William Dowsing (159?-167?).
Early Modern iconoclast. Most of the so-called superstitious
imagery in Suffolk's parish churches had been destroyed in the
1540s by the Anglican reformers, for Suffolk was a strongly
protestant area, and we can imagine the enthusiastic removal of
statues and pictures of saints, crosses, altars, roods,
roodlofts, etc. All that would have survived would have been that
which it would have been inconvenient to destroy (stained glass,
for instance, which would have needed replacing), that which was
inaccessible or difficult (crosses on roofs, angels in ceilings
and high altar steps, etc) and that which was in a theologically
grey area (symbols like a crown of thorns, or the lamb of God,
A hundred years later, Parliament ordered an inspection of all parish churches to ensure that the removal had been thorough (or more precisely because they knew that it hadn't). The Earl of Manchester, as overseer for the Eastern Counties, appointed William Dowsing to carry out this inspection in Suffolk, which Dowsing did with enthusiasm. He had actually invented the job for himself by writing to a friend of the Earl, as a surviving letter demonstrates.
During the course of 1643/4, Dowsing cut a swathe through the churches of Cambridgeshire and Suffolk, visiting more than a quarter of them. He wrecked stained glass windows, caused crosses to be toppled from roofs, defaced the angels on hammerbeam roofs, raked up the 'pray for the soul of' in brasses, chiselled off symbols on walls and fonts, and demanded that altar steps be lowered.
The damage Dowsing caused was considerable, although nowhere as bad as that perpetrated by the Anglicans of a century earlier. However, his name is synonymous with iconoclasm because he kept a journal of what he saw, and what he destroyed. This record has ensured his infamy, although in fact very little is known about him. Born in Suffolk in the 1590s, he had houses in Laxfield, Baylham and Stratford St Mary which often provided bases for his journeys. He died in the 1670s.
There is a certain honesty about his work. He was not pragmatic. It was not part of his plan to save the local parish trouble or money in replacing glass, but neither was he interested in feathering his own bed. The Anglican reformers of the 1540s had been guilty of this, but Dowsing's mission was one of religious zeal. Another curious aspect of his progress through the county is what survived him. He does not mention some beautiful art objects in churches he visited, including the seven sacrament fonts at Laxfield and Badingham which survive, as do the bench ends at Woolpit and Tostock. He saw the font cover at Ufford and scoffed, but it too survives.
Interestingly, much of what he destroyed was not medieval at all. Rather, it was the evidence of the sacramental enthusiasm of Archbishop Laud, who had installed altar rails and raised steps in chancels in the 1630s. At most churches, he was welcomed warmly by the churchwardens. That this was not the case at Great Cornard, Metfield, Covehithe and Ufford is worthy of mention.