On the morning of 2 May 1643, crowds of Londoners assembled to watch the destruction of a beloved, though controversial, landmark that had stood in the very centre of the City, Cheapside, since the thirteenth century. For some three days workmen laboured to dismantle the monument in question, a large free-standing and ornately adorned cross of the type that had sprung up in many late medieval towns and cities. They were surrounded by soldiers co-opted from the parliamentarian war effort against the royalist forces, there to protect the labourers from the wrath of those who resented having such an enduring motif of civic pride pulled down before them.
To others, though, including the parliamentary committee which ordered the destruction of the Cross along with the purging of other offensive objects in London, it was an object of idolatry, an unacceptable remnant of a Catholic past which had somehow escaped the Reformation a century earlier; rumours abounded of crypto-catholics crossing their chests as they passed the monument under cover of night. Cheapside Cross was but the latest victim of a contest to control the spiritual landscape of England, and thereby to define the nation’s religious identity, that had rumbled ever since the sixteenth-century Reformation.
The apparent destruction of the temple of Baal Shamin by ISIS fighters has drawn widespread condemnation from lovers of history and heritage around the world, aghast at this seemingly senseless moment of cultural vandalism. But such episodes are far from alien to our own history, and certainly not to the era of the Reformation, which saw the mass destruction of venerated spiritual objects and with it a vibrant religious culture (so movingly described in Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars). This was cultural purification sanctioned by scripture, and biblicist Protestants took the injunction against ‘graven images’ to heart. In the maelstrom of Reformation, destruction of images and objects once held sacred was a clear signal of a new religious order, a visceral demonstration of their powerlessness and the emptiness of the beliefs that surrounded them, but this was not simply about uprooting Catholic faith. The removal of these idols from their temples was equally intended to reconstitute spiritual space in order to make it a fit receptacle for the purity of God’s Word: Protestants ‘found spiritual meaning in blank walls and silence’. And as far as we know, those who lamented the loss of these objects – and there were many – valued them not so much for their artistic as their spiritual value, as well as for the association with local identity; locally venerated statues of saints, stained-glass windows and charismatic bench ends were yet to be considered a part of England’s national cultural heritage. Iconoclasm in the early reformation had a very local, indeed parochial, audience.
But these acts of destruction do seem to have prompted a re-evaluation of the aesthetic value of the pre-reformation church. There was always some room for ambiguity in the interpretation of what counted as an object of idolatry within Protestantism. Was the image of God peeping out of that corner of a stained glass window really likely to be worshipped? And what of sacred symbolism that appeared outside of church, like Cheapside Cross? As the crown was keen to ensure that iconoclasm did not get out of hand, and that parochial worship should settle down into the orderly rituals defined by the Book of Common Prayer, there were thus ample physical remainders of the old order – ‘popish remnants’ – for puritans to get hot-under-the-collar about. But others, like the Elizabethan antiquarian and surveyor of London John Stow, now found room in their hearts to regret the passing of the mythical time of ‘merry England’, and the material culture that came with it. Much the same spirit would encourage later antiquarians like John Aubrey to rediscover the value of Britain’s ancient pagan landscape, an earlier victim of Christian iconoclasm.
John Stow would have been agonised by the destruction of Cheapside Cross. Indeed, it had been intended as a provocative statement that reformation, previously declared over, was very much alive. It was also a jibe against London’s traditional association with the English crown – the cross had been erected to commemorate Eleanor, wife of Edward I – by the more radical parliamentarians, who publicised ‘the downfall of Dagon’ with a series of celebratory pamphlets (though they were more than answered by those who deplored the action).
But in comparison to today’s iconoclastic acts, the audience for the destruction of Cheapside Cross was very limited; no concept of world heritage then existed to be provoked. The latter would emerge in the centuries to come, and especially the nineteenth century, when Victorians were also rediscovering the romance of the ruined monasteries that had lain, largely forgotten, since Henry VIII’s dissolution. Global heritage was to a large extent a discovery of European imperialism – ancient Palmyra was excavated in the 1920s when Syria was under French rule. Paradoxically, this might make such sites all the more vulnerable to those who, by attacking them, can vicariously confront the perceived hypocrisy of Western values (including the Western tourists who might once have visited Palmyra whilst turning a blind eye to the crimes of the Assad regime, embodied in the now notorious Tadmor military prison nearby).
The destruction of images, objects and sacred buildings has a long history that has certainly shaped Britain’s cultural landscape, but its intended audience has dramatically grown, thanks most recently to social media. Now through the destruction of cherished objects and buildings, insurgents like ISIS can demonstrate their power, over the present and the future as well as the past, to a global audience. Iconoclasm is powerful for the simplicity of its message, and ISIS’s supporters will surely relish the horror its actions have provoked amongst Western observers. But the meaning of this action for those people who have lived for generations in the shadow of the ancient site, and who are without the means to advertise their reactions to the global public, is, alas, much harder to discern.
 The episode is recounted in David Cressy’s Agnes Bowker’s Cat. Travesties and Transgressions in Tudor and Stuart England (Oxford, 2000).
 Margaret Aston, ‘Iconoclasm in England: official and clandestine’, in Peter Marshall (ed), The Impact of the English Reformation 1500-1640 (London, 1997), p. 185
Image credit : Wikipedia
Tom Leng is a Lecturer in Early Modern History. His current research interests focus on English merchant communities and companies in the 17th century.