Although there is some uncertainty about the place of his birth, it seems Dowsing was baptised in Laxfield, Suffolk, on 2 May 1596, the son of a yeoman farmer. It is likely he studied at grammar school because he knew Latin and Greek. He was married twice, having ten children by his first wife, Thamar. He was a working farmer, and was very religious, a puritan, establishing a large library of religious books. According to John Morril’s entry for Dowsing in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log-in required), he was ‘a grave, earnest, godly man who appears to have held no public office or sought any public notice over his seventy-two years of life, except for an explosive period of fifteen months at the height of the civil wars’.
Dowsing was middle-aged when appointed, by Edward Montagu, the Earl of Manchester, to be provost marshal of the armies of the eastern association. This appointment, Morril explains, was more the result of Dowsing’s puritan zeal than any experience for the job. He helped with supplies for the army and the care of prisoners of war. But, in December 1643, he surrendered that role in order to carry out the Parliamentary Ordinance which stated that ‘all monuments of superstition and idolatry should be removed and abolished’. He, personally, supervised the ‘cleansing’ of many churches in Cambridgeshire, and, in conjunction with deputies, many in Suffolk too. He visited over 250 churches in the two counties, ensuring the destruction of stained glass windows, alter rails, angels, crucifixes on roofs, etc. However, with the fall of Montagu from power, in late 1644, Dowsing, too, laid down his commission. He returned to farming, being troubled in later life by disputes between the children from his two marriages. He died in 1668.
Dowsing is remembered today solely because he documented, in a unique way, his work destroying the ornamentation in hundreds of churches. His original manuscripts have long since been lost, and there are complicated histories for various copies - hand copied and published - made of those manuscripts. These histories, along with all the surviving parts of Dowsing’s journals and much context and many notes, have been gathered together in a modern edition, edited by Trevor Cooper, and published by Boydell & Brewer Ltd in 2001 as The Journal of William Dowsing - Iconoclasm in East Anglia During the English Civil War. Parts of this are available to view at Googlebooks. A substantial review of the book can be found at Michigan State University’s H-Net.
Although material from Dowsing’s manuscripts had found its way into other publications, the first book dedicated to his journal was published in Woodbridge in 1786 as The Journal of William Dowsing, of Stratford, Parliamentary Visitor, appointed under a warrant from the Earl of Manchester, for demolishing the superstitious pictures and ornaments of Churches, &c. within the County of Suffolk, in the years 1643-1644. A later edition, edited by Evelyn White, published by Pawsey & Hayes in 1885, is available at Internet Archive (and is the source of the following extracts)
23 January 1643
’14. DUNSTALL, JAN. the 23rd. We brake down 60 superstitious Pictures; and broke in pieces the Rails; and gave order to pull down the Steps.’
24 January 1643
’15. ALDBOROUGH, JAN. the 24th. We gave order for taking down 20 Cherubims, and 38 Pictures; which their Lecturer Mr. Swayn (a godly man) undertook, and their Captain Mr. Johnson.’
25 January 1643
’16. ORFORD, JAN. the 25th. We brake down 28 superstitious Pictures; and took up 11 popish Inscriptions in Brass; and gave order for digging up the Steps, and taking of 2 Crosses of the Steeple of the Church, and one of the Chancel, in all 4.
17. SNAPE, JAN. the 25th. We brake down 4 popish Pictures; and took up 4 Inscriptions of Brass, of ora pro nobis, &c.
18. STANSTED, JAN. the 25th. We brake down 6 superstitious Pictures; and took up a popish Inscription in Brass.’
26 January 1643
’19. SAXMUNDHAM, JAN. the 26th. We took up 2 superstitious Inscriptions in Brass.
20. KELSHALL, JAN. the 26th. We brake down 6 superstitious Pictures; and took up 12 popish Inscriptions in Brass; and gave order to levell the Chancel, and taking down a Cross.
21. CARLETON, JAN. the 26th. We brake down 10 superstitious Pictures; and took up 6 popish Inscriptions in Brass; and gave order to levell the Chancel.
22. FARNHAM, JAN, the 26th. We took up a popish Inscription in Brass.
23. STRATFORD. We brake down 6 superstitious Pictures.
24. WICKHAM, JAN the 26th. We brake down 15 popish Pictures of Angels and Sts; and gave order for taking 2 Crosses; one on the Steeple, & the 2nd on the Church.
25. SUDBURNE, JAN. the 26th. We brake down 6 Pictures, and gave order for the taking down of a Cross on the Steeple; and the Steps to be levelled.’
A fuller set of Dowsing’s diary entries can be read freely online at a website created in parallel with, and to promote, Trevor Cooper’s The Journal of William Dowsing. The online version offers all the journal entries but very few of the many extras offered by the book itself (see its contents here).
The Diary Junction