At first glance, Dowsing seems to have had little to qualify him for the task he took on. 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. In the 1620s he 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 thereafter. 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. Dowsing's zeal that brought him to the attention of Puritan clergy and, in time, to Parliament’s general of the eastern counties, 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 (his commander of horse, Cromwell, being the obvious example) his conciliatory nature 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 iconoclastic work that he typically undertook included 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 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 worshippers: iconoclasm would ensure the victory of the Earl of Manchester's troops over the less-godly Royalists.
There are two churches at Swaffham Prior, the parish church and a priory church, which stand side by side. The engraving below shows the priory church in a ruinous state by the 18th century (the priory having been dissolves at the Reformation), and was probably well-decayed by the time of the Civil War. Dowsing focused on the parish church and provides the following account: "At Little Swaffham. We brake down a great many pictures superstitious, 20 cherubims, and the rayles we brake in pieces, and diged down the steps" (Cooper, 2001). Dowsing invariably refers to figures in stained glass as 'pictures'. Fragments of this smashed glass were recovered and have been reset in a single 'kaleidoscope' window, high on the south side of the tower.
Between January and March 1644 Dowsing covered much of Cambridgeshire, and a third of Suffolk between mid-April and late August. His destructive remarkably systematic and orderly, and he kept a meticulous account of the churches he worked on. Throughout his journal are references to payments of 6s 8d, the standard amount he appears to have charged to smash up a church, always levied on the parish in which he was working.
Occasionally he met with opposition. In Great Cornard, Suffolk, the local church-warden refused either to pay the charge or undertake the necessary work. Dowsing turned to the local constable for assistance, and a threat to carry the church-warden 'before the Earl of Manchester' (Cooper, 2001). Dowsing’s authority ultimately lay with Parliament's military forces.
Madingley church, which Dowsing visited on the first day of this long tour, retains some of the most compelling examples of his iconoclasm; what survived was presumably through the efforts of local, religious moderates. Dowsing notes in his journal the promise of the church-wardens to remove '14 cherubims in wood'. This was duly done, but the figures were not destroyed. The medieval figures can be seen today, displayed on the north and south interior walls of the church tower. They have clearly been knocked about a bit, but survivors nevertheless.
The license that the Earl of Manchester's warrant afforded Dowsing was considerable and it is possible to observe, in Dowsing's iconoclasm, just how much authority a religious radical could wield in the eastern counties. It is clear that by the end of 1644 religious moderation was firmly under the heel of puritanism in those areas travelled by Dowsing. There was opposition, certainly, but compliance to authority was much more common. It is probably no coincidence that the parts of Suffolk where Dowsing had been most active were those that were to experience, most severely, the witchcraft panic of 1646-47.
Robert Hodkinson, April 2016
Cooper, T. (ed.), The Journal of William Dowsing: Iconoclasm in East Anglia during the English Civil War. Woodbridge, 2001.
Morrill, J. 'Dowsing, William (bap. 1596, d. 1668)', in: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford: University Press, 2004.
Sharpe, J, 'Hopkins, Matthew (d.1647)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford: University Press, 2004.
A transcript of Dowsing's journal is available at: www.williamdowsing.org
All photographs from the author's own collection, unless otherwise stated.