Usually a phrase you associate with the story of Dick Whittington, but in this case it has nothing to do with hearing the sound of bells ringing, it’s all about treachery and betrayal.
Sir George Downing 1625-1684
The Downing referred to is Sir George Downing. He was the son of Emmanuel Downing, a barrister of the Inner Temple and devout Puritan missionary.
Downing followed in his father’s footsteps and undertook missionary work in America mainly in New England and the West Indies before returning to England. He preached the Puritan doctrine and was a committed anti Royalist advocating the creation of a republic.
Battle of Worcester 1651
At the outbreak of the English Civil War he abandoned his preaching and joined Cromwell’s New Model Army, fighting in the battle of Dunbar against the Scots and the Battle of Worcester against the Royalist forces. At the end of hostilities he again championed the Puritan cause, the Republic and the execution of Charles I.
He served as an advisor to Cromwell after the Kings execution in 1649 and in Parliament as the member for Edinburgh and later Carlisle. Cromwell also appointed him Scoutmaster General for Scotland and as such he ran a large spy network, something that would prove very useful for him personally a few years down the road.
It is at this point that Downing seems to change his beliefs to suit the political situation. The staunch Republican and anti Royalist was one of the first to urge Cromwell to take the royal title, restore the old constitution and so return to the monarchy. For what reason he gave up his beliefs is not clear, but possibly the lure of greater wealth and power under a monarch was appealing.
By the time Cromwell died in 1658 the Protectorate and it’s Puritan values were less than popular with the majority of England’s citizens, so when Cromwell’s much hated son Richard was sworn in as Lord Protector, Downing could probably see the writing on the wall and started to make overtures to the exiled King Charles II. In 1660 he eventually made his peace with the King declaring his abandonment of “principles sucked in” while in America of which he now “saw the error“. At the Restoration therefore, Downing was knighted in May 1660.
The upswell of hatred against those who had advocated the execution of Charles I was so great that despite assurances from Charles II that there would be clemency, the monarch embarked on a systematic hunt for the perpetrators. Downing was possibly fearful that his new found favour might prove worthless in the current climate, but fortunately for him he still controlled the large spy network. He wasted no time in putting it to work tracking down many of his former comrades. He engineered the arrest in Holland of the regicides John Barkstead, Miles Corbet and his former commander and friend John Okey.
Colonel John Okey
Once back in England they were speedily tried and executed. During this period the diarist Samuel Pepys characterised Downing’s conduct as “odious though useful to the king“, and calls him a “perfidious rogue” further remarking that “all the world took notice of him for a most ungrateful villain for his pains.”
Now on a more secure footing with the King, he was rewarded with a parcel of land near to Westminster which he went on to develop into as you’ve probably guessed by now, Downing Street, which has also seen it’s share of treachery and betrayal over the intervening years.