William Dowsing (159?-167?). Most of the so-called superstitious imagery in East Anglia's parish churches had been destroyed in the 1540s, by the Anglican reformers. Suffolk and Cambridgeshire in particular were strongly protestant areas, 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, firstly, that which it would have been inconvenient to destroy (stained glass, for instance, which would have needed replacing); secondly, that which was inaccessible or difficult (crosses on roofs, angels in ceilings and high altar steps, etc) and thirdly, that which was in a theologically grey area (symbols like a crown of thorns, or the lamb of God, etc).

A hundred years later, during the Commonwealth period, 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). At this time, the Church of England had been suppressed, and a presbyterian form of church government introduced. The Earl of Manchester, as overseer for the Eastern Counties, appointed one William Dowsing to carry out this inspection in Cambridgeshire and 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 1644, Biblical fundamentalist Dowsing cut a swathe through the churches of the counties, 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.

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.

The damage Dowsing caused was considerable, although nowhere as bad as that perpetrated by the Anglicans of 100 years earlier. However, his name is synonymous with iconoclasm simply because he kept a finely detailed diary of what he saw, and what he destroyed. This Nazi-like record has ensured his infamy; although, in fact, very little is known about him.

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. Some beautiful art objects, including seven sacrament fonts, did not incur his wrath. Neither did glorious bench ends.

The Dowsing journals are, after more than a century, finally back in print, and you can find out more about them at the William Dowsing website. 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, and eternally to the credit of those parishes.

Curiously, although Norfolk has almost as much evidence of iconoclasm as its neighbours, there are no records of organised efforts by the 17th century state to carry it out.