Winstanley, William (d. 1698), compiler of biographies and poet
by William E. Burns

Winstanley, William (d. 1698), compiler of biographies and poet, was the second son of Henry Winstanley of Quendon, Essex, and his wife, Elizabeth; the builder was his nephew. Winstanley was sworn as a freeman of Saffron Walden on 21 April 1649 and maintained the association throughout his life. Anthony Wood asserted that he was also for a time a barber in London, but there is no other evidence for this. Winstanley lived most of his life in Quendon, a small village a few miles from Saffron Walden.

His first published work was The Muses Cabinet, Stored with Variety of Poems (1655). It was dedicated to William Holgate, a lifelong friend of Winstanley's, and included prefatory verses by John Vaughan. One poem is dedicated to the memory of Winstanley's first wife, Martha, who died in January 1653. Another is an epigram praising John Taylor the water poet, whom Winstanley greatly admired. The book also contains a poem satirizing almanac makers and astrological prediction, foreshadowing Winstanley's future career as a writer of the Poor Robin series of parody almanacs.

The year 1660 saw England's Worthies: Select Lives of the most Eminent Persons, a biographical compilation spanning the time from the emperor Constantine to Oliver Cromwell, whom Winstanley treats in a fairly neutral manner. Winstanley attempted to maximize his chances for patronage by dedicating the work to three different noblemen, Lord Herbert of Raglan, William Seymour, Lord Beauchamp, and Charles Dormer, Lord Dormer of Wing. He also included a dedicatory epistle to Thomas Salisbury. A second edition appeared in 1684 with the life of Cromwell omitted and new dedications to somewhat humbler figures, Giles Dent, esquire, and Winstanley's aunt Mary Leader of Saffron Walden.

Like his hero Taylor, Winstanley's politics were royalist. His most explicitly political book was The Loyall Martyrology (1665). The book is dedicated to Sir John Robinson, lieutenant of the Tower of London. In addition to biographies of the standard canon of royalist martyrs, including Charles I himself, the earl of Strafford, and Archbishop William Laud, Winstanley branches out to include two presbyterians, the duke of Hamilton, and the Revd Christopher Love, justifying their inclusion on the grounds that ‘the main end of their designs was loyalty’ (‘The preface to the reader’, Loyall Martyrology). Shortly afterwards he published a very different book, The honour of Merchant Taylours, wherein is set forth the noble acts, valiant deeds, and heroic performance of Merchant-Taylors in former ages (1668). This combined information about the London Merchant Taylors, praises of merchant tailors in general, and a heavily fictionalized romantic biography of Sir John Hawkwood, the medieval mercenary who had been originally a tailor.

Another and very heterogeneous compilation was Histories and Observations Domestick and Foreign, a collection of excerpts and anecdotes from historians, pamphleteers, and travel writers which appeared in 1683 with a dedication to Sir Thomas Middleton of Stansted Mountfitchet. In the foreword Winstanley claimed to have written ‘above sevenscore books’. Histories and Observations was republished the next year as Historical Rarities and Curious Observations Domestick and Foreign. Even more successful was a book of anecdotes and facetious remarks asserted to be a help to conversation for the uneducated and inarticulate, New Help to Discourse, or, Wit and Mirth Intermixt with More Serious Matters, which went through four editions between 1669 and 1696.

Winstanley's 1687 Lives of the Most Famous English Poets, dedicated to Francis Bradbury, discusses 168 English poets, beginning with Roger of Gloucester in the middle ages and ending with Winstanley's own contemporaries. It is principally recalled for its claim regarding John Milton, that ‘his fame has gone out like a candle in a snuff and his memory will always stink’ (p. 195). Winstanley's assertion has nothing to do with his beliefs regarding the quality of Milton's poetry, but expresses his detestation of Milton's republican politics. Winstanley's views are also clear in his fulsome praise of the poetry and politics of royalists like John Taylor, John Cleaveland, and Sir Roger L'Estrange, whose biography ends the book. Winstanley's laudatory discussion of William Shakespeare is a good example of the confusion which raged over the Shakespeare canon in the late seventeenth century, as he ascribes no fewer than forty-eight plays to him, including The Yorkshire Tragedy and The Puritan Widow. One of Winstanley's main sources, only some of which he credited, was Edward Phillips's Theatrum poetarum (1675), but his discussions are much more elaborate than Phillips's and he includes many quotations. He also did some primary research, including conversations with living poets. Unlike Phillips and other previous constructors of a canon of English poets, Winstanley included no women, perhaps a reflection of the misogyny that emerges strongly in his other writings. In the work he expressed hope of bringing out a second and improved edition, but it never appeared. A copy in the British Library has marginal notes by Philip Bliss.

Winstanley's most important contribution to Restoration culture, however, was not his compilations but his invention of the persona of ‘Poor Robin’. He did not invent the name Poor Robin, which had appeared as a character in a ballad as early as 1641, but he was the first to use it as a pseudonym, a pseudonym that came to take on a life of its own. The first work ascribed to Poor Robin was an almanac in 1662, which was suppressed as scandalous and of which no copies survive. However, the next year Poor Robin appeared under the aegis of the Stationers' Company, which held the monopoly of almanac printing, and it became one of the best-selling almanacs of the time, selling around seven thousand copies. Winstanley's innovation was to combine the parodic almanac, which had flourished in the interregnum, with the standard information available in the traditional almanac. For example Poor Robin had both a standard calendar, with saints' days marked, and another calendar with days devoted to famous rogues, including Mother Shipton, Doctor Faustus, and Cardinal Richelieu. Winstanley continued his support of the monarchy in the Poor Robin almanacs, which were always staunch supporters of church and king. Those who would threaten the divinely sanctioned order, whether they were supporters of the Rump Parliament challenging monarchy or shrewish housewives challenging their husbands' rule, were the frequent targets of satirical mockery. The earliest Poor Robin almanacs were the most creative; there was a marked falling off in quality and originality particularly after 1675.

The Poor Robin almanacs were followed by a flood of material aimed at a broad audience and ascribed to Poor Robin. Taylor clearly furnished Winstanley a role model for much of his Poor Robin writings, particularly in his versifying. Taylor's combination of cheerful hedonism, staunch Anglicanism, and jovial misogyny was also quite similar to Winstanley's. Some of the more notable Poor Robin writings which were clearly authored by Winstanley were Poor Robin's Perambulation from Saffron-Walden to London Performed this Month of July 1678 (1678), a verse description of the route with enthusiastic descriptions of various alehouses along the way (the text actually states that the journey was performed in November 1677) and The Delectable History of Poor Robin the Merry Sadler of Walden (1680), a collection of jokes and humorous incidents loosely strung together as a biography. Although the works Winstanley published under his own name were clearly much more erudite than the Poor Robin material, there was traffic back and forth between the two personae. This traffic was, however, suppressed in the case of Winstanley's The Path-Way to Knowledge, a book of simple astrology, household hints, and natural magic published in 1663 and 1685, as both editions were anonymous. It was reissued as Poor Robin's Book of Knowledge in 1688. Poor Robin's Jests, a popular joke book which first appeared in 1667 and went through many editions, appeared in 1718 with ‘W.W., gent.’ as its author.

Other almanacs Winstanley was involved in were more narrowly political. The most influential of these was The Protestant Almanac by yet another persona, ‘Philoprotest, a well-wisher to the Mathematics’. This adapted the Poor Robin formula to an anti-Catholic end, with little theological argument and much bawdy and brutal satire. In one issue Winstanley suggested that his readers fashion a sundial by first hanging a Jesuit and then judging the time by the shadow of his nose. Despite its anti-Catholicism The Protestant Almanac was politically safe, never relating its anti-Catholicism to current events such as the Popish Plot or exclusion crisis. So innocuous was it that it continued to appear throughout the tory reaction of the early 1680s, although it was suspended on the accession of the Catholic James II. It was revived again beginning with the 1689 issue. The Episcopal almanack, which ran from 1674 to 1678, praised saintly bishops, and attacked dissenters. The Yea and Nay Almanac, which ran from 1677 to 1680, satirized Quakers.

The Poor Robin almanacs continued long after Winstanley's death until 1777 when their name was changed to Old Poor Robin. The last major work of Winstanley's to appear other than the almanacs was The Essex Champion, or, The Famous History of Sir Billy of Billerecay, and his Squire Ricardo (1690), a burlesque of Don Quixote. His second wife, Anne, was buried in Quendon on 29 September 1691. Winstanley himself died in Quendon in 1698, and was buried there on 22 December.



DNB · B. S. Capp, English almanacs, 1500–1800 (1979) · F. Palmieri, ‘History, nation and the satirical almanac, 1660–1760’, Criticism (summer 1998) · W. Winstanley, The lives of the most famous English poets, facsimile reproduction (1963) [with an introduction by W. R. Parker]


engraving, pubd 1662, BM [see illus.] · engraving (after bust), repro. in Winstanley, Lives of the most famous English poets (1687)

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William Winstanley (d. 1698): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/29760