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Religion: Puritan Iconoclasm

The radical, puritan iconoclasm of the Civil War years was officially sanctioned by Parliament. The aim was to complete, finally and decisively, what the Reformation had begun.

In 1643 and 1644 Parliamentary ordinances were passed against ‘monuments of superstition and idolatry’. ‘Scandalous’ representations of the Trinity, the Virgin Mary and other saints were prohibited, as well as crucifixes, plain crosses, angels and even inscriptions invoking prayers for the dead. Their ‘utter demolishing’ was ordered.

Zealous iconoclasts such as William Dowsing in East Anglia and Richard Culmer in Canterbury, who enforced Parliament’s legislation, believed it was their godly duty to eliminate sin. Paintings, stained glass, music and religious ceremony were seen as visual and sensuous distractions from the word of God, which should be preached, listened to and read. Their campaigns of destruction were comprehensive, systematic and highly administered.

The war against images was also played out in the popular press. Puritan pamphlets proclaimed against the danger of images and the sin of idolatry, while royalist newsletters painted parliamentarian soldiers as profane desecrators of cathedrals and the sanctity of monarchy.