Gerrard Winstanley, 1609-76

A cloth merchant whose business was ruined in the civil wars, he became the visionary founder of the Digger or True Leveller movement.

Gerrard Winstanley was born in Wigan, Lancashire, in October 1609. His father, Edward Winstanley, was a mercer, though no record of his mother's name has survived and no details of his early life are known. In 1630, Winstanley went to London to become an apprentice cloth merchant in the household of Sarah Gater, a widow who carried on her late husband's business. Winstanley was admitted a freeman of the Merchant Taylors' Company in 1638 and had established his own household in the parish of St Olave Jewry by May 1639. The following year, he married Susan King, daughter of William King, a barber-surgeon who owned property in Cobham, Surrey.

The outbreak of civil war in 1642 brought about the collapse of the Irish cloth trade, which ruined Winstanley's business. Heavily in debt by the autumn of 1643, he was obliged to divide his remaining stock among his creditors and to cease trading. He moved to Cobham where, supported by his father-in-law, he was able to sustain himself as a grazier by pasturing cattle and contracting to harvest winter fodder. During this period, Winstanley apparently lost faith in the established church and may have briefly joined a Baptist congregation.

Early Writings

During 1647-8, Winstanley suffered a second financial collapse when his livelihood as a grazier was disrupted by drought and high taxation. This coincided with a personal spiritual crisis and a period of deep introspection, from which he emerged inspired to write a series of visionary theological books.

Winstanley's first writings were published in 1648 by the radical printer Giles Calvert. Winstanley wrote four books in which he attempted to reconcile the social and political upheaval of the civil wars with the working out of God's purpose as revealed in scripture. Prompted by the arrest of his friend William Everard for blasphemy, Winstanley questioned the authority of clergymen and academics to judge religious opinion. He advanced the argument that everyone, however sinful, could be saved. Like George Fox, Winstanley asserted that direct communication with the indwelling spirit of God that is present in all creatures is a surer guide to spiritual truth than religious dogma.

Winstanley's early writings culminated in The New Law of Righteousness in which he envisioned a just and harmonious society guided by spiritual regeneration through Christ. He explained his belief that the miseries of the world result from men turning from God, whom he equates with Reason, to satisfy greed and the pursuit of power. Poverty and inequality stem from the selfish buying and selling of land and property, and could be eradicated by communal living and an acceptance of the risen Christ.

Was the Earth made to preserve a few covetous, proud men to live at ease, and for them to bag and barn up the treasures of the Earth from others, that these may beg or starve in a fruitful land; or was it made to preserve all her children? From The New Law of Righteousness, 1649

The New Law of Righteousness was published on 26 January 1649 as the trial of King Charles I was drawing to a close. Four days later, the King was beheaded at Whitehall. England was declared a "Commonwealth and free state." In this revolutionary atmosphere, it seemed possible that all tyranny and oppression could finally be brought down and Winstanley's utopian vision become reality.

The True Levellers

On 1 April 1649, Winstanley, William Everard and a small group of local people began cultivating common land on St. George's Hill in the parish of Walton in Surrey. A Digger manifesto, The True Levellers' Standard Advanced was issued a few weeks later. It stated the central True Leveller belief that God had created the Earth as a common treasury to be shared equally by everyone. The execution of the King and the abolition of the House of Lords was a sign that the rule of tyrants was coming to an end and that the English people could now throw off the "Norman yoke" that had enslaved them since the time of William the Conqueror. The landless poor should be free to cultivate the commons and waste lands in order to support themselves. A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England, issued in June 1649, was the first of a series of appeals that called upon MPs, the Army, the gentry and clergy to honour the promises implicit in Parliament's declaration of a free Commonwealth.

The activities of the Surrey Diggers soon provoked complaints to the Council of State and Sir Thomas Fairfax was ordered to investigate. Fairfax questioned Winstanley and Everard at Whitehall and later visited the community for himself. He was reassured to find that the Diggers were peaceful and posed no threat to the Commonwealth. Local freeholders, however, were not so well disposed towards them. In June, four Diggers were beaten up by a gang of men dressed as women. In July, a group of Diggers, including Winstanley, was indicted for trespass at Kingston court and fined. Under continual harassment from the residents of Walton, the Diggers abandoned St George's Hill in August 1649 and relocated to Little Heath in the neighbouring parish of Cobham.

During the winter of 1649-50, Winstanley made contact with other True Leveller communities around the country and tried to consolidate the movement. On 1 January 1650, he published A New Yeere's Gift for the Parliament and Armie in which he appealed for the full abolition of the "kingly law" that had sustained the Norman tyranny and for a rebalancing of the legal system in favour of the common people. In Fire in the Bush, published in March, Winstanley appealed to the clergy for support. In An Appeal to all Englishmen he insisted that the Diggers presented no threat to the Commonwealth and dissociated the movement from the antics of the Ranters.

Although the commoners of Cobham were broadly sympathetic to the Diggers, the local gentry were implacably hostile. Opposition was orchestrated by John Platt, the rector of West Horsley, who complained to the Council of State that the Diggers were violent and disorderly. In late November 1649, the community was attacked and two shelters pulled down. On 19 April 1650, during Easter week, Platt led fifty men in a violent attack in which shelters were burned and crops destroyed. A vigilante patrol was set up to prevent the evicted Diggers from erecting new shelters or attempting to cultivate Cobham Heath again.

The Law of Freedom

In February 1652, Winstanley published his best known work, The Law of Freedom. As in his previous writings, Winstanley attempted to reconcile recent events in England with scriptural revelation. He also described his vision for the new order that he hoped would arise to replace monarchical government.

Winstanley called for all "commonwealth land" to be made available for cultivation as a common treasury accessible to everyone. This included former church and crown lands confiscated during the civil wars as well as waste land and commons. He considered true freedom to reside in access to land, or "enjoyment of the earth", rather than in the religious, political or sexual liberty demanded by the radical sects. Winstanley hoped to see the establishment of communities where there was no need for buying or selling and no hiring of labour since everyone would work for the common good.

The Law of Freedom differed from Winstanley's earlier works in that his utopian society was to be regulated by a framework of laws based upon Reason and Equity to replace the oppressive Norman laws, and administered by public-spirited officers instead of relying upon universal spiritual regeneration. The work was dedicated to Oliver Cromwell, who in 1652 was still regarded by many radicals as a second Moses preparing to lead a godly Commonwealth.

Winstanley's Law of Freedom made little impression during his lifetime. From 1652, he began to attain a position of respectability in Cobham where he held several parish offices during the 1650s and '60s, including that of churchwarden. He was criticised by the Ranter Laurence Clarkson for apparently abandoning his former principles. After the death of his first wife, he married Elizabeth Stanley in 1664, with whom he had two sons and a daughter. Winstanley became a Quaker, possibly through the influence of his second wife. Towards the end of his life, he returned to London where he traded as a corn chandler. He died in September 1676 in the parish of St-Giles-in-the-Fields.


Sources:

David Boulton, Militant Seedbeds Of Early Quakerism, (QUF 2005)

Andrew Bradstock, Radical Religion in Cromwell's England (London 2011)

J. C. Davis and J. D. Alsop, Gerrard Winstanley, Oxford DNB, 2009

Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down (London 1975)


Texts by Winstanley:

The New Law of Righteousness 1649 (PDF format)

A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England 1649

The True Levellers' Standard Advanced 1649

A New Yeer's Gift for the Parliament and Armie 1650

The Law of Freedom in a Platform 1652