William ‘Basher’ Dowsing – activist iconoclast

Puritan iconoclasts on the road to Norwich burning a church crucifix in front of the church.
A miserable phrygian capped preacher is showing a passage from the bible to a man in a posture of prayer while another man brings more wood for the fire. East Anglia was a centre of iconoclasm in the 17th century (Photo by Michael Nicholson/Corbis via Getty Images)
Pious puritan Dowsing was committed to destroying all aspects of 'popery' in English churches. His radicalism is a warning from history.
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In the summer of 1949 — one of the most splendid in living memory — Canon Horace Wilkinson, a man of modest standing in the Church of England, posed for a photograph outside Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge.

Wilkinson wears horn-rimmed glasses and is dressed in a light summer jacket, shirt and tie. He sports a slightly oversized panama hat. In his left hand is a pipe. There’s nothing remarkable about the photograph, except for what Wilkinson is holding in his other hand.

At first it looks like an African mask, or maybe a ceremonial skull for commencement rituals in one of those silly secret societies so common in certain all-male environments. But there’s something not quite right about it. Maybe it’s the seam, that appears to circle the cranium as if someone has neatly opened it up like a breakfast egg. Maybe it’s the apparent texture of the artifact.

It doesn’t look like clay, wood or even stone. It looks more like leather.

It is, of course, the mumified head of Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland. After being impaled and placed on display on top of Westminster Hall for more than 20 years, the head fell down during a storm and was subsequently hid in a chimney, sold to a French-Swiss collector, passed on to the Russell family, a couple of other collectors and then, finally to Josiah Henry Wilkinson, Horace Wilkinson’s ancestor.

Horace Wilkinson kept it in two felt-lined hat boxes, one inside the other, under his bed. His cat used to sleep on top of the boxes, until it one day caught a glimpse of their content. He never settled there again.

Cromwell’s head has since been buried at an undisclosed location at Sidney Sussex College, alma mater of the posthumously unfortunate military dictator, but the irony remains: the puritan Cromwell — or at least the very top of him — ended up as a relic of sorts.

It wasn’t the first example of how the ‘the godly’ iconoclasts produced and even revered their own relics. William Prynne, a puritan pamphleteer known for his Taliban-sounding verdict that all ‘women actors’ were ‘notorious whores’, was branded with hot irons on both cheeks and had his ears cropped. According to Prynne himself sympathetic witnesses to his ordeal dipped their handkerchiefs in his blood and kept them ‘as a thing most precious’. But the fact that puritanism wasn’t entirely successful in wiping out the human inclination for idolatory, doesn’t mean it didn’t try.

Enter William ‘Basher’ Dowsing.

It would be wrong to label the iconoclast William Dowsing forgotten. He’s mentioned in most books on the English civil war. The historian John Morrill published a wonderful essay about him and his setting, called ‘the Bureaucratic Puritan’, almost 30 years ago. Since then there have been other essays and at least one dissertation on ‘Basher’ Dowsing. There is a project to catalogue his modest, but idiosyncratic library. He has his own page on Wikipedia, a sure sign of existence. But very few have actually read his journal, the very reason he is still with us.

It’s an impressive record of conceited destruction:

‘We pulled down two mighty great angells, with wings, and divers other angells, and the 4 Evangelists, and Peter, with his keies on the chappell door and about a hundred chirubims and angells, and divers superstitious letters in gold.’

‘We brake down a 1000 pictures superstitious; and brake down 200, 3 of God the Father, and 3 of Christ, and the Holy Lamb, and 3 of the Holy Ghost like a dove with wings; and the 12 Apostles were carved in wood, on the top of the roof, which we gave order have taken down; and 20 cherubims to be taken down. And the sun and moon in the east window, by the King’s Arms, to be taken down.’

‘I brake down 150 superstitious pictures, two of God the Father, and 2 crucifixes; did deface a cross on the font; and gave order to take down a stoneing cross on the chancell, and to levell the steps; and took up a brass inscription, with Ora pro nobis, and Cujus animæ propitietur deus.’

‘We brake down 10 mighty great angels in glass …’

And so on, in close to 300 entries.

All in all, ‘Basher’ Dowsing and his men descended on over 250 churches in Cambridgeshire and Suffolk during little more than a year in 1643-44. Sometimes they were willingly assisted, or even preceded by churchwardens and parishioners who shared their cause. Sometimes they met with resistance. On such occasions William Dowsing fell back on the pious arrogance that comes natural to people who are convinced they are acting on infallible authority.

At Pembroke College Dowsing, an autodidact, used the Bible to prove that the Fellows were wrong in trying to stop his destruction:

‘I told them, if reading was preaching, my child preaches as well as they, and they stared one on another without answere.’

He noted that ‘80 superstitious pictures’ were broken or pulled down at the college.

William Dowsing acted on the direct authority of Edward Montagu, the second Earl of Manchester. Like Cromwell Montagu was an alumnus of Sidney Sussex College and for a time he was Cromwell’s superior in the parliamentary forces. Before the creation of the Commonwealth Cromwell lost faith in Montagu and Montagu lost faith in the war. He retired and was to make a splendid come-back after the restoration, but in 1643 The Earl of Manchester was determined to enforce the parliamentary ordinance to rid churches of all ‘superstitious’ images and inscriptions and he made Dowsing his henchman.

It turned out to be a good choice. William Dowsing was conscientious and methodical. His journal reflects a chilling and dispassionate zeal, combined with a seemingly indefatigable energy. It radiates a kind of joy, but of a highly disciplined nature.

Dowsing was born in Laxfield, Suffolk, but moved south to Coddenham and later Stratford St Mary in the Stour Valley. It was Puritan heartland and Dowsing fitted in. By the 1640’s his puritan beliefs were infused with radicalism. Even before he got his commission, he urged people in charge to rid the churches of all trace of ‘popery’. It was to a large extent a war against the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, and his idea of ‘beauty in holiness’. Laud was suspected of nudging the Church back into the lap of Rome, by introducing altar-rails and refitting stained glass-windows, by making priests wear surplices and dismantling the Calvinist idea of predestination. In the end Laud was beheaded in 1645.

Dowsing’s radicalism seems to a large extent to have been fueled by reading. He had a large collection of sermons given to Parliament, and many texts central to the puritans, such as Cranmer’s Answer. The books are quite heavily annotated. If Dowsing agreed with what was written, he inserted scriptural references that supported his view. If not, he filled the margin with short denunciations: ‘hereticks’, ‘a corrupt practice’.

The paper-trail Dowsing leaves behind, in his journal and the remains of his library, gives an intriguing and yet familiar picture of pious radicalism. There is no need for social media to create a filter bubble. All it takes is conviction, a sense of moral superiority and the righteousness and license of the self-proclaimed underdog.

Inevitably there has recently been efforts to reinterpret or even redress ‘Basher’ Dowsing. It has been said that Dowsing is too easily reduced to a thug, or that his work wasn’t really anything like the Taliban or Isis destruction of ancient cultural artefacts. ‘Basher’ was merely doing his bit to dismantle William Laud’s provocative reforms. Many of the artworks destroyed were only 15 years old, or even less.

There is some truth to that, but not a lot. ‘Basher’ Dowsing didn’t spare the medieval in his urge to cleanse England’s churches. It’s obviously true that he wasn’t a barbarian in the words most rudimentary meaning: he did understand the power of beauty and importance of art. But that’s exactly why he tried to eradicate it, and that’s exactly why reading his journal sends a shiver down your spine.

History has its fair share of iconoclasts. It’s hard to read of Savonarola’s bonfire of the vanities, without lamenting the works of art that were forever lost. But the chill and, in a certain sense, good humour of William Dowsing makes him special. Even if he didn’t kill, there is something of the diligent Nazi camp-commander about him. And that is a quality that unites radical iconoclasts.

The key to understanding William Dowsing, is to understand that he suffered from a thoroughly politicised view of the world. Art was, first and foremost, a weapon in the fight for power. What he did was a kind of hands-on activism, aimed at liberating humankind from superstitions and oppressive norms.

Notwithstanding William Laud and his reforms, there actually is a chain linking the ISIS destruction of Palmyra, the Taliban blowing up the Buddhas of Bamyan, the Khmer Rouge’s claim that those who had any good thoughts about the past suffered from ‘memory-sickness’, year one of the French revolution and ‘Basher’ Dowsing.

For puritans, religious, political or otherwise, history is always a potential threat, simply because it makes manifest the possibility of things being different. History, as it manifests itself in artefacts, is always complex and ambiguous. It is, in itself, a sort of opposition and counterbalance to the present. None of that appeals to the puritan.

William Dowsing seems to have stopped collecting religious and political pamphlets in 1646, two years after his assignment as ‘commissioner for the destruction of monuments of idolatry and superstition’ ended. He probably was disillusioned. He made no secret of his disgust for the execution of Charles I in 1649. He didn’t take The Oath of Engagement to the Commonwealth in 1650. He died 18 years later, in 1668. Of the last part of his life we know very little. 

Johan Hakelius

Johan Hakelius is the political editor-in-chief of Fokus, Sweden’s leading current events weekly. He has written several books on English eccentrics and British social history. He should currently be working on his next book - tentatively on the social scene in Manhattan from the end of the civil war to Trump - but the garden, a puppy and his first grandchild always seems to get in his way.

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