Downing was educated at Maidstone in Kent before joining his mother’s brother Governor Winthrop in the New World, settling in Salem, Massachusetts. Downing attended Harvard College and was one of the first nine students to graduate from the college in 1642. He was later hired by Harvard to serve as the college’s first tutor. In 1645, he sailed for the West Indies with slaves in tow to work as a preacher and instructor of seamen, his time in the West Indies appears to have been short lived, for he soon arrived in England, becoming a chaplain to John Okey’s regiment. 

Between 1647 and 1651, Downing seems to have given up the cloth for the life of a warrior. He was present during the battles of Dunbar in 1650 and Worcester in 1651, and supported the execution of Charles I (quite the surprise when one considers how valuable and loyal he was to Charles II later in life). He was appointed scoutmaster-general of Cromwell’s forces in Scotland in November, 1649. 

Following the establishment of the Republic, Downing grew in stature, he married Frances Howard, sister of the Earl of Carlisle in 1654, and represented Edinburgh and Carlisle in the Parliaments of 1654, 1656 and 1659 likely thanks to his wife’s family’s influence. In 1655, being in Cromwell’s good books saw him sent to France on his first diplomatic mission to remonstrate on the massacre of the Protestant Vaudois, this was followed up with appointments to Savoy and the Hague in 1656 and 1657. During this period, Downing seemed to have a change of heart, moving from being a staunch republican to urging Cromwell to take the Crown when it was offered to him.

Whilst in the Netherlands, Downing put the intelligence gathering skills he’d learned as Scoutmaster General to good use. This saw him develop a network of spies within the Netherlands that gave him valuable information on Dutch intentions and plots by exiled Royalists, and whilst he wasn’t quite able to use his skills to effect Cromwell’s hopes of a Protestant Union with other European powers, he did gain valuable insight into the Dutch Republic’s system of public finance, which would aid him later on in his career.

Following the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, Downing went with the prevailing wind and put his very useful skillset at the hands of the restored King. Downing was knighted in 1660 following his abandonment of previous Puritan principles. He was appointed ambassador to The Hague and kept his place as a Teller of the Exchequer, whilst also being granted land adjoining St James’ Park, which is now known as Downing Street.

During the Restoration Period, Downing used his previously existing spy networks for his new master’s advantage. He found and had arrested several of his former allies in the Protectorate, including several regicides such as John Barkstead and Miles Corbet as well as his former commander John Okey. Such conduct earned him the reputation as a ‘perfidious rogue.’

Downing’s intelligence network once again came to use during his embassy in the Hague, where he used it to assess where Dutch strengths and weaknesses were. Using this information he fed details back to his master in London and encouraged him to pursue an aggressive policy with regards to the Dutch. Such moves have been cited as contributing to the outbreak of the Second Anglo-Dutch War. His return to England in 1665, saw him add a provision to a new subsidy bill which stated that the money granted had to be used for war. This combined with his avid support for the Navigation Act of 1660 simply strengthened his position at court, and worsened his reputation in The Hague.

In 1671, Downing was once more sent as envoy to The Hague, once again to start a war with the Dutch, but such was the hostility with which he was greeted that he fled the country, returning to London only to be arrested for deserting his post. He was eventually released and continued to hold important financial positions until his death.

At the time of his death, Downing, who had started off life as a simple son of a member of the Inner Temple, had become the richest man in Cambridgeshire, and a man who redefined the way the British Treasury worked and how the British intelligence network operated.

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