‘The Downe-fall of Dagon’: the post-Reformation campaign against Cheapside Cross

The recent trend of attacks on statues with uncomfortable moral or historical associations is nothing new; Dr Paul Hunneyball of our Lords 1558-1603 project considers the parallels with early modern English iconoclasm

In November 1290 the queen consort, Eleanor of Castile, died in Nottinghamshire. Her grief-stricken husband, Edward I, subsequently constructed 12 stone monuments, the so-called Eleanor crosses, along the route of her funeral procession to Westminster Abbey, with inscriptions inviting onlookers to pray for her soul. One of the finest of these crosses stood in the middle of Cheapside, the city of London’s greatest throughfare, where it became a famous and very conspicuous landmark. As rebuilt in the fifteenth century, it was an octagonal structure, 36 feet tall, with three tiers of niches filled with gilded lead statues, and at the very top a large gilt cross. The carved images included numerous saints, the Virgin Mary holding the infant Christ, and a representation of Christ’s resurrection.

Cheapside Cross in 1638

Cheapside Cross was a focal point for royal and civic pageantry, one of the principal locations for royal proclamations, and also a place of public punishment. Until the mid-16th century it was a source of considerable pride, even reverence, for most Londoners. But with the Reformation, attitudes began to change. Under Henry VIII and Edward VI, images of Christ and the saints in churches were classified as potentially idolatrous, and were systematically defaced or removed. In some parts of the country this iconoclasm was resented, but in London, where Protestantism took a firm early hold, the policy enjoyed widespread support.

In this context Cheapside Cross became a controversial anomaly. Not only did it retain its statuary, but it was actually restored during Edward’s reign, thus remaining a high-profile witness in the heart of the capital to the beliefs of the old religion. And as such, it fuelled the anxieties of more radical Protestants who believed that the English Reformation had not yet gone far enough. Despite the mounting grass-roots opposition to the Cross, successive monarchs, the Church of England’s supreme governors, continued to protect the monument, attaching greater importance to its royal associations and artistic merits than to any doctrinal concerns. The lord mayor and aldermen, sensitive to popular opinion, but fearful of civic disorder, generally sided with the crown.

Recognising that confrontation on theological grounds with the conservative Elizabeth I was doomed to failure, opponents of the Cross tried an indirect approach, repeatedly appealing to the city fathers for its demolition on the grounds that it was a traffic hazard. When this tactic also failed, Protestant zealots resorted to vandalism. In 1581, 1596 and 1601, the lowest tier of statues was attacked and severely damaged, the two figures of Christ being particular targets. Unsurprisingly, the perpetrators were never caught.

In response, the corporation of London sought to dampen the passions of these new iconoclasts by modifying the design of the Cross. In a curious move that can scarcely have pleased either camp, the image of the Resurrection was replaced with a statue of the pagan goddess Diana (a virgin deity to whom the queen was frequently compared by the poets of the day). However, when the actual cross was removed from the top in 1599, its timber core having become rotten and unsafe, Elizabeth firmly insisted on it being restored, in preference to the corporation’s proposal for a more neutral obelisk ornament. When the mayor hesitated, the Privy Council intervened, praising the ‘antiquity and continuance of that monument’, and denouncing those ‘undiscreet humorists … that will take offence at the historical and civil use of such an ancient ensign of Christianity’ [Acts of the Privy Council, 1600-1 ed. J.R. Dasent, 44].

Undeterred, the London radicals next consulted the two universities. In response, the Calvinist-leaning vice-chancellor of Oxford, George Abbot, recommended a purge of the more offensive imagery, as well as removal of the newly reinstalled gilt cross. However, he stopped short of backing complete demolition, and in any case completely changed his tune once he became bishop of London in 1610. For the time being the initiative remained with the authorities, and the Cross was repeatedly repaired and beautified under the early Stuarts. This programme came under attack in Parliament in 1626, when the latest regilding exercise provoked the wrath of Ignatius Jourdain, the hardline puritan Member for Exeter. Denouncing the Cross as so strikingly popish that ‘some will come on pilgrimage from Spain hither’, he called for the city of London to be heavily fined for permitting yet another restoration [Proceedings in Parliament 1626 ed. Bidwell and Jansson, iii. 202]. In the event, Jourdain’s complaint was merely referred to a Commons committee, which failed to report back. Even so, the city authorities apparently took note, and soon afterwards erected a protective railing around the Cross.

By the 1640s religious divisions in the country had deepened yet further, the liturgical innovations promoted by Archbishop William Laud being widely interpreted as a shift back towards Catholicism. Thus, when England drifted into civil war, Parliament emerged as the champion not just of political reform but of the Protestant cause itself. This left Cheapside Cross extremely vulnerable. Vandalism of its statues resumed, and a vigorous pamphlet war developed between its opponents and supporters, with the monument denounced in ever more virulent terms as a physical obstacle to a truly reformed Church. Tracts such as The Downe-fall of Dagon (1643) even compared the Cross to a pagan idol in the Old Testament destroyed by God’s power.

Cheapside Cross in 1643

By 1643 Charles I had lost control of London, and the city was a stronghold of puritanism. In March that year, a group of leading godly ministers was appointed to report on residual Catholic imagery in the capital, and inevitably the Cross was singled out for criticism. On 24 April the House of Commons established a committee ‘for the demolition of monuments of superstition and idolatry’. Its chairman, Sir Robert Harley, the only Member to back Jourdain’s complaint in 1626, quickly approached the city authorities, and on 27 April the court of aldermen ordered the dismantling of the Cross. A crowd of several thousand people is said to have watched its destruction in early May, the event being marked by bell-ringing and celebratory bonfires. In keeping with the toxic mix of politics and religion which wrought the downfall of Cheapside Cross, its reviled lead statues were melted down and turned into bullets for the parliamentarian armies.


Further reading:

David Cressy, Travesties and Transgressions in Tudor and Stuart England (2000)

Julie Spraggon, Puritan Iconoclasm during the English Civil War (2003)

Biographies of George Abbot and William Laud, both archbishops of Canterbury, appear in our volumes on The House of Lords 1604-29 ed. Andrew Thrush (2021). A further biography of Sir Robert Harley is in preparation for our Commons 1640-1660 project.

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