- J. C. Davis
- and J. D. Alsop
Winstanley, Gerrard (bap. 1609, d. 1676), author and Digger, was baptized in the parish of Wigan, Lancashire, on 10 October 1609 the son of Edward Winstanlie, a mercer. A major puzzle is what in his sometimes obscure, but never entirely impenetrable, background contributed to the emergence of his formidable radicalism. Neither his father's precise place of residence nor Gerrard's mother's name are given in the baptismal records, and since Wigan was a large parish with a substantial number of residents named Winstanley it has proved impossible to establish his parental background more precisely. There is no evidence that the family was of anything but modest standing in the parish. It is frequently assumed that Gerrard attended the local grammar school but no enrolment records for the period are extant. In the early seventeenth century the parish experienced some religious heterodoxy but in the main it was characterized by plain, uncontroversial protestantism. The region was to be predominantly royalist in the civil war.
Early life to 1648
For Winstanley's life the most significant, recoverable family connection in Wigan was with the family of Gilbert and Margaret Mason. It was most probably through them that Winstanley's family were introduced to Sarah Gater, a London merchant tailor, with whom the Masons' younger son, Henry, was apprenticed from 1623 until 1630. Widowed in 1624 at the age of nineteen, Sarah Gater carried on her late husband's business and when Winstanley followed Henry Mason into her household as an apprentice, on 25 March 1630, she had already resettled it in the parish of her birth, St Michael Cornhill. She owned a library of books on divinity and medicine, substantially inherited from her relative, another Henry Mason, one-time rector of St Andrew Undershaft and prebendary of St Paul's. Gater's household, like its parish, appears to have been orthodox and conformist throughout the 1630s. Sarah had a close relationship with her 'dear cousin' the poet and essayist Izaak Walton, and he may well have visited the household in which Winstanley lived for much of the decade.
On 21 February 1638 Winstanley was admitted a freeman of the Merchant Taylors' Company and by 21 May 1639 had established his own household in the parish of St Olave Jewry. Parish rating assessments show that his was among the poorer of the self-reliant households but there may soon have begun a marginal improvement in his business of buying and selling textiles on credit. In June 1639 he took on Christopher Dicus, son of John Dicus, curate of Felsted in Essex, as an apprentice. John Dicus was a combative puritan serving in a parish central in the ecclesiastical patronage of Robert Rich, second earl of Warwick. If Christopher had been a pupil at Felsted School in the 1630s he would have been a contemporary of at least some of the four sons of Oliver Cromwell who attended that school.
On 28 September 1640 Winstanley married Susan King (b. 1612), daughter of William King, a barber–surgeon of Cateaton Street in the London parish of St Lawrence Jewry and, most significantly, owner of property in the manor of Ham in Cobham, Surrey. By 1641 Winstanley's modestly prosperous household comprised himself, his wife, Christopher Dicus, his apprentice, a maidservant, Jane Williams, and a lodger, Richard Whitefield. In April he became a regular attender at vestry meetings in St Olave's and so mixed with the parish élite including, on at least one occasion, the lord mayor of London, Sir Richard Gurney. At a vestry meeting on 4 January 1642 Winstanley voted with the minority in favour of wider participation in the selection of London representatives for common council. It is clear that he supported parliament in the civil war, and on Sunday 8 October 1643 he was among parishioners who took the solemn league and covenant. Since, however, almost all heads of households in St Olave's also subscribed, this is no indication of incipient radicalism. The parish of which he and his household were members had a history of unexceptional conformity. Thomas Tuke, the vicar since 1617, had complied with Laudian innovations in the 1630s. His removal by order of parliament in March 1643 was because of his vocal opposition to a war against the king, not in response to popular parochial agitation.
In any case, Winstanley had growing business preoccupations. His trade, probably always undercapitalized, was hurt by wartime disruption, particularly the collapse of the Irish market, and it was increasingly difficult for him to meet his creditors' demands. By May 1643 he was offering transfers of stock-in-trade rather than cash. In the autumn he divided his remaining stock among his creditors in partial settlement of his obligations, and ceased trading. Outstanding debts were to haunt him in litigation down to the early 1660s. Having disposed of his business in London, he had moved by 15 December to live nearer to his father-in-law's property at Cobham in Surrey. William King was established as one of the more prominent yeomen in that area and his support prevented Winstanley's descent into abject poverty. By 1646 Winstanley had a household and sufficient land under his control in the hamlet of Street Cobham to sustain himself as a modest grazier, pasturing his own and others' cattle and contracting to harvest supplies of winter fodder, activities in which he was involved until at least 1650.
Cobham was a dispersed village of three settlements, an important staging post on the London to Portsmouth road and, despite indifferent soils, its proximity to London encouraged the progressive farming of cash crops and livestock for the markets of the capital. One consequence of this was to exaggerate the polarization, common in the early seventeenth century, between landless labourers and entrepreneurial yeomen farmers and gentry. A further result was intense pressure from both directions on the commons and waste land: landlords had been pressing on customary rights since the later sixteenth century and commoners, cottagers, and squatters were seeking to assert or extend rights to the commons. A return to harsh times in the later 1640s, exacerbated by the exactions of war, which seem to have fallen unusually heavily on the Cobham area, must have served to increase these tensions. On 10 April 1646 Winstanley, with five other men and two women, was fined at Cobham manorial court for digging on waste land and taking peat and turf. This was probably a symbolic protest by manorial tenants, four of whom were local office holders. The incident should not be read as a straightforward precursor of the events of 1649 but it is revealing of tensions within the community over customary rights and restrictions.
The five years after 1643 were crucial for Winstanley's spiritual development but the process is frustratingly difficult to reconstruct. At some point he abandoned the Church of England and embraced a powerful anticlericalism. He may fleetingly have been a member of a Baptist congregation but there is no evidence that he was ever a lay preacher. Even reconstructing his relationship with William Everard, joint leader of the first digging experiment, is problematic. Links through John Fielder and Samuel Highland to John Lilburne, the Leveller leader, are also possible, but the evidence remains too fragmentary for the nature, influence, or relevance of these links to be established. In late 1647 and early 1648 Winstanley simultaneously went through a second financial collapse and a profound spiritual crisis. The former was brought on by drought and its impact on pastoralism, possibly aggravated by high taxation; the latter saw him struggling with severe depression and prolonged introspection to achieve the spiritual enlightenment and prophetic utterance which shaped his first publications in 1648.
First published writings, 1648–1649
Much inaccurate interpretation of Winstanley's earliest works has been based on reading them in extract rather than in full and they have been undeservedly overshadowed by the later works in defence or extension of the digging experiments. They were all substantial works: all went through a second printing and, underlining their coherence, were republished as a collection in Several Pieces Gathered into one Volume (1649). Their ambition must be set in the contexts of religious and ecclesiastical uncertainty, the bitterness of a second civil war, the fracturing of the victorious side in the aftermath of that war, the purge of parliament, and the trial and preparation for execution of the king. They were characterized by a powerful interrogative style and throughout them key arguments were supported by a full apparatus of scriptural citation. Their aims were first to explain God's ways in history and in the contemporary crisis, which was envisaged as one of apocalyptic dénouement, and second to offer Winstanley's fellow countrymen pastoral counsel on the spiritual, moral, and social difficulties confronting them in that crisis. While they began to develop a social and political programme, their core concern was to release their readers from religious anxiety, from formalities, and from the claims of competing, but spurious, authorities in order to prepare them for the promptings of the rising spirit of righteousness within each individual, fortifying them to follow those promptings rather than the teachings of worldly authorities.
Possibly the first of them, The Mysterie of God Concerning the Whole Creation, Mankind (1648), set out divine history in the biblical framework of seven dispensations. Two of them were focal for Winstanley. The Fall arose from man's 'aspiring selfishness', the desire for equality with God leading to pride, envy, discontent, and disobedience. Consequently, human beings betrayed their intended relationship with God by seeking fulfilment in other creatures rather than in the Creator. The second crucial dispensation was the imminent destruction of this power of darkness by a God who would then dwell in all men and women as he had once dwelt in Christ. All would be saved. All would be perfected. Despite his heavy marginal scriptural notations, Winstanley argued that true knowledge of these things came only by personal experience and the inner teaching of the spirit.
The Breaking of the Day of God (1648) dealt in greater detail with this last dispensation, which was already beginning as Christ rose in his saints, to whom the dedicatory preface of 20 May 1648 was addressed. They were living through 'the half day of the Beast reign which may be very hot, yet it wil be short'. As Christ's rising and redemptive spirit purged them, so too it would cast down the corruption of 'Common-wealths and Churches'. England, Scotland, and Ireland could then be the tenth part of Babylon which fell off first from the beast. Meanwhile, a struggle raged between the tutelage of books and men and the teaching of the indwelling God; between oppression and love; between formal, territorial churches and a church called out of the world; and between the persecution and the honouring of the communion of the saints. Formal institutions would collapse but government would not perish: 'magistrates will delight in doing justice for the good of the commonwealth'. And they would let the government of the church 'lie only on the shoulders of Christ' instead of attempting to sustain 'a usurped ecclesiastical power'. The exposition of the prophetic texts of scripture was thus brought back to bear on the current situation as the City of London and the county of Surrey, among others, wavered in the face of invasion from the north by a counter-revolutionary alliance of royal supporters and Scottish presbyterians.
In July, as the New Model Army campaigned to defeat that alliance, the prospect was of government by one conqueror or the other. At this juncture Winstanley published The Saints Paradise (1648), essentially a pastoral work, counselling those distracted by warring religious and civil authorities. Some assurance was attainable by ignoring the contested teachings of men and books and by relying on the direct teaching of God's indwelling spirit. Freed through these direct experiences, the saints could rest in God and, even in 'these Nationall hurly burlies', anxieties would not oppress them. Winstanley knew that this was not an easy process. The 'mysterie of iniquity' was apparent everywhere but God was allowing the hypocrites to destroy one another; the 'outside-professing-service-book man' versus the 'outside-professing Presbyter'. How was the saint to behave in this situation? It was all too easy to tell him to look to the God within him rather than the creature comforts of material possessions but what if:
I have no riches, no certain dwelling place, no way to get a subsistence, I am crossed in all, I have no cordiall friend, no succour from men; if any seems to succour me, it is for their owne ends, and when they have got what they can from me, they leave me, and turne enemies; so that the heart sees that he is left alone, and in this low estate, feare and distrust, two strong divels buffets the poor creature and squizes his spirit flat, for he sees nothing fulfilled to him, he feels no power from God, and his spirit droops.
In such a situation the saint might find no help available from other, similarly distracted, creatures. Looking inward, he might find only fear and unbelief. But this was the testing time, when Job must be the exemplar. The devil was nothing more than mankind's own proud flesh and must be crushed. 'The saints in all their afflictions look upon the hand of God that smites them, as Job did; but unbeleevers that live after the flesh and think it is the Devils power and not God.' The 'poor soule under bondage' had two sources of anxiety—a feeling of inner spiritual failure and a sense of the hostility of the external world. But the coming of Christ to deal with both was imminent: 'liberty is not far off'; 'oneness is near at hand'. 'Kingly, Parliamentary, and Army power' must know that all unrighteous powers would be destroyed—'now Jesus Christ is upon his rising from the dead, and will rule King of righteousness in flesh'. He would not come, as many thought, 'in one single person' but by rising within every man and woman 'till he enlighten the whole creation'. Winstanley took leave of his readers with three helpful scriptures ( Revelation 9: 4 and 20: 15; Matthew 12: 31) and the advice to follow the guidance of the golden rule: do unto others as you would be done by.
Winstanley was soon to have a more direct experience of the anxieties attendant upon sainthood in a hostile world. He was at Kingston in October 1648 when his friend William Everard was arrested for blasphemy. The exact circumstances are unclear but Everard, who may have been cashiered from the army and saw himself as a prophet, was to remain a key collaborator of Winstanley until the summer of 1649. His arrest prompted Winstanley to publish Truth Lifting up the Head above Scandals (1648), in which he tried to locate his pastoral concerns within a framework addressing the problem of authority. He began, appropriately enough in view of the circumstances, with the question: who has the authority to restrain religious differences? The scholars of Oxford and Cambridge, to whom his answer was addressed, falsely claimed such an authority. Scripture, on which their scholarly authority rested, was unsafe because there were no undisputed texts, translations, or interpretations. If authority was to be based in the spirit, as Winstanley thought it should be, then the university men could claim no special status. All people carried the spirit, and thus their own authority, within them. The academics and clergy were following their own imaginations rather than the spirit and, like 'the universall Bishop', must be seen as false prophets.
For the spirit of God in all creatures Winstanley used the term 'Reason'. It was a way of encapsulating not the absence but the immediacy of God. Human reason was much inferior—'so that many times men act contrary to reason, though they think they act according to reason'—and could not form a basis for legitimate authority. When Reason guided men's reasoning it led them to a right order, a right end and—preserving all things—'knits every creature together into a onenesse'. '… without this moderator and ruler, [there] would be madnesse', an anarchy consequential upon the 'selfwillednesse of the flesh'. It followed that 'Jesus Christ at a distance from thee, will never save thee; but a Christ within is thy saviour'. As the Fall had polluted and dislocated the natural environment, so the rising of Christ everywhere would restore it. In doing so 'he will change times and customs, and fill the earth with a new law, wherein dwels righteousness and peace. And justice and judgement shall be upholders of his Kingdom. And he shall fill the earth with himself.' Spiritual and physical renewal were, for the first time, to be complemented by social transformation. Meanwhile, the saints should wait meekly upon the Father's teaching, acting according to the golden rule and, if they must listen to other men's teachings, testing them against scripture without straining the text but giving precedence to those who spoke from their own spiritual experience.
The themes of the new law and new righteousness were further developed in The New Law of Righteousness published on 26 January 1649, four days before the execution of Charles I. Addressed to the 'Twelve Tribes of Israel', those in whom the spirit had already risen, its occasion was for Winstanley a moment fusing secular, political crisis with the culmination of divine history in the restoration of spiritual, social, and environmental harmony, the new law of righteousness. Fallen humanity prized power over creatures above understanding of the Creator. This resulted in covetousness, pride, envy, revenge, hypocrisy, and deceit: social misery. Now, for the first time, Winstanley linked this disposition to the inequities of property ownership. The pursuit of power led to the establishment of particular property in the earth—'as if the earth were made for a few, not for all men'—the buying and selling of commodities, including labour, and a system of law designed to legitimate the tyranny of the propertied and the slavery of the propertyless. Nevertheless, the latter shared responsibility for the system's maintenance, for 'the common-people by their labours … have lifted up their Land-lords and others to rule in tyranny and oppression over them'. But the rising spirit of righteousness was now linked with liberation from this system, itself a reflection of the fleshly side of men and their rebellion against God.
The flesh, then, reproduced inequality and the dominion of some over others; the spirit restored equality and the earth as a common treasury. The third and imminent ministration would effect the transformation from the former to the latter:
But this is not done by the hands of a few, or by unrighteous men, that would pul the tyrannical government out of other mens hands, and keep it in their own heart [hands], as we feel this to be the burden of our own age. But it is done by the universall spreading of the divine power, which is Christ in mankind making them all to act in one spirit, and in and after one law of reason and equity.
Dissimilar as this might be to the drama of regicide unfolding at Westminster, it would prove effective. Babylon would be destroyed within an hour. The rich would be brought down, their wealth redistributed, and creation equality restored:
for they shall all live as brethren, every one doing as they would be done by; and he that sees his brother in wants, and doth not help, shall smart for his iniquity, from the hand of the Lord, the righteous Judge that will sit upon the throne in every mans heart. There shall be no need of Lawyers, prisons, or engines of punishment one over another, for all shall walk and act righteously in the Creation, and there shall be no beggar, nor cause of complaining in all this holy Mountain.
Yet, even in this commonwealth of perfect moral performance, provision had to be made for those whose self-rule faltered, who broke the law of righteousness: 'He shall then become servant to others, and be as a fool in Israel.' While the saints should wait patiently, for Winstanley himself the time of waiting was nearly over: actions would soon replace words. The spirit had already spoken to him:
Worke together. Eat bread together … Whosoever it is that labours in the earth, for any person or persons, that lifts up themselves as Lords and Rulers over others, and that doth not look upon themselves equal to others in the Creation, the hand of the Lord shall be upon that labourer: I the Lord have spoke it and I will do it; Declare this all abroad.
The law of righteousness, then, involved complementary programmes of collective labour with communal living and the withdrawal of labour from hire. All that remained for Winstanley to act was for the Lord to 'shew me the place and manner, how he will have us that are called common people, to manure and work upon the common Lands'. But the vision—'common people' working and living together on the commons, mountains, and hills—was clear and it was just:
None can say, Their right is taken away from them; for let the rich work alone by themselves, and let the poor work together by themselves; the rich in their inclosures, saying This is mine; The poor upon the commons, saying This is ours, the earth and fruits are common.
Digging experiments: justification and defence, 1649–1650
On Sunday 1 April (or possibly 8 April) 1649 Winstanley and William Everard led a small group out to dig the common land on St George's Hill in Walton parish (adjacent to Cobham), preparing to sow parsnips, carrots, and beans. They wanted to realize the aspirations set out in The New Law of Righteousness and to test the logic of the revolutionary events of early 1649 which rid England of kingly government and claimed to make the English a free people living in a free commonwealth. Some biographical traces remain of over ninety individuals who joined this or other Digger communities over the next year. Predominantly local people, the majority came in during the spring and summer of 1649 (although an attempt in early 1650 to encourage digging communities elsewhere elicited a fresh wave of recruits). As well as the community on St George's Hill (which moved to Little Heath in Cobham parish in August 1649) effective digging communities were established at Iver in Buckinghamshire, Wellingborough in Northamptonshire, and Coxhall in Essex. Since some of the participants in Surrey were yeomen and labourers working in the same area, it is not surprising that they adopted the ‘advanced’ techniques and crops—for example, fallow crops and ‘up-and-down’ husbandry—familiar in northern Surrey for almost fifty years.
There had been a long-standing struggle in Walton to prevent outsiders from encroaching on the commons, which were already under intense pressure. Opposition to the Diggers came substantially from other yeomen and members of the middling sort. On 16 April Henry Saunders, a yeoman of the parish, complained to the council of state about the growing number of Diggers—now 'betweene 20 and 30'—and their burning of about 10 acres of heath. The council ordered the lord general, Sir Thomas Fairfax, to disperse them. On 19 April Captain John Gladman reported to him that there were no more than twenty people involved and that, while he would try to persuade them to depart, 'the business is not worth the writing nor yet taking notice of'. The following day Winstanley and Everard reported to Fairfax at Whitehall and were impressed by a moderation to which they repeatedly appealed in the following months.
The Diggers' first manifesto, The True Levellers Standard Advanced, signed by Winstanley and fourteen others, appeared on 26 April. On a millennial account of divine history it built a particular historical application to post-revolutionary England. The earth had been created a common treasury in which all were to share equally. The Fall saw some enclosing the earth and excluding others, tyrants whose theft and implied murder made slaves of the majority. As long as they continued to work for others for hire, the slaves were complicit in their own slavery. The tyrants, however, were also oppressed in so far as their expropriation of others alienated them from creation right and common preservation. But the millennium approached and it was 'the old world that is running up like parchment in the fire and wearing away'. More particularly, the events of 1648–9 had promised to make the English a 'Free People' but oppression, destitution, and confusion were greater than ever. It was time to renew the foundations of the earth as a common treasury, freeing England from the legacy of the Fall and its particular consolidation in the Norman conquest. Essential to this restoration was that 'the poor that have no land, have a free allowance to dig and labour the commons'. Begun on St George's Hill was a restoration which would spread to 'all the Commons and waste ground in England, and in the whole World'. These themes—the millennial context, the civil-war contract between parliament, army, and people, and the logic of a revolution which overthrew kingly government and declared the English a free people—remained constant, and indeed had been anticipated in the anonymous Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (5 December 1648) and More Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (30 March 1649). Activism was justified by the direct command of God and the growing suspicion that neither parliament nor army would deliver on the promises of the revolution.
This message was relayed to the lords of manors by Winstanley and forty-four other signatories in A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England (1 June 1649). While buying and selling should be proscribed—since premissed on particular propriety—the Diggers, waiting for their first crop yields, proposed to sell wood from the commons in order to buy food, ploughs, carts, and corn. No threat would be made to private property, but the promises of reformation and liberation made from the solemn league and covenant through to the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords must be honoured. A Declaration was the first of a series of appeals to potential opponents—gentry, parliament, army, lawyers, and clergy—which were published over the next ten months.
However, some enemies were closer to home. On 9 June 1649 Fairfax received a letter from Winstanley appealing to his 'mildnesse and moderation' and complaining of the violence of some soldiers against the Diggers. The letter, nevertheless, breathed confidence. Fairfax's protection was not essential, since God was their protector. Their digging was now 'the talk of the whole land'. Many country people who had been initially offended were now more sympathetic. In Walton there were only one or two covetous freeholders who would uphold the Norman tyranny. God's work and the fulfilment of the 'Nationall Covenant' to liberate all the English, Fairfax was reminded, met in the restoration of the earth as a common treasury.
But the violence at the heart of an exclusive system of property was confirmed for Winstanley when on 11 June four Diggers preparing to sow a winter crop were beaten by men dressed as women in an assault led by two yeomen, William Starr and John Taylor. Later in the month the law's character as an expression of this violence was exemplified for him when suits for trespass were brought at Kingston against the Diggers. In An Appeal to the House of Commons (24 July 1649) he sought the adjudication of the Rump. The solemn league and covenant bound them to reformation according to the word of God. This must mean the restoration of a prelapsarian common treasury. To achieve that, parliament and people had contracted together to free England from the Norman yoke. The gentry and clergy were now free from Norman entanglements, able to enjoy their enclosures in peace. Commoners should likewise be free to cultivate the commons and waste lands. Parliament's decision to maintain the old laws was to preserve the 'yoaks and manicles' which enslaved some to others; custom was but conquest perpetuated. If the enslaving laws were not cast out, parliament would have broken its contract with the people, would be guilty of the murder and theft which had always underlain Norman laws, and would pull the blood guilt—for which it had executed Charles I—on to its own head. This threat of a revived or perpetuated Normanism was also the central message of Winstanley's A Watchword to the City of London and Armie (10 September 1649).
Harassment in Walton and Kingston had caused the original settlement of Surrey Diggers to be relocated in August from St George's Hill to Little Heath in Cobham manor. This may have been because a core group of the Diggers—including Winstanley—had stronger associations with Cobham than with Walton. They may have also anticipated more sympathetic support from the yeomanry and labourers of Cobham. The lords of the manor there—since the 1560s the Gavell family—had a history of pressing on customary common and timber rights. The parish had been without a minister since 1644 and had borne a heavy burden of taxation and free-quarter in the civil wars. There is evidence of polarization between commoners and landlords, and certainly the hostility which the relocated community encountered was led and orchestrated by the local gentry—Sir Anthony Vincent, Thomas Sutton, and John Platt, rector of West Horsley. By December, Winstanley was again appealing to Fairfax. On 28 November a group of soldiers had destroyed two houses, had taken away wood, and had cast two or three old people out into the open. Winstanley was also concerned about the impact of Parson Platt's allegations to the council of state that the Diggers were violently riotous, dissolute, and even cavaliers—a source of disorder. In response he developed the theme that the establishment of a 'free Commonwealth' with access for the poor to a common treasury was the way to preserve order, a theme also emphasized by Robert Coster in A Mite Cast into the Common Treasury (18 December 1649).
Over the winter of 1649–50 there appears to have been a reassessment of strategy. This led, on the one hand, to a missionary tour through Middlesex, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, and Northamptonshire which met with some success. On the other hand, the task of restoring a common treasury was reappraised, the strength of vested interests was reassessed, and the conclusion was drawn that both more thoroughgoing reformation and insistence that common preservation offered the best prospect of a stable and orderly society were required. The first fruits of this analysis were seen in Winstanley's A New Yeers Gift for the Parliament and Armie (1 January 1650). Parliament's demolition of kingly power had so far been restricted to words and symbols rather than deeds and substance. To remove it effectively, kingly power had to be identified in full. 'For kingly power is like a great spread tree, if you lop the head or top bow, and let the other branches and root stand, it will grow again and recover fresh strength.' Its life lay in 'cursed Covetousness', enclosing the earth by murder, theft, and the rule of the sword. As Charles I had ruled by a Norman title, so did all those whose title to land was based in the old laws. Tithing priests, enclosing landlords, and bad judges administering bad laws perpetuated the tyranny. 'If the fault lies in the laws, and much does, burn all your old Law Books in Cheapside, & set up a Government upon your own Foundation.' Nevertheless, real reformation could begin with the 'excellent and Righteous' laws casting out kingly power and proclaiming a free commonwealth. It was false to claim that the Diggers wanted no government. They desired a righteous government 'with all our hearts' but, given a situation which vested possession of the earth in a few and excluded the many, 'England is a Prison; the variety of subtilties in the Laws preserved by the Sword, are bolts, bars and doors of the prison.' The power of lawyers—the gaolers who imprisoned the poor in this system—was now 'the only power that hinders Christ from rising'. Both the substance of religion—not its denial—and the substance of the parliamentary cause, in the overthrow of Norman tyranny, now rested on the Diggers' efforts. They threatened no one. The sole alternative to their freedom was 'no Law, but Club-Law'. As part of the same reidentification of the Diggers, Winstanley soon urged support for the Commonwealth by subscription to the engagement and dissociated his movement from 'the uncleane doggish beastly nature' of activities imputed to the Ranters.
In mid-March Winstanley addressed the clergy in Fire in the Bush. Did they have the power of love to match their words or were they trapped in the hypocrisy of preaching one thing while doing another? If they sustained a government which preserved some of the people while destroying the rest, they would be serving not Christ but Antichrist. Such a government was 'not worthy of the name, Magistracie; No, no; such a dividing, self loving power is an enemie to Magistracie'. Also in March, he published a manifesto for the growing number of digging communities, An Appeale to All Englishmen. Again it emphasized their warrant in scripture and in the ordinances abolishing monarchy, establishing a free commonwealth, and in the engagement, or oath of loyalty to that commonwealth. At some point Parson Platt had challenged him to prove from scripture that the earth was made to be a common treasury. His reply came in An Humble Request, published in April 1650 with the by now familiar combination of demonstration from divine history and recent English history. But, with spring advancing, Winstanley's enemies were determined to act decisively. On the Friday of Easter week, Platt with fifty men had fired six houses (or shelters) at the Cobham settlement. A three-man watch was maintained day and night to outwit the Diggers and pull down any shelters or tents which they erected. Elsewhere arrests, persecutions, and hostility brought the experiments to an end. By the autumn of the year, Winstanley and some of his supporters were contracting to thresh wheat—a contract which led to a dispute with the prophet Lady Eleanor Douglas—on the estate of the Hastings family at Pirton in Hertfordshire. By 1652 Winstanley had returned to Cobham, where he witnessed the will of the Digger John Coulton.
The Law of Freedom, 1651–1652
Winstanley's best-known work, The Law of Freedom, was published in February 1652 after twenty months of silence following the collapse of the digging experiments. Some of the material on which it was based was clearly available in late 1649 and early 1650 but it is impossible to establish the time at which it was written with any precision and perhaps wisest to accept that Winstanley viewed it as ready for publication only by late 1651. It was a carefully constructed and polished document, intended to enlist the power and influence of Oliver Cromwell and to persuade a wide audience of the justice, practicality, and restorative capacity of what was now presented as a national scheme.
Prominent among the themes which Winstanley continued to rehearse in The Law of Freedom were the twin legitimations of divine history and recent English history. The restoration of true magistracy would be an act of millennial fulfilment. The earth's transformation to a common treasury and the redirection of society towards common preservation, the 'Original Root of Magistracy', 'the antient of days' restored, was warranted in detail by scripture. The blending of the generalities of divine history with the specifics of the covenant between people, parliament, and army in the struggles against tyrannical kingly government in England reached its point of convergence in the person of Oliver Cromwell. He had been honoured above any man 'since Moses time, to be the Head of a People, who have cast out an Oppressing Pharaoh'. The ordinances against monarchy, for a free commonwealth and the engagement had pointed the way. It was necessary that Cromwell act so 'that the power and the name may agree together'. It was a choice between law and order or will and confusion continued through the oppressions of the clergy, lawyers, and lords of manors, upheld by a hereditary parliament. The golden rule was again invoked as a divinely sanctioned guide to just social conduct, rationally accessible to all. The formula established earlier—the gentry should be free to enjoy their enclosures while the poor could cultivate the commons—remained operative. Those who wished to remain in the world of buying and selling would not be compelled to join the society of the magistracy restored.
However, the land which should reasonably be available to the new society was much more completely and systematically defined. Now described as 'Commonwealths Land', it included lands confiscated as a result of victories in the civil wars—'Parks, forest, chases, and the like'—as well as 'the ancient Commons and waste Land'. What was also new was an impressive attempt to tackle some of the fundamental issues of political discourse confronting a society undergoing post-revolutionary and post-war reconstruction. Freedom, government, and law were all freshly defined and classified. Freedom was not in the right to trade, nor to preach, nor in sexual liberty, nor in the capacity of the elder brothers to expropriate the younger. 'True Commonwealths Freedom lies in the free Enjoyment of the Earth.' Government was 'a wise and free ordering of the Earth, and the Manners of Mankind by observation of particular Laws or Rules, so that all the Inhabitants may live peaceably in plenty and freedom in the Land where they are born and bred'. Kingly government could not meet these criteria. It was based on deceit—'politick wit'—or conquest, and in perpetuating buying and selling, based as they were on murder and theft, was closer to 'Club Law' than to real government. Commonwealth's government, by contrast:
governs the earth without buying and selling; and thereby becomes a man of peace and the Restorer of Ancient Peace and Freedom: he makes provision for the oppressed, the weak and the simple, as well as for the rich, the wise and the strong: He beats swords and spears into pruning hooks and plows; he makes both elder and younger brother Free-men in the Earth.
For the first time Winstanley did not rely on the spirit of righteousness rising in individuals to underwrite such a regime. There must be laws, public-spirited officers, and 'a faithful Execution of those Laws'. The ethos of such government might still reside in 'universal Righteousness dwelling in Mankinde, now rising up to teach every one to do to another as he would have another do to him', but law, which would govern men and other creatures, was essential 'for the preservation of the common peace'. One of the most marked discontinuities, then, was a much greater emphasis in The Law of Freedom on external law and sanctions. Fleeting reference had been made in The New Law of Righteousness to the possibility of servitude as a penalty but, in the main, great reliance had been placed in the social potential of a restored human goodness. Now Winstanley repeatedly stressed the continuing characteristics of a humanity all too prone to selfishness, conflict, and social disharmony: 'unreasonable ignorance', 'ignorant and rude fancy', the 'spirit of rudeness', the fact that youth was 'wanton and foolish', and the 'spirit in Mankinde is various within it self' all meant that the problem of a government that could contain such faults had to be thought through. Even an army was necessary because of those who pursued their own interests rather than common freedom. True government was 'a right ordering of all actions' and the scope of law was necessarily comprehensive. 'There must be suitable Laws for every occasion, and almost for every action that men do.' There is no indication that Winstanley thought that these requirements were merely transitional.
The earth—or at least the commonwealth's land—should be set free for the establishment of communities in which there would be: no buying and selling, no hiring of labour, no idleness; the education of all in trades and productive work; public storehouses for working materials and finished goods, from which all could take freely but not wastefully; and households in which homes, furnishings, wives, and children could be private rather than communal assets. The officers who supervised, managed, and policed these arrangements would be elected annually from those of suitable character and disposition. They ranged from fathers of families (the election of whom was held to be implicit in familial relationships) to overseers of the peace, trades, storehouses, and shops, and those who supervised other officers. Soldiers of the citizen militia were also regarded as officers of the commonwealth. Taskmasters would supervise the work and behaviour of slaves or bondmen. There would be an executioner in every parish who 'shal cut off the head, hang, or shoot to death, or whip the offender according to the sentence of Law'. Courts would meet regularly in every county. There would be no lawyers. Every man would be his own advocate and courts would not interpret but apply 'the bare Letter of the Law'. Annually elected parliaments would oversee all other courts and officers and remove all grievances. They would develop the commonwealth's land, abolish oppressive Norman laws and replace them with new laws based on reason and equity, prevent the oppressions associated with landlords, clergy, and lawyers, and manage military activity against foreign forces or domestic insurrection. Postmasters in every parish and city would collect, collate, and redistribute local, regional, and national news and useful information. Every seventh day was set apart for 'ministers' to report the affairs of the commonwealth, and to read—but not expound—the laws of the commonwealth. Lectures on history, the arts, and the science and the nature of man, which were based on experience not imagination, would be organized. There was no public ministry in the religious sense.
The Law of Freedom concluded with sixty-two 'short and pithy' laws, which embodied the framework of a new commonwealth, a rule of laws and not of will. They covered the administration of law; punishments for offences; the regulation of agriculture and the prevention of idleness; the management of storehouses and the prevention of buying and selling; overseas trade; the election of officers; and the management of slaves and of the family and household. Violence was to be punished in kind—an eye for an eye—and judicial slavery for a minimum term of one year was to be meted out for a wide variety of offences, as were corporal and capital punishments. Like other utopias, Winstanley's was locked in an implacable struggle with the deficiencies of human nature. Reliance on the spirit within for social transformation was no longer an option. Unlike his early works, The Law of Freedom was not reprinted in Winstanley's lifetime and there is little evidence of great contemporary interest in it.
Later life, 1652–1676
Winstanley's life after 1652 is characterized by a resumption of local standing and respectability with some degree of religious nonconformity. About 1657 William King assigned the use of his property in the manor of Ham, Cobham parish, to Gerrard and Susan Winstanley. Two years later Winstanley became a way warden of Cobham parish—a position he held again in 1666—and in 1660 this assumption of local office was consolidated when he became an overseer of the poor in the parish. When in that year Laurence Clarkson attacked him for 'a most shameful retreat from Georges-hill … to become a real Tithe-gatherer of propriety', Winstanley was already on the way to assuming a position of responsibility in a post-Restoration community. By 1664 his wife had died. The marriage had produced no surviving children, and his father-in-law bought out Winstanley's interest in the Cobham property for £50. Despite this Winstanley retained important connections with the parish. In July 1664, at St Giles Cripplegate in London, he was married to Elizabeth Stanley (or Standly), daughter of Gabriel Stanley, whose extended family may have had links with that of William King; they had a son (baptized Gerrard in 1665) and subsequently a daughter and a second son, both of whom were baptized in Cobham parish. In 1667 and 1668 Winstanley served as a churchwarden in that parish and he was appointed one of two chief constables for the Elmbridge hundred in Surrey for 1671–2. In 1675, now resident in St Giles-in-the-Fields, Middlesex, he was involved in a chancery case as overseer of the will of his second wife's uncle, a case in which his financial skill does not appear in a good light. His death, on 10 September 1676, and interment were recorded in the burial register of the Westminster monthly meeting of the Society of Friends, which described him as a corn chandler and Quaker of St Giles-in-the-Fields. His interest in Quakerism may have gone back to the mid-1650s when, in 1654, Edward Burrough, the Quaker leader, noted a 'Wilstandley' assisting him in London; or it may have been his second wife who was the driving force in this connection. What is noteworthy is Winstanley's reabsorption into a responsible role in the governance of his adopted community, immediately prior to and during the Restoration, and that community's willingness to accept him in a position of some authority.
Reputation and significance
The view that Winstanley and the Diggers—'a poor company of half crazed men', 'infatuated persons'—were dangerous and deluded was a perception shared by many contemporaries and historians down to the end of the nineteenth century. Slightly more sympathetically, S. R. Gardiner depicted them as unrealistic visionaries. The first phase of their rehabilitation was the work of the left and began with Edward Bernstein's Cromwell and Communism (first published in German in 1895 and in English translation in 1930). There followed a steady flow of texts rediscovering and celebrating Winstanley as a precursor of modern socialism and the embodiment of a more proletarian struggle for social justice in an essentially bourgeois English revolution. One of the finest depictions of Winstanley in this light was D. W. Petegorsky's Left-Wing Democracy in the English Civil War (1940). In the following year George H. Sabine's edition of most of Winstanley's works made them much more accessible. Interest in seventeenth-century radicalism and the depth and sophistication of its study developed strongly in the second half of the twentieth century. Its first culmination was Christopher Hill's The World Turned Upside Down (1972). In that and other writings Hill developed an influential view of Winstanley as a profound and powerful advocate of a revolt within the English revolution whose ultimate failure to achieve a wider social justice scarred British society and culture for the following three centuries. Nevertheless, his heroic vision, and development of a literary style and rhetoric through which to communicate it, remained remarkable achievements, suitable for celebration. Winstanley has remained an icon of the left, featuring not only in numerous historical and literary accounts but as the central protagonist in David Caute's novel Comrade Jacob (1961) and in Andrew Mollo's and Kevin Brownlow's feature film Winstanley (1975). Latterly Winstanley and his works have featured online, where he is presented as an early environmentalist as well as socialist.
The central historical puzzle remains: how could someone who came from and returned to a conventional, or quiescent, background have articulated a thoroughgoing repudiation of the values and institutions of his society, based on a penetrating analysis of its underlying weaknesses? One approach has been to impute an intellectual debt to others—Thomas More, Francis Bacon, the familists, or other sectarians—but there is no evidence to sustain these links. Another has been to emphasize the radical nature of his thought—the discursive breach with his contemporaries—either by an intellectual leap into predominantly secular modes of thought or, by contrast, through drawing on occult or hermeticist thinking. Neither claim stands up to a reading of his work as a whole. It may be more instructive to see him as revealing of the transformative potentials inherent in vernacular scripture and protestant social thought as well as within the tensions of early modern communities polarized by economic inequality but straining for communal self-government. He was not the only writer of his time to suggest the inequitable and unchristian nature of private property and its unequal distribution, or that applied Christianity would end material inequalities, or that the millennium will bring this about if men would not. But he was the most systematic in formulating alternatives, the most prepared to argue through the relationship between God and the creation which justified a more equitable society and the divine history which was bringing it to pass, as well as the most remorseless in pursuing the logic of the rhetoric of the English revolution as a way to persuade his contemporaries of the justice of this vision. In short, Winstanley and his ideas remain pivotal for the understanding of the limits of the possible within seventeenth-century discourse and action.
- The works of Gerrard Winstanley, ed. G. H. Sabine (1941)
- G. E. Aylmer, ed., ‘England's spirit unfoulded, or, An incouragement to take the engagement: a newly discovered pamphlet by Gerrard Winstanley’, Past and Present, 42 (1969), 3–15
- K. Thomas, ‘Another Digger broadside’, Past and Present, 42 (1969), 59–68
- E. Bernstein, Cromwell and communism, trans. H. J. Stenning (1930)
- D. W. Petegorsky, Left-wing democracy in the English civil war: a study of the social philosophy of Gerrard Winstanley (1940)
- P. H. Hardacre, ‘Gerrard Winstanley in 1650’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 22 (1958–9), 345–9
- C. Hill, The world turned upside down (1972)
- O. Lutaud, Winstanley: socialisme et christianisme sous Cromwell (1976)
- L. Mulligan, J. Graham, and J. Richards, ‘Winstanley: a case for the man as he said he was’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 28/1 (1977), 57–75
- C. Hill, ‘The religion of Gerrard Winstanley’, Past and Present, suppl. 5 (1978) [whole issue]
- T. W. Hayes, Winstanley the Digger: a literary analysis of radical ideas in the English revolution (1979)
- J. D. Alsop, ‘Gerrard Winstanley's later life’, Past and Present, 82 (1979), 73–81
- J. C. Davis, Utopia and the ideal society (1981), chap. 7
- J. D. Alsop, ‘Gerrard Winstanley: religion and respectability’, HJ, 28 (1985), 705–9
- T. Kenyon, Utopian communism and political thought in early modern England (1989)
- G. M. Shulman, Radicalism and reverence: the political thought of Gerrard Winstanley (1989)
- N. Smith, Perfection proclaimed: language and literature in English radical religion, 1640–1660 (1989)
- D. Mulder, The alchemy of revolution: Gerrard Winstanley's occultism and seventeenth century communism (1990)
- J. D. Alsop, ‘Revolutionary puritanism in the parishes? The case of St Olave, Old Jewry’, London Journal, 15/1 (1990), 29–37
- G. Schiavone, Winstanley: il profeta della rivoluzione inglese (1991)
- R. J. Dalton, ‘Gerrard Winstanley: the experience of fraud, 1641’, HJ, 34 (1991), 973–84 [see also J. D. Alsop's reply in HJ, 38 (1995), 1013–15]
- T. N. Corns, Uncloistered virtue: English political literature, 1640–1660 (1992)
- J. Holstun, ‘Rational hunger: Gerrard Winstanley's Hortus inconclusus’, Pamphlet wars: prose in the English revolution, ed. J. Holstun (1992), 158–204
- J. Gurney, ‘Gerrard Winstanley and the Digger movement in Walton and Cobham’, HJ, 37 (1994), 775–802
- J. D. Alsop, ‘A high road to radicalism? Gerrard Winstanley's youth’, Seventeenth Century, 9/1 (1994), 11–24
- M. Rogers, ‘Gerrard Winstanley on crime and punishment’, Sixteenth Century Journal, 27 (1996), 735–47
- J. D. Alsop, ‘Gerrard Winstanley: what do we know of his life?’, Prose Studies, 22/2 (1999), 19–36
- J. Arrowsmith and F. Wrigley, eds., Registers of the parish church of Wigan, 1580–1625 (1899), 74
- CLRO, MSS
- GL, MSS
- Hunt. L., MSS
- St George's Chapel, Windsor, MSS
- Surrey HC, MSS
- Wigan Archive Services, MSS
- TNA: PRO, SP 18/42; 28/245
- TNA: PRO, C 5/581/55; 6/44/101; 6/244/96; 9/412/269; 33/220
- TNA: PRO, E 179/252/5
- TNA: PRO, ASSI 35/91
Wealth at Death
TNA: PRO, PROB 11/223; 11/316; 11/320