Gerrard Winstanley (19 October 1609 – 10 September 1676) was an English Protestant religious reformer and political activist during The Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. Winstanley was one of the founders of the English group known as the True Levellers or Diggers for their beliefs, and for their actions. The group occupied public lands that had been privatized by enclosures and dug them over, pulling down hedges and filling in ditches, to plant crops. True Levellers was the name they used to describe themselves, whereas the term Diggers was coined by contemporaries.
Gerrard Winstanley was born on 19 October 1609 and was baptised in the parish of Wigan, then part of the West Derby hundred of Lancashire. He was the son of an Edward Winstanley, mercer. His mother's identity remains unknown and he could have been born anywhere in the parish of Wigan. The parish of Wigan contained the townships of Abram, Aspull, Billinge-and-Winstanley, Dalton, Haigh, Hindley, Ince-in-Makerfield, Orrell, Pemberton, and Upholland, as well as Wigan itself.
He moved in 1630 to London, where he became an apprentice and ultimately, in 1638, a freeman of the Merchant Tailors' Company or guild. He married Susan King, the daughter of London surgeon William King, in 1639. The English Civil War, however, disrupted his business, and in 1643 he was made bankrupt. His father-in-law helped Winstanley move to Cobham, Surrey, where he initially worked as a cowherd.
English Civil Wars
There were many factions at work during the period of the three related English civil wars. They included the Royalists who supported King Charles I; the Parliamentary forces led by Sir Thomas Fairfax who would later emerge under the name of the New Model Army; the Fifth Monarchy Men, who believed in the establishment of a heavenly theocracy on earth to be led by a returning Jesus as king of kings and lord of lords; the Agitators for political egalitarian reform of government, who were branded "Levellers" by their foes and who were led by John Lilburne; and the True Levellers were branded "Diggers" because of their actions. The latter were led by Gerrard Winstanley. Whereas Lilburne sought to level the laws and maintain the right to the ownership of real property, Winstanley sought to level the ownership of real property itself, which is why Winstanley's followers called themselves "True Levellers".
The New Law of Righteousness
Gerrard Winstanley published a pamphlet called The New Law of Righteousness. The basis of this work came from the Book of Acts, chapter two, verses 44 and 45: "All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need." Winstanley argued that "in the beginning of time God made the earth. Not one word was spoken at the beginning that one branch of mankind should rule over another, but selfish imaginations did set up one man to teach and rule over another."
Winstanley took as his basic texts the Biblical sacred history, with its affirmation that all men were descended from a common stock, and with its scepticism about the rulership of kings, voiced in the Books of Samuel; and the New Testament's affirmations that God was no respecter of persons, that there were no masters or slaves under the New Covenant. From these and similar texts, he interpreted Christian teaching as calling for the abolition of property and aristocracy.
Winstanley wrote: "Seeing the common people of England by joynt consent of person and purse have caste out Charles our Norman oppressour, wee have by this victory recovered ourselves from under his Norman yoake."
His theme was rooted in ancient English radical thought. It went back at least to the days of the Peasants' Revolt (1381) led by Wat Tyler, because that is when a verse of the Lollard priest John Ball was circulated:
In 1649, Winstanley and his followers took over vacant or common lands in Surrey, Buckinghamshire, Kent, and Northamptonshire and began cultivating the land and distributing the crops without charge to their followers. Local landowners took fright from the Diggers' activities and in 1650 sent hired thugs to beat the Diggers and destroy their colony. Winstanley protested to the government, but to no avail, and the colony was abandoned.
After the failure of the Digger experiment in Surrey in 1650 Winstanley temporarily fled to Pirton, Hertfordshire, where he took up employment as an estate steward for the mystic aristocrat Lady Eleanor Davies. This employment lasted less than a year after Davies accused Winstanley of mismanaging her property and Winstanley returned to Cobham.
Winstanley continued to advocate the redistribution of land. In 1652 he published another pamphlet called The Law of Freedom in a Platform, in which he argued that the Christian basis for society is where property and wages are abolished. In keeping with Winstanley's adherence to biblical models, the tract envisages a communistic society structured on patriarchal lines.
By 1654 Winstanley was possibly assisting Edward Burrough, an early leader of the Quakers, later called the Society of Friends. It is apparent that Winstanley remained a Quaker for the rest of his life as his death was noted in Quaker records. However, his Quakerism may not have been very strong as he was involved in the government of his local parish church from 1659 onwards – though it should be noted that it is not unknown for committed Quakers to retain strong ties to other religious traditions, even including priesthood. He may have been buried in a Quaker cemetery.
Winstanley believed in Christian Universalism, the doctrine that everyone, however sinful, would eventually be saved; he wrote that "in the end every man shall be saved, though some at the last hour." His book The Mysterie of God is apparently the first theological work in the English language to state this universalism.
In 1657 Winstanley and his wife Susan received a gift of property in Ham Manor, near Cobham from his father-in-law William King. This marked Winstanley's renovation in social status in his local community and he became waywarden of the parish of Cobham in 1659, overseer for the poor in 1660 and churchwarden in 1667–68. He was elected Chief Constable of Elmbridge in October 1671. Although these offices conflicted with Winstanley's apparent Quakerism, the Quakers had not yet become the quietist religion of later centuries.
When Susan died about 1664 Winstanley was paid £50 for the land in Cobham by King. Winstanley returned to London trade, whilst retaining his connections in Surrey. In about 1665 he married his second wife Elizabeth Stanley and re-entered commerce as a corn chandler. Winstanley died in 1676, aged 66, vexed by legal disputes concerning a small legacy owed to him in a will.
In 1999, the British activist group The Land is Ours celebrated the Digger movement's 350th anniversary with a march and reoccupation of Saint George's Hill, the site of the first Digger colony. Like the original colony, this settlement was quickly disbanded. Since 2011, a Wigan Diggers Festival has been held annually in Winstanley's birth town of Wigan in Greater Manchester attracting support across the North of England.
The Complete Works of Gerrard Winstanley, edited jointly by Thomas N. Corns, Ann Hughes and David Loewenstein, were published by the Oxford University Press in December 2009 at £229 (ISBN 978-0-19-957606-7).
A shorter and less comprehensive volume containing all the major works, Gerrard Winstanley: A Common Treasury edited by Andrew Hopton, was published in 1989 by Aporia (ISBN 978-0-948518-45-4) and reprinted several times since, most recently in 2011 (paperback) by Verso Books (UK) with an introduction by Tony Benn (ISBN 978-1-84467-595-1).
1975 saw the release of Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo's film Winstanley. As with the duo's previous film, It Happened Here, it had taken several years to produce with a very low budget. Winstanley was loosely based on a novel by David Caute entitled "Comrade Jacob" and was produced in a quasi-documentary style, with great attention to period detail – even to the point of only using breeds of animals which were known to exist at the time, and actual Civil War armour and weapons borrowed from the Tower of London museum.
From A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England:
- "The power of enclosing land and owning property was brought into the creation by your ancestors by the sword; which first did murder their fellow creatures, men, and after plunder or steal away their land, and left this land successively to you, their children. And therefore, though you did not kill or thieve, yet you hold that cursed thing in your hand by the power of the sword; and so you justify the wicked deeds of your fathers, and that sin of your fathers shall be visited upon the head of you and your children to the third and fourth generation, and longer too, till your bloody and thieving power be rooted out of the land."
From A Watch-word to the City of London, and Arm:
- "Alas! you poor blind earth-moles, you strive to take away my livelihood and the liberty of this poor weak frame my body of flesh, which is my house I dwell in for a time; but I strive to cast down your kingdom of darkness, and to open hell gates, and to break the devil's bonds asunder wherewith you are tied, and that you my enemies may live in peace; and that is all the harm I would have you to have."
From A New-year's Gift for the Parliament and Army:
- "The life of this dark kingly power, which you have made an act of Parliament and oath to cast out, if you search it to the bottom, you shall see it lies within the iron chest of cursed covetousness, who gives the earth to some part of mankind and denies it to another part of mankind: and that part that hath the earth, hath no right from the law of creation to take it to himself and shut out others; but he took it away violently by theft and murder in conquest."
From The Law of Freedom in a Platform:
- "if they prove desperate, wanton or idle, and will not quietly submit to the law, the task-master is to feed them with short diet, and to whip them, for a rod is prepared for the fool's back, till such time as their proud hearts do bend to the law ... If any have so highly broke the laws as they come within the compass of whipping, imprisoning and death, the executioner shall cut off the head, hang or shoot to death, or whip the offender according to the sentence of law. Thus you may see what the work of every officer in a town or city is."
The song, "The World Turned Upside Down," by English folksinger Leon Rosselson, weaves many of Winstanley's own words into the lyrics.
An older song, the "Diggers' Song", said to be written by Gerrard Winstanley was recorded by the English group Chumbawamba on their "English Rebel Songs 1381–1914" in 1988. As the lyrics are Winstanley's, they paint a better picture of the time period in song.
- Bradstock, Andrew (2000) Winstanley and the Diggers 1649–1999 Frank Cass, London p.20;
- Alsop, JD (April 1989) Ethics in the Marketplace: Gerrard Winstanley's London Bankruptcy, 1643 Journal of British Studies no.28 p. 97–119;
- See Friends House Library, London, William Caton MS 3 p. 147.
- R. T. Vann 'From Radicalism to Quakerism: Gerrard Winstanley and Friends' Journal of the Friend's Historical Society, XLIX (1959–61) pp. 41–46.
- Boulton, David. "Militant Seedbeds of Early Quakerism Winstanley and Friends". Retrieved 25 November 2007.
- See James Alsop, 'Gerrard Winstanley's Later Life' Past and Present no.82 (1979) pp. 73–81 and J. D. Alsop, Gerrard Winstanley: Religion and Respectability' Historical Journal Vol.28, No.3 (September 1985) pp. 705–709.
- Tony Benn (introduction), Gerrard Winstanley (2011). A Common Treasury. Verso. ISBN 978-1-84467-595-1.
- Gerard Winstanley: 17th Century Communist at Kingston A lecture by Christopher Hill, at Kingston University 24 January 1996.
- The Religion of Gerrard Winstanley and Digger Communism by Donald R. Sutherland
- A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England Winstanley & 44 others (1649) backup
- The True Levellers' Standard Advanced by Winstanley & 14 others (April 1649) backup
- The Law of Freedom in a Platform by Gerrard Winstanley
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