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Downing Street named after an 8th great-grandfather

Whether we can be proud of George Downing as an ancestor is a bit doubtful. "Downing was undoubtedly a man of great political and diplomatic ability," according to the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, "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."

The current Encyclopedia Britannica is more balanced: "English diplomat and financial administrator who helped precipitate two wars with the Dutch and who instituted major reforms in public finance. Downing Street, London, where the residence of the British prime minister is located, is named for him."

Sir George Downing's mum was Lucy Winthrop, sister of John Winthrop, first Governor of Massachusetts. See John Winthrop's page for the intervening generations between George Downing and the Parsons family today.

George married Frances Howard, a member of the noble Howard family which included the Dukes of Norfolk.At some point I may explore one or two interesting Howard ancestors on this site, but not now.

George was born in Dublin in August 1623. The family moved to Massachusetts when George was 14, where his father practised as a lawyer. George went to Harvard, but in 1646 he worked his passage back to England to join Oliver Cromwell in thr Civil War. He held the rank of Scoutmaster General (= Major General) in the Roundhead army, but found his metier as a spy. He built up a network of contacts all over Europe and kept Cromwell informed.

Sir George Downing's signature on a treasury document When Charles II 'came into his own again', George made his peace with the King, and was able to warn him of a plot against his person. He betrayed three of the killers of Charles I - the regicides - to the government, and was appointed to a post in the Exchequer. Samuel Pepys worked under him there from 1658, and mentions him many times in his diary. Some entries relate to a secret code or 'character' to be used in espionage:

25 Jan 1660 Called up early to Mr. Downing; he gave me a Character, (code) such a one as my Lord's, to make perfect, and likewise gave me his order for 500l. to carry to Mr. Frost, which I did and so to my office, where I did do something about the character till twelve o'clock.

26 Jan ... Then they all went and I fell to writing of two characters for Mr. Downing, and carried them to him at nine o'clock at night, and he did not like them but corrected them, so that to-morrow I am to do them anew.

Downing was elected M.P. for Morpeth, and was knighted for his services to the Crown, and Pepys notes the occasion. Pepys was visiting a Dutch ship: 22 May 1660 This afternoon Mr. Downing (who was knighted yesterday by the King) was here on board, and had a ship for his passage into England, with his lady and servants. By the same token he called me to him when I was going to write the order, to tell me that I must write him Sir G. Downing.

What is the connection with a Dutch ship? Downing had spied in Holland and knew it, and liked it well. In June Pepys confides his opinion of his master, and it wasn't very high:

28 June 1660 To Sir G. Downing, the first visit I have made him since he came. 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 any body in.

In 1661 King Charles II made Downing envoy to Holland, England's commercial rival. the Enc. Brit says: "The Second Dutch War of 1665–67 was partially the result of Downing's diplomatic intransigence ... In 1671 Downing was sent to Holland with instructions to provoke another conflict. His behaviour so infuriated the Dutch that he fled for his life, but Charles had him imprisoned briefly (in the Tower of London) for deserting his post." In fact he had returned to England to be with his wife Frances, who was seriously ill.

Sir George Downing's home, Morden Hall Less exciting, but just as important, is this from the Enc. Brit.:

Downing's appointment as secretary of the newly formed treasury commission in 1667 enabled him to introduce new accounting procedures that left a lasting mark on the British treasury. After his release from the Tower he continued to hold high financial offices until his death, and so became very rich.

In his will, dated 24 August 1683, is this bequest to the government: "my houses in or neare King Street … lately called Hampden House, which I hold by a long Lease from the Crowne, and Peacock Court there neare adjoyning which I hold by lease from the Collegiate Church of St Peter, Westminster, all which are now demolished and rebuilt or rebuilding, and called Downinge Street.."

He died on 22 July 1684. His grandson founded Downing College, Cambridge.

Additional facts


George Downing (1623-1684) married Frances Howard (b.1630), whose great- great grandfather was the 4th Duke of Norfolk.

Their daughter Frances Downing (b.1644) married John Cotton (1650-1680). John's great grandfather, Sir Robert Bruce Cotton (first Baronet), was a great book collector, and his library became the nucleus of the British Library.

Their daughter Frances Cotton (1677-1756) married William Hanbury (1667-1737).

One of their daughters was also called Frances - it must have been a family tradition - but it was another daughter, Mary, who married Revd Martin Annesley D.D.

George Downing was therefore 7th great grandfather to Emily Parsons nee Wynne.

His Life

(From Wikipedia, based on the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica)

Sir George Downing, 1st Baronet (1623, Dublin, Ireland—July 1684, Cambridgeshire, England) was an Anglo-Irish soldier and diplomat, son of Emmanuel Downing, barrister, and of Lucy, sister of Massachusetts Bay Governor John Winthrop. Downing Street, London, is named after him, while Downing College, Cambridge derived its name from his grandson, Sir George Downing, 3rd Baronet. The title became extinct when Sir Jacob Downing, 4th Baronet, died in 1764.

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 (who had originally sponsored Downing's education in America).

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 300 as a teller of the exchequer.

His marriage in 1654 with Frances, daughter of Sir William Howard of Naworth, and sister of Charles Howard, 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 diplomat. 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.

Considering his past, he showed a very indecent zeal in arresting in Holland and handing over for execution the regicides Barkstead, Corbet and Okey. Samuel 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."

On 1 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 Second Anglo-Dutch War, in the first year of which, 1665, he was expelled by the Dutch because of his intrigues and spying activities. 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.

He had been returned for Morpeth in the Convention Parliament of April 1660, a constituency that 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 7 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 in Cambridgeshire.

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.

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).

Downing Street

As related above, he "was .... rewarded with a valuable piece of land adjoining St. James's Park for building purposes, now known as Downing Street."

A short film on No 10 Downing Street by Simon Schama includes mention of Sir George Downing and a description of the street in its early days:


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