William Dowsing (1596-1668)

Patriot or Villain?

Four hundred years is a long time - long enough for a reputation to become set in granite, for encyclopedias and historians to pass judgment on a life and close the book.

Yet, competent historians are also aware of the dangers of "presentism" - the tendency to apply modern values, perspectives and moral judgments to the life and times of those who lived in quite different circumstances.

More difficult to discern than the documented actions of a man are the reasons for those actions -  the central ethical or religious values that shaped him, the deeper motives that drove him and the environment which influenced him. What was it that caused him to stand out from other men of his age? Or, more poetically, what was in his heart?

William Dowsing portrait in the Wolsey Art Gallery, Ipswich
William Dowsing, Puritan iconoclast

William Dowsing (1596-1668)

  • Born Laxfield, Suffolk, England 
  • Died Stratford St. Mary, Suffolk, England
  • Married to:

Thamar Lea (1598-1640) in 1626

  • Born Coddenham, Suffolk, England
  • Died Suffolk, England
  • Ten children

Mary Cooper (1610-1678) in 1646

  • Born Suffolk, England
  • Died Stratford St. Mary, Suffolk, England
  • Five children

Such is the challenge we face in delving into the mind of William Dowsing, a yeoman-farmer of the 1600s, prominent  for a fleeting few years during the first English Civil War, when he was not attending to his small landed estates in the English county of Suffolk.

William was born in the closing years of the 16th century, in the ancient village of Laxfield in north-east Suffolk in East Anglia. Like many of the villages in that part of England, Laxfield was a bastion of strongly Puritan sentiment. More than half of the many thousands of Puritans who left England to help found the American colonies of New England between 1620 and 1640 were from East Anglia.

As a Puritan activist, William was not only implacably opposed to the Catholicism represented by the Pope of Rome and his doctrine, but also a godly and zealous defender of the changes that the Reformation had brought to England, which appeared under threat from Protestant reformers. 

William's genealogy can be traced back four generations to his great, great grandfather, John Dowsing, who died during the short reign of the boy-king, Edward VI, the son of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour. (This same John Dowsing, incidentally, was the 14th great grandfather of this site's webmaster).

Edward VI was the first English monarch to be raised Protestant, and his short reign until his premature death at the age of 15 takes us back to the very roots of English Protestantism. His father, Henry VIII, is, of course, renowned for his severance from the Roman Catholic church, and his insistence that it was the king, not the Pope, who held authority over the Church in England. But it was during Edward's six-year reign that Protestantism was formally established as the religion of the state, at the same time abolishing important Catholic doctrines and practices that Henry had left alone, including priestly celibacy, the Mass, and church services in Latin.  This, then, was the turbulent England that shaped the religious experience of William Dowsing's ancestors.

In Laxfield, William held modest freehold and copyhold lands. His social status was that of a yeoman-farmer, a notch below gentleman but a respected member of the community. He did not spend much of his adult life, there, however, because in his mid-to-late 20s he moved 20 miles to the southwest to marry Thamar Lea, the daughter of a gentleman resident in the village of Coddenham. 

The Lea family were also Puritans. Thamar's name is interesting, because it is biblical in origin. Two women in the Old Testament named Tamar were the victims of incest or rape. Some Puritan families named their children after "fallen" characters as a reminder of mankind's sinful state. The name "Tamar" was carried over to some of the Puritan settlements in the American colonies.

All Saints parish church, Laxfield, Suffolk
Photo: Michael Otterson
The old Laxfield guildhall, now a museum.
Photo: Michael Otterson

Top: Parish church of All Saints, Laxfield, where William Dowsing was christened.
Above: The old Laxfield Guildhall, built about 1520, now houses a museum.

The Dowsing home was not in Coddenham village, but on the extreme edge of the parish near to the much smaller community of Baylham. After more than 400 years, the house still stands, with the same general shape of the original 16th century design, although substantially renovated and enlarged. Nearby is the old Baylham Mill, built on the edge of the River Gipping (see video). It is a secluded and pleasant part of the English countryside.

William Dowsing home at Baylham
Photo: Michael Otterson
Baylham Mill, Suffolk
Photo: Michael OItterson

William may have attended the church at Baylham for a time - his first four children were possibly baptized there. But it was not his preferred place of worship, because his next six children all appear on the baptismal registers of St. Mary's in Coddenham. The minister there was the decidedly Puritan preacher Mathias Candler, and it was Candler who personally performed the baptisms of William Dowsing's last four children with Thamar.

Life in the 1600s was precarious, especially for newborns, infants and children, and the first three of William and Thamar's children died in infancy. The next six all appear on the Coddenham parish register, so William evidently preferred Candler's undoubtedly persuasive and doctrinally pure preaching to that of the minister at Baylham. One can imagine Dowsing seated in his regular pew with his large family, at the feet of Candler, as the minister preached with assured authority from the elevated pulpit. Today on the wall of St. Mary's church is a list of ministers and patrons of the church back to the 11th century. Beneath Matthias Candler's name have been added the words: "Eminent Puritan Divine and Genealogist." A commemorative stone slab to Candler is affixed to a wall outside.

The Dowsings had produced children at regular two-yearly intervals throughout their marriage, but daughter Sarah, born in the autumn of 1637, was to be their last. It's possible Thamar died in her delivery. 

Soon after his wife's death in May of 1640, William Dowsing moved from Coddenham. The reasons are not evident. Possibly the memories of the parish and of the losses to his family were too tender to remain, or there may have been practical reasons, such as the affinity of Puritan friends for his views, but his next home was to be in Stratford St. Mary, a parish on the border of the counties of Suffolk and Essex, to the south.

By 1641 Parliament was already debating the need for removal of "relics of idolatry" from churches throughout the land. Ever since his accession to the throne in 1625, King Charles 1 had quarreled with Parliament about his claim to govern as a divine right, without Parliament's consent. Puritans and other reformed groups deeply distrusted his leaning toward high church Anglican formality, which too closely mirrored traditional Catholic practices for their liking. Matters were made worse by the king's marriage to a French Catholic and other actions, such as the appointment of the autocratic William Laud as Archbishop of Canterbury, making him England's leading cleric.

Parliament's orders of 1641 were intended to push back on changes that Laud was encouraging or introducing, which had dismayed Puritans during the past 20 years as they gradually eroded the full intent of the Reformation. A year later, in 1642, disagreement between King Charles and  the English Parliament over the  issue of sovereignty erupted into the First Civil War. Charles withdrew from London, soon setting up court in Oxford and declaring Parliament in rebellion.

In 1643, Parliament strengthened its ordinances, without royal assent, to forbid crosses and "superstitious inscriptions." It had already sought to destroy images of the Trinity, of saints - especially the Virgin Mary - crucifixes, and had banned Sunday sports and games. Physical changes to parish churches had also been ordered, including the taking down of communion rails and the removal of communion tables from the east end of churches.

It was at this time that William Dowsing received his charge from the second Earl of Manchester, a leader of the Puritan Party in the House of Lords, implying parliamentary authority to destroy from places of worship all those "monuments of idolatry and superstition" that had threatened to roll back the work of the great Protestant reformers. William was already known to Manchester, and had been appointed Provost Marshall of the Army for the Eastern Association. William took on the task of iconoclast - a destroyer of religious images and monuments - with such meticulous care that his name has ever since virtually defined the word. His name lives on, particularly, because he kept a meticulous journal of the 100-or-so churches he visited in Suffolk, together with the churches in Cambridgeshire and the Cambridge University colleges, detailing the orders that he issued. That journal has survived.

William was a widower when he took on his new role, and by the time he remarried in 1647 to Mary Cooper, it appeared the Civil War was over. The New Model Army had vanquished royalist forces and the king was under house arrest.

Over the years, civil war would erupt again, leading eventually to the king's execution, conflict between Parliament and the Army, and a Republican government under Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector of England. After Cromwell's death, the monarchy was restored and King Charles II came to the throne with the establishment of England's first constitutional monarchy.

William Dowsing's actions in 1643-1644 left a trail of destruction that casual students of history see only as vandalism. But perhaps the most incisive and well-researched work on William Dowsing's life and the journal he left behind is one to which several outstanding scholars contributed, and which is quoted below. In it, Cambridge University Professor John Morrill sums up Dowsing's character as follows:

"Dowsing was, as his library indicates, a sincere and godly man. He undertook the work of state iconoclast because he believed the Reformation was impeded by images that distracted the mass of the people from paying attention to the word of God; because many of the images perpetuated a false and discredited theology of Grace; and because he believed it was the duty of the Christian magistrate to enforce the second commandment, and that God might well withhold victory over the King until his graven images were destroyed. Perhaps...Dowsing simply felt in the presence of evil when he saw a carving of the persons of the Trinity or the Host of Heaven. He was no mindless vandal, but a man driven by personal conviction...Unless we grasp the bitterness of those years, of the sense that the Protestant cause and therefore God was being betrayed, then the release of pent-up energy in the early 1640s cannot be understood." (Extracted from Trevor Cooper (ed.), The Journal of William Dowsing: iconoclasm in East Anglia during the English Civil War, Woodbridge, 2001).

In Stratford, William and Mary produced five more children, and William lived until 1668. William's wife, Mary, outlived him by another ten years.

Stratford St Mary village, Suffolk
Photo: Michael Otterson
Parish church of Stratford St Mary, Suffolk, England
Photo: Michael Otterson

Above The village of Stratford St. Mary, on the border of Suffolk and Essex counties, including the parish church.  This was William Dowsing's last home, though the precise house can not be identified. 

Ironically, the church in Stratford remained virtually untouched. Over time, many of the religious symbols came back into the churches of Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, though evidence of those turbulent times remains in many of them by way of defaced stone carvings and the dearth or absence of winged angels and animal icons.

A portrait of William (below) now hangs in the Wolsey Art Gallery, Ipswich. The identifying text next to the painting states simply:  "William Dowsing. This man was one of the Dowsings of Laxfield, a family of woollen drapers. c. 1645-1655. Age 50+."  There is no mention of the parliamentary work that has become his legacy.

William Dowsing portrair hanging in Wolsey Art Gallery, Ipswich, England.
Photo: Michael Otterson

See below for more on William Dowsing's grandfather and descendants.

External view of St Mary's parish Church, Coddenham, Suffolk.
Photo: Michael Otterson
Coddenham St Mary's, Suffolk, pulpit view
Photo: Michael Otterson
Pulpit in St Mary's, Coddenham, Suffolk.
Photo: Michael Otterson

Above: St. Mary's parish church, Coddenham, a Puritan stronghold in the mid-1600s and where William Dowsing and his family attended church in the 1630s. The pulpit from which Matthias Candler preached is identified by a label on the top step which reads: "The Pulpit is a fine example of Jacobean work of the early 17th Century and notably one of the smallest in the country. Prior to the Restoration of 1893, it was a '3-decker' with sounding board. It has now been lowered and stands on a 19th Century limestone plinth."

Below: Examples of the destructive work of Puritan activists. The original baptismal font at Baylham parish church, near William Dowsing's home, was ornately carved with four lions around its base. Animal decorations in this way were considered "superstitious," and the faces chipped away. Many such examples are found in churches across Suffolk.  Angels with wings were also usually removed, though some either survived or were replaced after the Restoration of the monarchy. The parliamentary ordinances called for the removal, defacing or destruction of such images, but spared stained glass when it honored noble families in a non-religious way.

Full picture of Baylham church font
Photo: Michael Otterson
Damage shown in close-up of defaced baptismal font. Baylham, Suffolk
Photo: Michael Otterson
Roof angel, with one removed, Coddenham church, Suffolk
Photo: Michael Otterson

Below: This baptismal font in Laxfield's All Saints parish church is mounted directly onto a large stone Maltese cross. It is a magnificent example of ornate baptismal fonts from the late 1400s - a seven-sacrament font, the octagonal faces depicting, first, the baptism of Christ, and then seven sacraments of matrimony, baptism, confirmation, ordination, mass, confession and last rites.

Laxfield was where William Dowsing was born and grew up, but he had moved from the area when he visited the church on 17 July 1644 in his role as "parliamentary visitor." His journal records the removal during that visit of various items of Catholic imagery, but makes no mention of the font that was possibly defaced and plastered over years earlier by Protestant zealots. His journal does mention, among other things, the removal of "Two angells in stone, at the steeple's end." The two empty niches that once housed them are clearly visible in the photo below, above the door on either side of the window.

Baptismal font circa 1480, Laxfield parish church, Suffolk, England.
Photo: Michael Otterson
Detail of damaged font, Laxfield - evidence of iconoclasm in 1600s.
Photo: Michael Otterson
Empty recesses where angels have been removed by Puritan activists, 1600s. Laxfield, Suffolk, England.
Photo: Michael Otterson

William was an oft-used name among the Dowsing family, and occurs repeatedly through the generations. William Dowsing, 1526-1614, was the grandfather of the William often referred to as "the iconoclast."

Grandfather William, a "gentleman of Laxfield," is buried in the nave of the village church of All Saints, close to the chancel, and adjacent to the tomb of the iconoclast's nephew, another William, and his wife, Sybill.

Grandfather William's tomb was for centuries identified by a contemporary brass plate bolted to the floor, but damage to the floor of the church over many centuries prompted church officers in 2019 to remove it to prevent further deterioration of the 400-year-old brass. Their intention was to mount it on one of the church walls. The photograph shows the plate placed in its original position.

The inscription reads:

"Here lyeth buryed the body of Willm Dowsing who had issue by Elizabeth his wife 4 sones and 1 daughter being of about ye age of 88 yeares deceased the second day of November Anno Dni 1614."

Brass plate affixed to William Dowsing tomb, 1526-1614, Laxfield church.
Photo: Michael Otterson
Dowsing tombs in Laxfield parish church, Suffolm, Englandk
Photo: Michael Otterson

There is still a Dowsing farm, a short distance from the village of Laxfield, although which Dowsings lived there has not been possible to determine. Since we know William Dowsing, the iconoclast, had land in Laxfield as well at at Coddenham and Stratford, it's possible that the Dowsing farm today was part of that landholding. If so, there is more than a touch of irony. The farm is occupied today (as of 2019) by the kindly warden of the Laxfield parish church that was once the object of his  attention.

Dowsing Farm, Laxfield, Suffolk, 2019
Photo: Michael Otterson



Relationship of William Dowsing to Webmaster

                                 (William Dowsing, the iconoclast, was the grandson of William Dowsing and Elizabeth Broadbanke,                                                    who are the 12th great grandparents of Michael Otterson).

      John Dowsing, born in Laxfield, Suffolk, England, mid-to-late 1400s
                John Dowsing, born in Laxfield, Suffolk, late 1400s.
            William Dowsing (born 1526) md. Elizabeth Broadbanke
                                                          | --------------------------------------------------------------- |   
          Margaret Dowsinge (born 1562) md. Jerome Pype              Wolfran Dowsing (b. 1558) md. Joane Cook
                                                          |                                                                              |
                           William Pype (b. 1586) md. Rebecca                   William Dowsing, the iconoclast (b. 1596) md. Thamar Lea  
                          William Pipe (b. 1611) md. Sarah Neal
                         William Pipe (b. 1649) md. Anne Girling
                             John Pipe (b. 1674) md. Mary Ralf
                        William Pipe (b. 1722) md. Rose Daniels
                      William Pipe (b. 1754) md. Mary Bloomfield
                     Jeremiah Pipe (b. 1787) md. Mary Reynolds
                      Maria Pipe (b. 1822) md. William Garwood
               George Garwood (b. 1847) md. Mary Ann Lawson
        Elizabeth Lawson Garwood (b. 1876) md. John James Dix
                       Doris Dix (b. 1912) md. Robert Otterson
                              Michael Otterson (webmaster)