William Dowsing

Last updated

William Dowsing (1596–1668), also known as "Smasher Dowsing", [1] was an English puritan, and a particularly notable iconoclast at the time of the English Civil War. [2] [3] He was mainly active in East Anglia.



William Dowsing was born in Laxfield, Suffolk, the son of Wollfran and Johane Dowsing of that place. [2] [4] [5] In August 1643 Edward Montagu, 2nd Earl of Manchester appointed Dowsing provost-marshal of the armies of the Eastern Association (Cambridgeshire, Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Hertfordshire, Huntingdonshire and Lincolnshire), responsible for supplies and administration.

In December 1643 the Earl, as their captain-general, appointed him "Commissioner for the destruction of monuments of idolatry and superstition". [2] [6] He was to carry out a Parliamentary Ordinance of 28 August 1643 [7] which stated that "all Monuments of Superstition and Idolatry should be removed and abolished". These were specified as "fixed altars, altar rails, chancel steps, crucifixes, crosses, images and pictures of any one of the persons of the Trinity and of the Virgin Mary, and pictures of saints or superstitious inscriptions." In May 1644 the scope of the ordinance was widened to include representations of angels (a particular obsession of Dowsing's), rood lofts, holy water stoups, and images in stone, wood and glass and on plate. [8] [9]

Dowsing carried out his work in 1643–44 by visiting over 250 churches in Cambridgeshire and Suffolk, [4] including several of the college chapels in the University of Cambridge, [10] removing or defacing items that he thought fitted the requirements outlined in the ordinance. John Barwick complained of

"one who calls himself Iohn Dowsing, [who] by vertue of a pretended Commission goes about the Country like a Bedlam breaking glasse windowes, having battered and beaten downe all our painted glasse, not only in our Chapples, but (contrary to Order) in our publique Schooles, Colledge Halls, Libraryes, and Chambers, mistaking perhaps the liberall Arts for Saints... and having (against an Order) defaced and digged up the floors of our Chappels, many of which had lien so for two or three hundred yeares together, not regarding the dust of our founders and predecessors, who likely were buried there; compelled us by armed Souldiers to pay forty shillings a Colledge for not mending what he had spoyled and defaced, or forthwith to go to Prison" [11]

He recruited assistants, apparently among his friends and family. Where they were unable to perform the work themselves, he left instructions for the work to be carried out by others. Sometimes the local inhabitants assisted his work, but often he was met by resistance or non-co-operation. His commission, backed up by the authority to call on military force if necessary, meant that he usually got his way. He charged each church a noble (one third of a pound) for his services. Dowsing's commission was at the instance and under the direction of the Earl of Manchester. It therefore ceased when his patron fell out with Oliver Cromwell in late 1644. [12]

Dowsing is unique among the iconoclasts at work during this period because he left journals recording much of what he did. They contain many detailed entries such as this one dated Haverhill, Suffolk, 6 January 1644:

"We broke down about a hundred superstitious Pictures; and seven Fryars hugging a Nunn; and the Picture of God and Christ; and divers others very superstitious; and 200 had been broke down before I came. We took away 2 popish Inscriptions with Ora pro nobis and we beat down a great stoneing Cross on the top of the Church." [13]

Versions of the journals are available on-line, and are collected and interpreted in the modern edition by Trevor Cooper.

A portrait of him has been identified in the collections of the Ipswich and Colchester Museums Service at Wolsey Art Gallery, Ipswich. [14]

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Edward Montagu, 2nd Earl of Manchester</span> English politician and commander of Parliamentary forces in the First English Civil War

Edward Montagu, 2nd Earl of Manchester, KG, KB, FRS was an important commander of Parliamentary forces in the First English Civil War, and for a time Oliver Cromwell's superior.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Matthew Hopkins</span> English witch hunter (1620–1647)

Matthew Hopkins was an English witch-hunter whose career flourished during the English Civil War. He was mainly active in East Anglia and claimed to hold the office of Witchfinder General, although that title was never bestowed by Parliament.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Algernon Percy, 10th Earl of Northumberland</span> 17th-century English noble

Algernon Percy, 10th Earl of Northumberland, 4th Baron Percy, KG, JP was an English aristocrat, and supporter of the Parliamentary cause in the First English Civil War.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Thomas Seckford</span> Member of the Parliament of England

Thomas Seckford Esquire was a senior lawyer, a "man of business" at the court of Queen Elizabeth I, a landowner of the armigerous Suffolk gentry, Member of Parliament, and public benefactor of the town of Woodbridge. He was one of the Masters in Ordinary of the Court of Requests to Queen Elizabeth, 1569-1587, and was Surveyor of the Court of Wards and Liveries 1581-1587. He built mansions in Woodbridge, Ipswich and Clerkenwell, and was at different times Steward of the Liberty of Ely in Suffolk, Bailiff for the Crown of the former possessions of Clerkenwell Priory in the City of London and County of Middlesex, and deputy Steward for the northern parts of the Duchy of Lancaster. He was the patron of Christopher Saxton in the making of the first surveyed County Atlas of England and Wales.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">John Winthrop the Younger</span> American politician

John Winthrop the Younger was an early governor of the Connecticut Colony, and he played a large role in the merger of several separate settlements into the unified colony.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Baylham</span> Human settlement in England

Baylham is a village and civil parish, 1,349 acres size, in the Mid Suffolk district of Suffolk, England, about 7 miles (11 km) northwest of Ipswich and 6 miles (9.7 km) southeast of Stowmarket.

The Committee of Both Kingdoms,, was a committee set up during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms by the Parliamentarian faction in association with representatives from the Scottish Covenanters, after they made an alliance in late 1643.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Little St Mary's, Cambridge</span> Church in Cambridge, England

Little St Mary's or St Mary the Less is a Church of England parish church in Cambridge, England, on Trumpington Street between Pembroke College's Mill Lane Project development site and Peterhouse. The church Is in the Diocese of Ely and follows the 'Anglo-Catholic' or 'high-church' tradition of the Church of England. In addition to its main Sunday Mass, the church has a strong tradition of daily morning and evening prayer, regular weekday Communion and the keeping of church festivals. The church has a particular ministry helping men and women to explore possible vocations to the priesthood. Little St Mary's has active overseas mission links, provides support to local mental health projects, and participates in Hope Cambridge's Churches Homeless Project. At present, the vicar is The Rev. Dr Robert Mackley.

Edmund Harvey or Hervey (c.1601–1673) was an English soldier and member of Parliament during the English Civil War, who sat as a commissioner at the Trial of King Charles I and helped to draw up the final charge. Although present on 27 January 1649 when the death warrant was signed he did not add his signature.

This is a list of Sheriffs and High Sheriffs of Suffolk.

Daniel Cawdry (Cawdrey) (1588–1664) was an English clergyman, member of the Westminster Assembly, and ejected minister of 1662.

Thomas Westfield was an English churchman, Bishop of Bristol and member of the Westminster Assembly.

Edmund Boldero (1608–1679) was an English royalist clergyman and academic, Master of Jesus College, Cambridge from 1663.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ufford, Suffolk</span> Village in Suffolk, England

Ufford is a village and civil parish in Suffolk, England. Its population of 808 at the 2001 census rose to 948 at the 2011 Census and was estimated at 1,008 in 2019. The village lies 2 miles south-south-west of Wickham Market and 13 miles north-east of Ipswich. The main road through the village was renumbered B1438 after its replacement as a trunk road by the new A12.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">John Clench</span> English judge

John Clench was an English judge, a Serjeant-at-Law, Baron of the Exchequer and Justice of the Queen's Bench, of the late Tudor period. He established his family in south-east Suffolk, in the neighbourhood of Ipswich, where for many years he was the Town Recorder.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Robert Brewster (Roundhead)</span>

Robert Brewster (1599–1663) was an English landowner of Parliamentarian sympathies who sat in the House of Commons at various times between 1645 and 1659.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Robert Brooke (MP for Dunwich)</span>

Sir Robert Brooke was an English landowner, magistrate, commissioner, administrator and MP who sat in the House of Commons between 1624 and 1629. He made his country seat at Cockfield Hall, Yoxford, Suffolk.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">St Peter and St Paul's Church, Clare</span> Church in Suffolk, England

St Peter and St Paul's Church, Clare is a Grade I listed parish church in the Church of England in Clare, Suffolk. It is one of the largest and most beautiful in East Anglia, described as a "large and handsome church... within a spacious churchyard", and is included by Simon Jenkins in his 2009 book England's Thousand Best Churches, where he awards it three stars.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Joshua Kirby</span> English painter

Joshua Kirby, often mistakenly called John Joshua Kirby, was an English 18th-century landscape painter, engraver, writer, draughtsman and architect famed for his publications and teaching on linear perspective based on Brook Taylor's mathematics.


  1. P. Levi, Eden renewed: The Public and Private Life of John Milton (Macmillan 1996), p. 127: "He was called the Smasher..."
  2. 1 2 3 G. Goodwin, 'Dowsing, William (?1596-?1679), iconoclast', Dictionary of National Biography (1885-1900), Vol. 15.
  3. J. Morrill, 'Dowsing, William (bap. 1596, d. 1668), iconoclast', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (OUP 2004).
  4. 1 2 'Biographical Introduction', in C.H. Evelyn White (ed.), The Journal of William Dowsing, Parliamentary Visitor... Suffolk, in the years 1643-1644 (Pawsey and Hayes, Ipswich 1885), pp. 3-15, at p. 13 (Internet Archive).
  5. The entry from the Laxfield Baptism Register, annotated by David Elisha Davy (Suffolk Archives ref. FC80/D2/1) is illustrated online at 'D is for William Dowsing', in the A-Z of Suffolk (Suffolk County Council - Suffolk Archives).
  6. For the text of the Commission, see Evelyn White, Journal of William Dowsing, pp. 6-7 (Internet Archive).
  7. C.H. Firth and R.S. Rait (eds), Acts and Ordinances of the Interregnum, 1642-1660 (HMSO 1911), I, p. 265 and p. 426; III, p. xiv (Google).
  8. Firth and Rait, Acts and Ordinances, I, at pp. 425-26; III, p. xxii (Internet Archive).
  9. '9 May 1644: Ordinance for the further demolishing of monuments of superstition and idolatry', in Journal of the House of Lords, Volume 6: 1643 (HMSO, London 1767-1830), pp. 545-47 (British History Online, retrieved 26 February 2021).
  10. C.H. Cooper, Annals of Cambridge, Vol. III (Cambridge 1845), pp. 364-67 (Internet Archive).
  11. J. Barwick, Querela Cantabrigiensis, or, A Remonstrance by way of Apologie (Oxford 1646), pp. 17–18 (Internet Archive).
  12. Evelyn White, Journal of William Dowsing, p. 6 (Internet Archive).
  13. Evelyn White, Journal of William Dowsing, p. 15 (Internet Archive).
  14. The portrait is reproduced online at (Michael Otterson), 'William Dowsing (1596-1668): Patriot or Villain?', at Otterson.org. It was for some years confused with the subject of another portrait which was acquired in the same accession, but a record of its previous attribution survives.


Published editions of the Diaries