Gerrard Winstanley (19 October 1609 – 10 September 1676) was an English Protestant
religious reformer, political philosopher, and activist during the period of the Commonwealth of England
. Winstanley was the leader and one of the founders of the English group known as the True Levellers or Diggers
. The group occupied formerly common land
that had been privatised 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, the son of Edward Winstanley, mercer
, and was baptised in the parish of Wigan
, then part of the West Derby hundred
. 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
, Dalton, Haigh
, and Upholland
, as well as Wigan itself.
In 1630, Winstanley migrated to the City of London
, where he became an apprentice
to a Merchant Tailor. In 1638, he was admitted as a freeman of the Merchant Tailors' Company
, a trade guild
. In 1639, he married Susan King, the daughter of William King, a London surgeon.
English Civil Wars
The First English Civil War
disrupted Winstanley’s business, and in 1643 he was made bankrupt. His father-in-law helped him to move to Cobham, Surrey
, where he initially worked as a cowherd.
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. Winstanley became active as a Leveller, then led a faction known as the True Levellers, who were branded "Diggers" because of their actions. Whereas Lilburne had sought to "level the laws", while maintaining the right to the ownership of real property, Winstanley sought to level the ownership of real property itself, which is why he and his followers called themselves "True Levellers".
The New Law of Righteousness
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: "And all that believed were together, and had all things common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need." Winstanley argued that
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 n landand 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:
:When Adam delved and Eve span,
:Who was then the gentleman?
On 1 April 1649, Winstanley and his followers took over vacant or common lands on St George's Hill in Surrey. Other Digger colonies followed in Buckinghamshire, Kent, and Northamptonshire. Their action was to cultivate the land and distribute food without charge to any who would join them in the work. Local landowners took fright from the Diggers' activities and in 1650 sent hired armed men to beat the Diggers and destroy their colony. Winstanley protested to the government, but to no avail, and eventually 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 aristocratic mystic Lady Eleanor Davies. This employment lasted less than a year. It ended when Davies accused Winstanley of mismanaging her property, and he then 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 non-hierarchical lines, though one likely to have voluntary patriarchs.
By 1654 Winstanley was possibly assisting Edward Burrough, an early leader of the Quakers, later called the Society of Friends. It seems that Winstanley remained a Quaker for the rest of his life, since 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 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, will eventually be reconciled to God; 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 in Cobham, from his father-in-law William King. This marked Winstanley's renovation in social status locally and he became waywarden of the parish in 1659, overseer of the poor in 1660 and churchwarden of the Church of England parish church in 1667–68. He was elected Chief Constable of Elmbridge, Surrey, in October 1671. These offices on the face of it conflicted with Winstanley's apparent Quakerism, a religion which later became more quietist.
When Susan died about 1664, Winstanley sold the land in Cobham to King for £50. Winstanley returned to London to trade, whilst retaining some 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.
The Soviet-era Alexander Garden Obelisk in Moscow, Russia, in 1918 included his name among a list of outstanding thinkers and personalities of the struggle for the liberation of workers.
In 1999, the British activist group The Land is Ours celebrated the Digger movement's 350th anniversary with a march and reoccupation of St George's Hill, the site of the first Digger colony. Like the original colony, this settlement was quickly disbanded.
Since 2010 a Wigan Diggers’ Festival has been held annually in Winstanley's birth town of Wigan 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 ().
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 () and reprinted several times since, most recently in 2011 (paperback) by Verso Books (UK) with an introduction by Tony Benn ().
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.
In 2009 UKA Press released ''Winstanley: Warts and all'' (), the story of the making of the film "Winstanley", written by film director and film historian Kevin Brownlow.
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 Winstanley was recorded by the English group Chumbawamba on their ''English Rebel Songs 1381–1914'' in 1988.
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 Army'':
*"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."
Winstanley and German Protestant revolutionary Thomas Müntzer both supported anarchism. Libertarian socialist scholar Murray Bookchin: "In the modern world, anarchism first appeared as a movement of the peasantry and yeomanry against declining feudal institutions. In Germany its foremost spokesman during the Peasant Wars was Thomas Müntzer; in England, Gerrard Winstanley, a leading participant in the Digger movement. The concepts held by Müntzer and Winstanley were superbly attuned to the needs of their time – a historical period when the majority of the population lived in the countryside and when the most militant revolutionary forces came from an agrarian world. It would be painfully academic to argue whether Müntzer and Winstanley could have achieved their ideals. What is of real importance is that they spoke to their time; their anarchist concepts followed naturally from the rural society that furnished the bands of the peasant armies in Germany and the New Model in England."
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
by Winstanley & 14 others (April 1649
''The Law of Freedom in a Platform''
by Gerrard Winstanley
''The Wigan Diggers' Festival website''
by Gerrard Winstanley at the Ex-Classics Web Site
Category:People from Wigan
Category:Converts to Quakerism
Category:English Christian socialists
Category:English Christian universalists
Category:People of the English Civil War
Category:17th-century Christian mystics
Category:17th-century Christian universalists