Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Dowsing, William
DOWSING, WILLIAM (1596?–1679?), iconoclast, came of a family of respectable yeomen of Suffolk, and was baptised on 2 May 1596. He is supposed to be the son of Woulferyn Dowsing of Laxfield in that county, by his wife Joane daughter and heiress of Symond Cooke of the same place. Besides Laxfield he resided during different periods of his life at Coddenham, Eye, and Stratford St. Mary, Suffolk. In January 1634 the bailiffs of Eye reported to the council that one ‘William Dowsing, gent., an inhabitant,’ refused to take in an apprentice as directed in the book of orders (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1633–4, p. 424). When the struggle between king and commons began, the family sympathy went clearly with the latter. In 1642 his eldest brother, Simon Dowsing of Laxfield, is mentioned as lending 10l. ‘for the defence of the parliament.’ By an ordinance of 28 Aug. 1643 the parliament had directed the general demolition of altars, the removal of candlesticks, and the defacement of pictures and images (Scobell, Collection of Acts and Ordinances, pt. i. pp. 53–4). The Earl of Manchester, as general of the associated counties of Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Lincoln, Huntingdon, Cambridge, and Hertford, selected certain fanatics to carry out the demolition more thoroughly. Of these Dowsing was appointed visitor of the Suffolk churches under a warrant dated 19 Dec. 1643. Dowsing's work in Suffolk extended from 6 Jan. to 1 Oct. 1644, but it was in great part executed in the months of January and February, the performance at times really flagging, despite the novelty and excitement. During this period upwards of a hundred and fifty places were visited in less than fifty days. The greatest apparent vigour was shown in and near Ipswich, where in one day (29 Jan.) no fewer than eleven churches were subjected to mutilation. ‘No regular plan,’ remarks Mr. Evelyn White, ‘appears to have been followed: fancy and convenience seem alone to have led the way, although a centre where the choicest spoil was likely to be found no doubt influenced Dowsing greatly in the principle of selection.’ He kept a ‘Journal’ of the ravages he wrought in each building. One specimen is at ‘ Haverhill, Jan. the 6th, 1643[–4]. We broke down about an hundred superstitious Pictures; and seven Fryars hugging a Nunn; and the Picture of God and Christ; and diverse others very superstitious; and 200 had been broke down before I came. We took away two popish Inscriptions with ora pro nobis; and we beat down a great stoneing Cross on the top of the Church.’ On the same day at Clare, he relates, ‘we broke down 1,000 Pictures superstitious; I broke 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 to take 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.’ Francis Jessop of Beccles was one of his chief deputies, whose doings at Lowestoft and Gorleston probably surpass everything of the kind on record. The original manuscript of this ‘Journal’ was sold, together with the library of Samuel Dowsing, the visitor's surviving son, to a London bookseller named Huse in 1704. It cannot now be traced. From a transcript made at the time Robert Loder, the Suffolk printer and antiquary, published the first edition, 4to, Woodbridge, 1786; a second edition was issued in 1818. Other transcripts were taken in which the scribes are found to vary considerably in their reading of the original manuscript. Loder's edition of the ‘Journal’ was afterwards reprinted by Parker as a supplement to Dr. Edward Wells's ‘The Rich Man's Duty to contribute liberally to the Building … and Adorning of Churches’ [edited by J. H. Newman], 8vo, Oxford, 1840; and in a separate form, 8vo, London, 1844. In the admirable edition of the Rev. C. H. Evelyn White (4to, Ipswich, 1885) we have, mainly for the first time, all that can be gleaned of Dowsing's personal history.
The destruction wrought by Dowsing in Suffolk was by no means the only task of the kind which he performed. In 1643 he had been employed on a like mission in Cambridgeshire. Here, as in Suffolk, he kept a daily register of his observations and proceedings, which is preserved in vol. xlii. ff. 455–8, 471–3, of the Baker MSS. deposited in the university library, Cambridge (Cat. v. 473). It was printed for the first time by Dr. Zachary Grey, in the appendix to his anonymous pamphlet, ‘Schismatics Delineated from Authentic Vouchers,’ 8vo, 1739; partially in Carter's ‘History of the County,’ and ‘History of the University,’ 8vo, 1753; and thirdly, in the sixth appendix to ‘The Ornaments of Churches considered,’ 4to, 1761 (Gough, British Topography, i. 193). The part relating to the colleges is also printed in Cooper's ‘Annals of Cambridge,’ iii. 364–7. From 21 Dec. 1643 to 3 Jan. 1643–4 Dowsing was occupied in working his ‘godly thorough reformation’ upon the several college chapels in the university. He commenced operations ‘At Benet Temple [St. Benedict's Church], 28 Dec. There was vij superstitious Pictures, 14 Cherubims and 2 Superstitious Ingraveings; one was to pray for the soul of John Canterbury & his Wife, … & an Inscription of a Mayd praying to the Sonne & the Virgin Mary, thus in Lating, “Me tibi—Virgo Pia Gentier comendo Maria” [Me tibi Virgo pia Genetrix commendo Maria]; “A Mayde was born from me which I comend to the oh Mary” (1432). Richard Billingford did comend thus his Daughter's Soule.’ Dowsing's acquaintance with ‘Lating’ (on which he evidently prided himself) led him to metamorphosise Dr. Billingford into a maid recommending her daughter's soul to the Virgin Mary. An eye-witness of Dowsing's doings in the town and university describes him as one who ‘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’ (Barwick, Querela Cantabrigiensis, 1646, pp. 17–18).
At the Restoration Dowsing was allowed to return unpunished to his original obscurity. He survived nearly twenty years, if indeed he be the man of his name who was buried at Laxfield on 14 March 1679. He was twice married: first to Thamar, daughter of John Lea of Coddenham, Suffolk, by whom he had two sons and eight daughters; and secondly, before 31 July 1652, to Mary, widow of John Mayhew, and daughter of a Mr. Cooper, a physician of Bildeston, Suffolk, who bore him a son and two daughters. Full pedigrees of the family, compiled by Mr. J. J. Muskett, are appended to the 1885 edition of the ‘Journal’ referred to above.
[Authorities cited in the text; Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. viii. 53, 3rd ser xii. 324, 379, 417, 490; Kirby's Suffolk Traveller, 2nd edit. p. 39; Masters's Hist. Corpus Chr. Coll. (Lamb), p. 47; manuscript notes by D. E. Davy in a copy of Dowsing's Journal, ed. 1844, in the Brit. Mus.; Willis and Clark's Architectural Hist. of Univ. of Cambridge, i. ii.]