Julie Spraggon. Puritan Iconoclasm during the English Civil War. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2003. xvii + 318 pp. $75.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-85115-895-2.
Reviewed by R. C. Richardson (History Department, King Alfred's University College, Winchester)
Published on H-Albion (May, 2004)
Stumps of Dagon
The destruction of images in England in the 1640s formed a significant chapter in the long-running saga of iconoclasm which came into prominence with the Reformation. It is a subject which has acquired a bulky literature with notable recent contributions to the debate coming from Margaret Aston, Patrick Collinson, Eamon Duffy, Ronald Hutton, Peter Lake, John Morrill, John Phillips, and Tessa Watt. What distinguished the 1640s experience was that in that over-heated decade a minority agenda gained the upper hand. It was enacted within Protestantism chiefly against recent innovations associated with the Laudian party. And it was spearheaded by Parliament. The targets of iconoclasm, too, in these years were more broadly defined than before. Though chiefly religious in character, Civil War iconoclasm moved on to attack the images of monarchy itself, especially after Charles I's execution in 1649 and the creation of a republic.
Best known of all the iconoclasts of this period--because of the surviving records and journal--is William Dowsing, agent of the Earl of Manchester in the counties of the Eastern Association. A lavish edition of his journal, prepared by a dedicated team headed by Trevor Cooper, appeared in 2001 and documented Dowsing's strident assault in 1644 on parish churches as well as Cambridge University chapels and the stained glass, statuary, roof bosses, elevated and railed-off altars, organs, brasses, and stone crosses associated with them. Dowsing, an autodidact and avid reader of Long Parliament fast sermons and other inflammatory religious literature, emerges from these pages as an unflinching man of conscience, dedicated to the task in hand, which he deemed was vital for men's salvation and for success in the cause for which he and others were fighting. Iconoclasm in the eastern counties, though a crusade, was conducted as systematically as any military campaign.
Unsurprisingly, Spraggon's book draws on Dowsing's journal and the editors' work on it, but pushes out the investigation of the subject both geographically and chronologically. It comes from the same publisher, is very nicely produced, and is part of a series devoted to viewing religious history "in the round." Based on the author's recent University of London Ph.D. thesis, the book bears some of the hallmarks of its origins but the author succeeds in producing an accessible text which will cater to the general reader as well as the specialist. The title, however, is not quite adequate for the longer period embraced by the book. Typos are mercifully few--though "principle" for "principal" looks like more than that--as are errors. (Brilliana, well-known wife of Sir Robert Harley, is, unfortunately, mistaken for his daughter.) Capitalization is odd. The adjective "Puritan" appears in upper case throughout; "bible" and "parliament" are in lower case.
Spraggon sets out to survey the nature, extent, and impact of 1640s iconoclasm, making clear as she goes along that there was more of it than some historians have been prepared to recognize. There is a neat logic to the sequence of chapters. Chapter 1 sets the scene by dealing with the Reformation and later "pre-history" of the subject. Arguments for reform by Milton and many more outlined in the early 1640s literature are then rehearsed. The formulation of official policy is then detailed, followed by chapters examining its enforcement and local response. London, the cathedrals, and the universities each get chapters to themselves. The work of the Harley Committee, set up by Parliament, is carefully investigated. Local initiatives and the spontaneous, brutal iconoclastic activities of soldiers come under scrutiny. Examples are drawn from the whole country, but the bulk of the evidence used by Spraggon hails from five counties--Berkshire, Hampshire, Kent, Northamptonshire, and Oxfordshire--and from eight cathedral towns--Canterbury (hated epicenter of the Laudian regime), Exeter, Gloucester, Norwich, Peterborough, Winchester, Worcester, and York. Self-evidently this is not, nor could it be, a work of genuinely local history and, as a result, Spraggon is often unable to firmly situate the instances of iconoclasm she discusses within the specific contexts which generated them. The available evidence, of course, is patchy and incomplete--especially for the provinces--and is sometimes ambiguous. She is on surest ground when dealing with officially sponsored iconoclasm, with London, with the universities--the contrasting experience of Cambridge and Oxford is clearly drawn--and with the cathedrals. Well-documented assaults on key targets like Cheapside Cross, Queen Henrietta Maria's chapel in Somerset House, Archbishop Laud's chapel at Lambeth Palace, and Westminster Abbey are discussed in full. Her argument and conclusions rest chiefly on the accumulation of instances. The only attempt at statistics relates to London.
Though not local history, there is micro-history of a kind in these pages. Case histories bring individuals briefly into focus. Pre-Civil War iconoclasts like Henry Sherfield of Salisbury and John Bruen from Cheshire come into prominence. Within the framework of the 1640s, Robert Harley; radicals like Henry Clark and Samuel Chidley; Michael Herring; zealous churchwarden of St. Mary Woolchurch, London, William Springett; and the Kentish minister Richard Culmer are brought to life. William Dowsing here, as in the recent edition of his journal, is almost larger than life. So are some of the moderates of the time--men like John Bond, Master of the Savoy in London, and Colonel Anthony Martyn, who barred the doors of Ewelme church in Oxfordshire to save its brasses. The complex attitudes of Oliver Cromwell, Sir Thomas Fairfax, and Colonel John Hutchinson to the iconoclasm going on around them are carefully rehearsed. (Not a few of Charles I's religious paintings ended up in Cromwell's possession, as did the ejected organ from Exeter Cathedral.)
The white heat of puritan iconoclasm came in the early 1640s, as Spraggon makes clear. Thereafter, there was a cooling off, not least in popular support from a war-weary population. Much imagery was destroyed and some cathedrals were wantonly vandalized; battered Lichfield is the prime example. That much is clear. But that such a great deal survived must be explained by successful attempts to hide things away from the gaze and destructive weapons of the intruders. No cathedral, despite the hostile railings of men like Chidley to get rid of all of them, was wholly destroyed. Some, indeed, like Exeter, were adapted to suit the new purposes of the puritan godly. And the surviving stained glass in university college chapel windows speaks volumes about the contemporary will to conceal and protect them. Anglicanism in the last analysis, as many historians have come to recognize, proved indestructible in the English Revolution and its survival often appears to have been actively connived at.
. Trevor Cooper, ed., The Journal of William Dowsing: Iconoclasm in East Anglia during the English Civil War (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2001). Reviewed by R. C. Richardson for H-Albion, http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=155781029098566. [Editor's note.]
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