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Dowsing was born in Laxfield, Suffolk. In August 1643 Edward Montagu, 2nd Earl of Manchester appointed Dowsing provost-marshal of the armies of the Eastern Association (Cambridgeshire, Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Hertfordshire, Huntingdonshire and Lincolnshire), responsible for supplies and administration.
In December 1643 he was appointed by their captain-general, the Earl of Manchester, as "Commissioner for the destruction of monuments of idolatry and superstition" to carry out a Parliamentary Ordinance of 28 August 1643 which stated that "all Monuments of Superstition and Idolatry should be removed and abolished", specifying: "fixed altars, altar rails, chancel steps, crucifixes, crosses, images of the Virgin Mary and pictures of saints or superstitious inscriptions." In May 1644 the scope of the ordinance was widened to include representations of angels (a particular obsession of Dowsing), rood lofts, holy water stoups, and images in stone, wood and glass and on plate.
Dowsing carried out his work in 1643–44 by visiting over 250 churches in Cambridgeshire and Suffolk, removing or defacing items that he thought fitted the requirements outlined in the ordinance. He recruited assistants, apparently among his friends and family, and where they were unable to perform the work themselves, he left instructions for the work to be carried out. Sometimes the local inhabitants assisted his work, but often he was met by resistance or non-co-operation. His commission, backed up by the ability to call on military force if necessary, meant that he usually got his way. He charged each church a noble (a third of a pound) for his services.
When his patron, Manchester, fell out with Oliver Cromwell in late 1644, his commission ceased.
Dowsing is unique among those who committed iconoclasm during this period because he left a journal recording much of what he did, with many detailed entries such as this one dated Haverhill, Suffolk, 6 January 1644:
We broke down about a hundred superstitious Pictures; and seven Fryars hugging a Nunn; and the Picture of God and Christ; and divers others very superstitious; and 200 had been broke down before I came. We took away 2 popish Inscriptions with Ora pro nobis and we beat down a great stoneing Cross on the top of the Church.— 1885 Edition, p. 15
Published editions of the Diaries
- 1885 White, C. H. Evelyn, Published by Pawsye and Hayes, Ipswich. With Introduction etc.1885 edition on-line from Canadian libraries
- 2001 Trevor Cooper, ed. The Journal of William Dowsing: Iconoclasm in East Anglia during the English Civil War. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2001. xxiv + 551 pp ISBN 0-85115-833-1.