William Dowsing: Breaker of Idols and Marker of Books

By Nora Epstein |

The entry in the Acts of the Privy Council of England for 1 October 1551 granted Dutch-born printer Reynolde Wolfe license to sell ‘…the booke lately by hym enprinted and set owt by the Archebysshop of Cauntorbury against Doctour Gardiner’s booke.’ The characteristically long title of the book licensed in this Hampton Court session explains that it is Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s Answer…vnto a crafty and sophisticall cauillation deuised by Stephen Gardiner…agaynst the trewe and godly doctrine of the moste holy sacrament of the body and bloud of our sauiour Iesu Christe. By many metrics, Cranmer’s 1551 polemic is not a rare book. When it was printed during Edward’s reign, Protestant attacks on the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation were exceptionally popular. (As Elizabeth Evenden calculates, half of the books printed in 1548 by the powerhouse Tudor printers, John Day and William Seres, attacked transubstantiation.) Today, the USTC has identified 41 known copies of Cranmer’s Answer still extant. While this book was neither from a rare genre, nor particularly rare by present standards for early modern survivals, a copy held in the University of St Andrews Special Collections can give us unique insight into one exceptional reader.

Most who are familiar with the seventeenth-century Puritan, William Dowsing, discovered him through his remarkable journal. From 1643-1644, Dowsing precisely detailed his state-sponsored iconoclasm throughout Cambridgeshire and Suffolk, where he was acting as a parliamentary visitor under the commission of the earl of Manchester. His terse and calculating journal record hundreds of visitations. For example, entry 94 states, ‘Layham, Fed. 2 [1644]. We brake down 6 superstitious pictures, and takeing down a cross off the steeple.’ Reading his journal, some have painted Dowsing as an insatiable ‘basher’, leaving a trail of headless saints and broken crosses in his wake. However, it is the meticulousness of Dowsing’s journal that seems the most revealing about the iconoclast’s personality. With the same attention to detail, Dowsing recorded the shaping of his Protestant ideals and reading practices within the margins of his books, including his copy of Cranmer’s Answer.


Detail from the title page of USTC 515427, reading ‘Will[iam] Dowsing p[urchased] 1637. Novemb[er] 7. 4 s[hillings]. University of St Andrews Special Collections, TypBL.B51WC.


Dowsing’s will bequeathed his library to his son, Samuel, (duplicates going to his wife), likely including the copy of Cranmer’s Answer, which has been in the collections of the University of St Andrews since it was donated by the National Galleries of Scotland in 1949. Much like his formulaic journal entries, Dowsing’s books are identifiable by his standard inscriptions. As historian John Morrill detailed in the critical edition of the journal, Dowsing almost uniformly annotated his books with his hologram, purchase date and price, and the dates he read and marked the book. Dowsing’s marks are evidence that he used, rather than simply perused, his books. In a sentiment familiar to many who read this blog, Dowsing pleaded with Dedham lecturer, Matthew Newcomen, who loaned to another acquaintance a book that he had borrowed from Dowsing two years prior. The iconoclast entreated, ‘I had rather losse 10 s[hillings] by farr than that very book, because there are divers notes in it & divers bookes cite that booke & that edit[io]n…’.

Scholars are increasingly appreciating marginalia not only as tangible traces of how early modern readers understood the text and its relationship to other texts, but also how they understood the world around them. In the St Andrews copy of Cranmer’s Answer, Dowsing carefully added scriptural references to support the arguments he agreed with and derisive notes where he did not (e.g., ‘hereticks’ and ‘a corrupt practise’). On the book’s title page, Dowsing noted that he bought the folio for four shillings on 7 November 1637, and on the recto of the colophon, he tells us that he read the book over the course of four days: 12, 13, 15 and 16 January in 1638. This remarkable level of detail is consistent over the dozens of surviving Dowsing books and led Morrill to label him ‘the Bureaucratic Puritan’. Dowsing’s meticulousness and zealotry bleed off the page. By providing us with this extraordinary level of quantitative detail and profuse references, he gave us rare insight into his personality, faith, and reading style. 86 years after the Privy Council licensed Answer for sale, Dowsing still found Cranmer’s argument persuasive. As historian Margaret Aston makes clear, English iconoclasm has two fervent highpoints, the reign of Edward VI and a century later during the Civil War. It is understandable that as the Laud-inspired tension about the role of images was rising, iconomachs like Dowsing looked back to previous purifiers.


Recto of USTC 515427‘s colophon reading, ‘F[inished] R[eading] this Book. 1638 m[onth] 1. d[ays] d[ays]. W[illiam] D[owsing]. 2Tim 2:7’  Dowsing used this same Bible verse on a number of his inscriptions, according to the 1599 Geneva translation it reads, ‘Consider what I say: and the Lord give thee understanding in all things’. University of St Andrews Special Collections, TypBL.B51WC.


Sadly, there is no inventory of Dowsing’s book collection (although it is hard to imagine our fastidious reader did not make one) nor is there a catalogue from the sale of the collection by London bookseller Mr Huse after Samuel Dowsing’s death. In an attempt to enumerate Dowsing’s library retroactively, Morrill surveyed twenty-three books with his marks and found an additional twenty-five titles that the iconoclast cross-referenced, doubling the books to which we know he had ready access. Although the provenance of St Andrews’ Answer was briefly mentioned in Diarmaid MacCulloch’s 1996 monograph Thomas Cranmer: a life, it does not seem that the copy was included in Morrill’s 2001 study. Since the publication of the critical edition of Dowsing’s journal and Morrill’s articles on his library, several libraries have identified further volumes marked by this extraordinary reader. In 2013, Dunstan Roberts identified two items held by the British Library and one in Balliol College, Oxford owned by Dowsing. Likewise in 2016, Aberystwyth University’s Bill Hines discovered another theological work heavily consulted by Dowsing. Although Dowsing is remembered for his destruction, thanks to the distinctive marginalia he created, historians, cataloguers, and librarians are able to piece together the spolia and reconstruct his lost library.

Further reading:

  • Aston, Margaret, England’s Iconoclasts: Laws against images, Volume 1 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988).
  • Cooper, Trevor (ed), The Journal of William Dowsing, Iconoclasm in East Anglia during the English Civil War. (Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer, 2001).
  • Hines, Bill. ‘“Bad hair day” at Bury Assizes – An iconoclast’s tale’ Library and Information History Group Newsletter, Winter 2016, pp. 4-6.
  • Morrill, John, ‘William Dowsing, the Bureaucratic Puritan’ in John Morrill, Paul Slack, and Daniel Woolf (eds.) Public Duty and Private Conscience in Seventeenth-Century England: Essays Presented to G.E. Aylmer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 173-204.
  • Roberts, Dunstan, ‘Additions to the Library of William Dowsing (1596-1668): A Reformation Tract Volume Reassembled’ Electronic British Library Journal, Article 10 (2013).

Nora Epstein is a PhD student at the University of St Andrews researching the intersections of print history and material culture by tracing image transmission during English and Scottish Reformations. In particular, she focuses on the impact and popular reception of English devotional woodcuts. After receiving her Masters in Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois, she earned a Masters in Book History from the University of St Andrews. Most recently, she was a Special Collections and Archives Librarian at DePaul University. You can follow her on Twitter at @NoraEpstein

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