The medieval splendour of Suffolk’s wool churches took a bit of a battering during the Tudor period. By the time Cromwell and Protestant reformers had removed saints from their niches and destroyed assorted altars and rood screens. Saints were toppled from their niches and altars removed to be replaced by communion tables. Then came the orders to white wash wall paintings. Everything started to look decidedly monochrome.
Matters deteriorated even further when William Dowsing (who was born about 1596 and pictured at the start of this post) was appointed by the Earl of Manchester to inspect the parish churches of East Anglia during 1643 and 1644. He visited something in the region of one hundred and fifty churches in Suffolk. Dowsing was not sympathetic to Armenianism of Archbishop Laud. He destroyed stained glass, removed brasses from tombs and defaced anything that could have been defined as Papist idolatry. Altar rails were removed, steps to altars lowered, fonts took a bit of a battering as well and holy water stoups were deemed to be fit only for Papists. He defaced tombs that requested prayers for the Dead as this was a bit too close to the Catholic idea of purgatory for comfort. He wasn’t wildly keen on any depiction of the Trinity either. He also had a thing about angels – in that he didn’t like them one little bit.
Dowsing was born in Laxfield, Suffolk from farming stock – with a large landholding. During the 1620s he married Thamar Lea who was a member of a minor gentry family. Her name is redolent of Puritanism. She bore him ten children. Her death in 1640 seems to have made William a stricter puritan than ever. As a consequence of his deepening beliefs he let his land and moved to Dedham, a parish noted for its strict Puritanism. He demanded that the region’s churches should become more godly – and ensured that a letter to that effect reached the Earl of Manchester (a religious moderate who let Dowsing get on with it.) Part of this belief stemmed from the theological argument against graven images – which is where “pictures” whether of glass or paint or stone met with Dowsing’s disapproval. There was also the fact that Archbishop Laud had been rather busy reintroducing altars and altar rails to prevent the masses from getting up close and personal with the Almighty.
Having wrought destruction in Cambridgeshire Dowsing moved into Suffolk in April 1644 and spent the summer smashing up churches. He charged parishes for the privledge. We know this from his journal. This is supported by the evidence of various church accounts – and from the fact that there are lots of defaced churches with missing brasses, plain or Victorian glass, damaged fonts and various chunks of masonry missing their faces. The journal often also accounts for what was destroyed.
Dowsing spent a lot of time trying to remove hammer beam angels from their perches. In Blythburgh church there’s plenty of evidence of Dowsing’s defacement but the angels survived. It was believed that he had attempted to shoot them down but when the roof was restored it became apparent that the lead shot dated from eighteenth century bird scarers. By 1663 Blythburgh was in danger of falling into disrepair – no doubt shattered windows didn’t help matters very much.
In nearby Southwold he and his men broke down more than one hundred and thirty pictures and four crosses. Today it is possible to see the thirty-five vandalised Rood Screen panels with their faces scratched out ( just be grateful that the screen survives.) Dowsing also managed to remove twenty angels from the roof – demonstrating that he was nothing if not determined.
In 1646 in the aftermath of the First English Civil War William Dowsing married for a second time to Mary Cooper and then lived long enough to see the monarchy restored. He died in 1668 and is know to history as Basher Dowsing. His journal is available to read online http://www.williamdowsing.org/journal_online.html
Cooper, T. (ed.), The Journal of William Dowsing: Iconoclasm in East Anglia during the English Civil War. Woodbridge, 2001.
J. ‘Dowsing, William (bap. 1596, d. 1668)’, in: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford: University Press, 2004