Often the deliberate damage to our religious buildings is ascribed to Cromwell’s soldiers, though more often it was to Thomas Cromwell a hundred years earlier. But between December 1643 and October 1644, one William Dowsing went through the churches and colleges of Cambridge and the churches of Cambridgeshire (and Suffolk) like a dose of salts, destroying "superstitious images", removing crucifixes, "indenting" ie bashing with a big hammer, obnoxious inscriptions. He particularly disliked inscriptions of the sort … Orate pro anima – pray [to St -] for our souls. It was a regular belief of the Puritans that through the merits of our Saviour alone, the blessed departed are already with the Lord and not in a purgatory needing to be prayed for.
He also removed brasses from within their stone setting leaving only the outline of where it had been. So next time you have the opportunity, do have a look around, then, for these deliberate "indents" and settings.
What made Dowsing do this? He didn’t do it off his own bat. He had a warrant from the Earl of Manchester, who then commanded the Parliamentary army of the Eastern Association (East Anglia). The Earl, in turn, was responding to an Ordinance (1643) from Parliament though. Fortunately, no other counties apart from Cambridgeshire and Suffolk seem to have had, either an Earl, or a Dowsing of such fanaticism.Dowsing certainly showed up the sinister, iconoclastic side to Puritanism. However, it must also be remembered that moving church fittings (or replacing them) had been going on for a hundred years, since the time of the first reformers and through the turbulent reigns of Edward and Mary particularly.
A fascinating curiosity is that William Dowsing kept a diary of where he had been and what he had done (published by the Cambridgeshire Record Society, 2001, £50).
On the 14th and 15th of March 1644 he was here! – and this is what he says
March 14th 1644 Litlington We brake down 6 superstitious pictures and take down a cross from the steeple.
The angel-borne font was most likely defaced in 1638 by the parishioners themselves, who were largely of Puritan sympathy anyway – the incumbent being absent and their preacher being Francis Holcroft of Clare College, and later vicar of Bassingbourn.
[img_assist|nid=82|title=faceless angel on the font at Litlington |desc=|link=none|align=bottom|width=640|height=368]
March 15th Shengey cum Wendy [ie Wendy] The cross in the chancel and the steps thereto to be levelled.
The minister here (1625-63) was Seth Parvy and he was also a Puritan. Steps were levelled and altar rails removed (also at Tadlow – see later) to accord with the reformers’ understanding of the communion service – it was to be round a communion table not over an altar.
March 15th Abington Pigotts. We brake down 16 superstitious pictures and gave orders to take down crosses off the steeple and to level the steps.
Of the three-decker pulpit with carved wooden panels including a Virgin & Child dated 1621 this clearly was not there at the time as it would have certainly been counted as a "superstitious picture". Left remaining, in fact, were the stone angel corbals. Probably they said to Dowsing (as did the Foxton people) when he told them to knock off the heads : "Sorry, we don’t seem to have a ladder handy".
[img_assist|nid=81|title=a high Angel corbel missed by Dowsing at Abington Pigotts|desc=|link=none|align=bottom|width=250|height=283]
March 15th Steeple Morden. John Sissimer, Constable and John Gatward, churchwarden. 9 superstitious pictures. We brake 3 superstitious inscriptions in brass.
Sadly, most of the chancel had in fact been pulled down in 1625 after the steeple fell on it.
At Shingay ..there was a crucifix and 3 pictures of Mary with her Children and 12 pictures more.
Shingay no longer exists as a church or a village. The village lay in and around Rectory Farm where there had earlier been a Hospitallers’ Preceptory. The moat is still plainly visible as are outlines of the medieval buildings.
March 15th Tadlow 4 superstitious pictures and a cross on the church. Richard Smith was church warden and Constable.
Tadlow had been singled out by Archbishop Laud on Christmas Day 1638 for not having communion rails: because of which a dog snatched the communion Bread from the Table.
He was executed in 1645: the Archbishop, that is, the dog got off scot-free!
March 15th Guilden Morden The next Lent a cross to be taken down and steps [in the chancel] to be levelled. Nothing said about the prominent rood screen!
While most of the villagers inclined towards Puritanism this is not to say that they welcomed the wholesale or even token destruction of their church decorations – witness the poor people of Tadlow who were forced first to take down the communion rails then put them back again and then to take them down again. They probably got used to taking portable things home with them and bringing them back after the fuss died down. When told to white-wash out wall frescoes villagers did so knowing that they could still be recovered.
Incidently, the damage caused by iconoclasts is considered to be part of history. English Heritage inclines to the view that the damage ought not be repaired, for instance in the case of Roxton, Beds where the 12 apostles were left faceless. On the other hand, what could anyone, Puritan or otherwise, have against the Apostles?
from a talk by Colin Price to the Local History Group (c) 2002