Smashing churches to save souls: who was the ‘Iconoclast General’?

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Although he never took part in the fighting during the first English Civil War, William Dowsing was very much engaged in a war – the war against what many Puritans regarded as the dangerously ‘Popish’ stained glass, alter rails, statues, and effigies in England’s churches that had escaped the Reformation the century before.

Sealed Knot member, Rob Hodkinson, takes a look at the man dubbed ‘The Iconoclast General’…

William Dowsing was 47 when, in December 1643, he accepted a commission from the Earl of Manchester to remove and destroy high church idolatry from the parish churches in the Eastern Association. In the course of one year, until the end of 1644, Dowsing personally supervised the ‘cleansing’ of most of the churches of Cambridgeshire and Suffolk, and many of those in Essex and Norfolk, forcibly removing “blasphemous crucifixes, all superstitious pictures and reliques of popery”. Such iconoclasm was widespread among Parliament’s armies, but Dowsing’s was by far the most methodical and the most widespread of any individual in the period.

iconoclastAt first glance, Dowsing seems to have had little to qualify him for the task. A Suffolk man by birth, he had spent all his life as a working farmer, albeit a fairly affluent one: by the time of the Civil War he held substantial land across four parishes. He was certainly educated, possibly at a local grammar school, and during his 20s and 30s he amassed a small personal library, which included works by classical authors that required knowledge of Latin and Greek. It was a serious, scholary collection. Significantly, it also included many radical religious texts, sermons, and biblical commentaries.

In the 1620s Dowsing had married Thamar Lea, a country gentlewoman with a strikingly Puritan name. Her death, in 1640 or 41, seems to have triggered a crisis of faith and Dowsing’s religiosity became stricter and more pronounced. He sub-let his lands in Suffolk and moved to the noted Puritan parish of Dedham, Essex. Dowsing seems to have been attracted to Parliament’s cause, and by early 1643 he was writing to his local minister calling for action to be taken against churches in Cambridge. It was Dowsing’s zeal, coupled with his wide religious reading, that brought him to the attention of Essex clergy and, in time, to the Earl of Manchester. In August 1643, the same month that Manchester took command of the Eastern Association, he appointed Dowsing provost marshal of his forces, responsible for discipline and the management of Royalist Prisoners of war. Although Manchester was less of a religious radical than many who served under him (Cromwell being the obvious example) his tendency to try and appease others’ views meant that he was willing to allow destructive iconoclasm in the counties under his command. In December 1643, Dowsing relinquished his post as Provost and began his mission against the churches.

Dowsing’s first objective was the fourteen parishes in the city of Cambridge, together with the chapels of all sixteen Cambridge colleges. The work that he undertook including levelling the chancel, so that the presiding minister was not elevated above the congregation, and removing altar rails. He also ordered removed any inscriptions on tombs or windows that invited prayers for the souls of the dead (too close for Puritan taste to the Catholic idea of praying for those in Purgatory), as well as destroying any idolatrous representation of the Trinity in stained glass or carvings. Later, following new parliamentary ordinances, Dowsing oversaw to the removal of holy water stoups and organs. Dowsing fervently believed that his actions were helping to purify the English Church and to sanctify worshipers. Through iconoclasm he believed that he was making possible the victory of Manchester’s troops over the less-godly Royalists.

Between February and March 1644 Dowsing covered the whole of Cambridgeshire. He also made excursions into Suffolk, which were extended in mid-April and in late August until he had covered nearly a third of the county’s churches. During the summer months it is likely that he halted his iconoclastic mission to concentrate on his farm work. Dowsing’s iconoclasm was far more systematic and orderly that it would have been if left to Manchester’s soldiers. He kept a meticulous record of the churches he worked on, the following example being for Hadleigh, Suffolk:

Feb 2. We brake down 30 superstitious pictures, and gave order for the taking down of the rest, which were about 70; and took up an inscription, quorum animabus propitietur deus [God be merciful to their souls]; and gave order for the taking down of the cross on the steeple.

The sheer amount of destruction that Dowsing felt he needed to achieve led him to appoint deputies to carry on his tasks in Norfolk and Essex. Even so, he was forced to scale down his work. Initially the tasks were carried out by Dowsing himself, aided by the cavalry troopers that provided his escort. In time, though, he was forced simply to note the work that was to be carried out and entrust the task to local church wardens or constables. The scope of the work was also reduced, from wholesale destruction of iconography to only those images that might prove a distraction to the worshipper. Less ostentatious idolatry, such as carvings on bench-ends and misericords, were allowed to remain.

Though far from complete, Dowsing’s work began to wind down towards the end of 1644. He was reliant on Manchester’s support to carry out his work, but from November that year Manchester’s conduct of the war was being openly criticised in the Commons. As Manchester began to lose influence, Dowsing seems to have felt it necessary to lay aside his commission. He became wholly disheartened by the division in Parliament’s ranks between Presbyterians and religious Independents, believing that it undermined Parliament’s moral authority and hindered further church reform. Disillusioned, Dowsing took no further part in Parliament’s war or in the religious reform that followed its victory. Despite the benefits of education and his wide-reading, he never took up another role in public affairs. He retired to the seclusion of his Essex farm and died in 1668.

Sources: John Morrill, ‘William Dowsing’, in: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004) Oxford: University Press.

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