The toppling of the Colston statue brought to mind Saddam’s statue in Iraq, 2003, and Stalin’s in Budapest, 1956 – and then other episodes in which works or art were destroyed for what they represented. (Memorial statues, incidentally, are often bad and I would happily see the statue of John Betjeman at St Pancras station pulled down.)
Without much thought, I wrote on Facebook about the destruction of religious images in the English Commonwealth and the 1643 Act of Parliament that ordered the demolition of church monuments that contravened the second commandment – and that on top of the iconoclasm of a hundred years previous. For many years, I said, Cromwell’s soldiers had visited churches to destroy pictures, crosses, stained glass, altar rails and rood screens. If you want to see medieval Christian art you have to go to the continent, and not just to Catholic countries because even Lutherans didn’t go in for vandalism the way that English Puritans did.
Nick Rowling, an art historian who knows more about it than I do, put me right. Cromwell’s bad press seems to stem partly from William Dowsing, an active iconoclast in Suffolk. Dowsing fixed upon Popish relics in the Cambridge colleges, foreshadowing the campaign to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford:
“now we have an army at Cambridge it might be a fitt time to write to ye Vice Chancellor of Cambridge & Mayor to pull down all ther blasphemous crucifixes, all superstitious pictures and reliques of popery according to the ordinances o’ parliament.”
But Dowsing was not typical of the Commonwealth. This is what Nick said:
Sadly, Marshall, you are merely perpetuating a Royalist myth about Oliver Cromwell. The great period of ecclesiastical iconoclasm occurred during the reign of Edward VI and was directed by Thomas Cromwell (no relation). This stopped after Mary became queen.
Under Elizabeth many churches fell into decay but in Catholic (recusant) parts of the country much medieval art was saved. The real problem was that most of the great buildings – especially the monasteries were sold to the vast army of Protestant lawyers who financed the protestant revolution and the stones and lead were sold for scrap. These were the ‘bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang’ referred to in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73.
Everything changed when Laud was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by Charles I and he did a great deal to protect, preserve and restore the fabric of many English churches and cathedrals though by then most of the artistic treasures of the medieval monasteries had disappeared.
Oliver Cromwell seems to have been totally indifferent to church worship, saying that God could just as well be worshiped in a barn, but he did issue explicit commands that damaging churches was a capital offence. And it is thanks to General Fairfax that the glorious glass of York Minster, for example, was preserved after the Battle of Marston Moor, when the Parliamentary army was prevented from sacking the city of York.
For the next two hundred years church and cathedral buildings simply decayed, and it wasn’t until the Victorian period and the agitation of high church revivalists like Pugin that anything was done to restore medieval architecture, but the problem is that church ‘restoration’ was in the hands of cultural barbarians like George Gilbert Scott – architects who actually destroyed some of the greatest surviving works of medieval architecture under the claim that they were restoring and ‘improving’ it! And if it hadn’t been for William Morris who was so shocked and appalled when he passed through Burford and saw what the ecclesiastical vandals were doing that he founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.
Since then, thankfully, much of what was thought to be lost has been uncovered again behind later tombs or under whitewash: glass has been found, sculpture has been identified in English country houses, and some of the greatest masterpieces of medieval art were opened to the public for the first time. The best example of this are the Royal Chapels in Westminster Abbey which were preserved intact because they were not places of public worship but the property of the crown.
How do I know all this? Well, about thirty years ago I was commissioned by the BBC to make a programme about this very question – it was called The God that Rules (BBC2/Open University, 1984) – and what astonished us when we began to research it was just how much medieval art has survived if you know where to look for it, and how the myth that Oliver Cromwell was responsible for the iconoclasm is simply untrue.
We really looked hard to find the evidence that Oliver Cromwell was an iconoclast, but it simply isn’t there. What we did discover almost everywhere were modern guidebooks blaming the destruction on ‘Cromwell’ but they were clearly confusing Oliver with Thomas. And I am certain that much of Ely survived because Oliver Cromwell was MP for Ely – further evidence that he wasn’t an iconoclast.
Another thing we learned was that medieval art was very much ‘an international style’ and that artists and works of art traveled all over Europe. For example, almost every stone screen in England was destroyed but there is a wonderful example of English craftsmanship remaining in Trondheim Cathedral, which appears to have been made by Canterbury craftsmen and then exported to Norway in the 12th century. And Nottingham alabaster sculptures were also exported all over Europe – there is a wonderful collection for example in the Bargello in Florence.
In the end we found that we had so much material to choose from to make our programme that we confined ourselves to just four ecclesiastical buildings. But one thing which still amuses me is that we had a reputation of being a gang of marxist anarchists, and BBC management kept on trying to censor our programmes, but we were absolutely scrupulous in only quoting 17th century voices – Milton, Cromwell, Winstanley, and of course the Bible itself – so we got away with it!