Even before the role of prime minister existed, the inhabitants of today’s Downing Street were keenly involved in politics. Early residents were at the centre of momentous historical events.
The first domestic house known to have been built on the site of Number 10 was a large building leased to Sir Thomas Knyvet. A Member of Parliament for Thetford and Justice of the Peace for Westminster, his claim to fame was arresting Guy Fawkes for his part in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.
The house was first leased to him in 1581 by Queen Elizabeth I. One of the Queen’s favourites, he held high rank in her court. He was a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber and in 1581 became the Queen’s Keeper of the Palace.
Royal patronage continued under James I, who knighted Knyvet in 1604. His lifetime lease on the house was extended in 1604 so that Sir Thomas’ heirs would hold the property for sixty years after his death. Now named ‘Knyvet House’, the building was made of timber and brick and had a large L-shaped garden.
After the deaths of Knyvet and his wife in 1622, the house passed to their niece, Elizabeth Hampden, who lived there for the next 40 years.
Revolution and restoration
The middle of the seventeenth century was a period of political upheaval, and Mrs Hampden’s family was right in the middle of it.
Her son, John Hampden, a Member of Parliament, was one of the leaders of Parliamentary opposition to King Charles I. Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector, was her nephew.
The house, known as ‘Hampden House’, gave Elizabeth Hampden a prime view of the tumultuous events of the Civil War, Commonwealth and the early years of the Restoration.
Charles I’s execution in 1649 took place on a scaffold in front of Banqueting House in Whitehall, within earshot of the house. She was still living in the house when King Charles II (r. 1649-85) was restored to the throne in 1660.
‘Tymber and Flemish galle’
One of the earliest descriptions of the house on today’s Downing Street survives from the seventeenth century. The Parliamentary Commissioners, who took over Crown lands during the Commonwealth, described the house in 1650:
“….built part wth Bricke and part wth Tymber and Flemish qalle and covered with Tyle, consistinge of a Large and spacious hall, wainscoted round, well Lighted, and Paved wth brick Pavements, two parls whereof one is Wainscoted round from the seelinge to ye floor, one Buttery, one seller, one Large kitchen well paved with stone and well fitted and Joynted and well fitted wth dreser boards….
“And above stayres in the first story one large and spacious dyneinge Roome, Wainscoted round from the seelinge to the floore, well flored, Lighted and seeled, and fitted wth a faire Chimney wth a foote pace of Paynted Tyle in the same. Also 6 more Roomes and 3 Closetts in the same flore all well lighted and seeled. And in the second story 4 garretts….”
It seems to have been a comfortable kind of place, if not exactly grand.