The task of the historian of English medieval sculpture is not unlike that of the palaeontologist, who from a jaw bone, two vertebrae, a rib, and a femur contrives to reconstruct the skeleton of some long extinct creature and endow it with flesh. He even makes deductions about its environment and feeding habits, its success against its enemies, and its adaptability to changing circumstances. No less bold references from incomplete evidence -- but based on far less scientific methods -- are forced upon the student of medieval sculpture. For it is important to bear in mind that the sculptural losses far exceed those of architecture and are equalled only by those of mural paintings and glass. Two brief but violent periods of iconoclastic fervour have left behind them only a minute fraction of the sculpture with which every church was filled on the eve of the Reformation.
The first serious damage was done by the dissolution of the monasteries, in which was concentrated so much of the artistic wealth of the Middle Ages. Considerable deliberate destruction was carried out by the royal agents who accepted the surrenders. 'I have defaced the chapel inward', wrote London to Thomas Cromwell of the Grey Friars, Reading, in 1536. Subsequently the roofs were stripped of lead for immediate sale abroad, and the structures frequently abandoned to the depredations of local builders. In consequence much of the internal and external statuary, the brasses and the tombs, was soon broken up or melted down, used as building material, or merely left to crumble away by exposure to the elements. Propaganda against the worship of images began in the 1530s and the more popular cult images were then removed, but it was not till 1547 that a deliberate iconoclastic programme was set afoot with the issue of orders against 'monuments of Idolatry, Superstition and Hypocrisy'. There ensued the wholesale removal from rood screens all over the country of the figures of Christ crucified, Mary, and John. At Queens' College, Cambridge, the accounts for October 1547 record: 'georgio smythe pro labore suo in sacello quum Imagines et tabula auferebantur viid.' The order for the indiscriminate removal of all images was issued on 21 February 1548, and by 1550 whole ship- loads of religious statuary were being exported to France. The process was checked and even reversed during the short reign of Mary, and in places, for example Ashburton in Devon, the rood and its images were re-erected.
But the respite was short-lived. The accession of Elizabeth in 1558 witnessed a fresh outbreak of iconoclasm enforced by Royal Visitors, and in the evening of 24 August 1559 Londoners were entertained by two great bonfires of wooden rood images from Saint Paul's and elsewhere. The pressure was kept up by the more zealous bishops and was only partially checked by a Royal proclamation in 1560 designed to save the memorial effigies of the nobility. In this same year occurs the melancholy entry in the accounts of Eton College: 'To Glover and his Laborer for two daies brekinge downe Images and filling there places with stone and plaister juxta xxd. -- iij iiij .'
By 1640 the growth of puritanism and the deteriorating political situation made it likely that a fresh iconoclastic outbreak was imminent. Galvanized by this threat Sir William Dugdale . . .