Wednesday, 16 June 2010

William Dowsing

I note that I have only mentioned William Dowsing once in this blog to date - which surprises me since virtually all the churches I have visited or will visit in Cambridgeshire or Suffolk have, or rather would have, been subject to his attentions.

In 1643 the Earl of Manchester, as Commander of the Parliamentary Army of East Anglia, commissioned Dowsing to implement the 1643 Ordinance of Parliament by which all idolatrous and superstitious church monuments should be destroyed and removed with particular reference to fixed altars, altar rails, chancel steps, crucifixes, crosses, images of the Virgin Mary, pictures of saints and superstitious inscriptions. A year later the Ordinance was widened to include representations of angels, rood lofts, stoups and images in wood, stone, glass and on plate.

Whilst many churches all over the country were plundered or defaced during the Reformation (ironically under the direction of Thomas Cromwell) and then, subsequently, following the civil war by Oliver Cromwell's followers William Dowsing stands out as the most destructive of them all. For almost a year, between December 1643 and October 1644 - when Manchester fell out of favour and thus Dowsing's reign of terror also ended, he swept through Cambridgeshire and Suffolk co-opting like minded locals to wreak havoc in and on the churches of the two counties.

The reason he was so successful in his destruction seems to me to be threefold.

Firstly he was on a pro rata commission, so the more he destroyed the more he earned - this may seem a cynical C21st view but consider this, he kept an extensive diary of his despoilments and presented both the churches and Manchester with invoices for his 'work'. See

Secondly he was operating in a largely Puritan area - this was Cromwell country, particularly Cambridgeshire - and so he had largely sympathetic co-optees to work with or rather do his work for him. This enabled him to visit a church, leave instructions for what should be despoiled and then move on, confident that his instructions would be acted on.

Thirdly, and probably most importantly, he was a through and through iconoclast - I think he genuinely believed he was doing God's work and therefore set to with genuine zeal.

Having seen his work, or the effects of his instructions, at first hand I think we can only be thankful that the Earl of Manchester fell out of favour so early in Dowsing's chosen career and that Dowsing went with him - I dread to think how much damage he could have done if he had remained in the ascendancy.

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