Gerrard Winstanley (1609-1676)

The notable Digger Gerrard Winstanley was born in October 1609 in Lancashire, a predominantly Royalist region in the mid seventeenth century. There are no concrete details on his early childhood, but it is assumed he attended a state-sponsored grammar school in the district. Winstanley became an apprentice to the London merchant, Henry Mason, in 1630. The Mason family was an orthodox family but owned a large library which Winstanley read voraciously. By 1643 there was “no indication of incipient radicalism” because he supported the parliament in the civil war and “he was among parishioners who took the solemn league and covenant” (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography). He remained quiet until 1643, when the civil war disrupted his business and he went bankrupt. The Cromwellian period was marked by several prominent factions: the Parliamentary forces led by Cromwell and Fairfax, the Royalists, and a litany of Dissenters. Winstanley led a group, called the ‘Diggers’ or ‘True Levellers’ whose goal was to level the ownership of property. The True Levellers was created as a response to the Levellers, started by John Lilburne, whose goal was to level laws concerning the right to own land. Winstanley’s group, then, is a more fanatic version of an already radical sect.

The Levellers, like Coppe’s Ranters, believed that the elite class suppressed the proletariat and that in a truly religious society “property and wages are abolished” and according to biblical law ownership ought to be based on a “communistic society structured on patriarchal lines” (ODNB). Winstanley is connected with Coppe because A Flying Fiery Roll was written in response to the execution of Levellers in 1649. Coppe called God the “mighty Leveller” who would descend upon earth and destroy any social inequality (ODNB). Coppe’s writings tended to be of the radical religious bent, whereas Winstanley’s was more of a social and political programme” (ODNB). In 1649 Winstanley appropriated land in Surrey County and began developing land and disseminating goods to the poor. His design was to create an agrarian egalitarian society separate from English authority. He posited that the “earth had been created a common treasury in which all were to share equally” and that the elite classes were irreligious tyrants because they monopolized God’s land (ODNB). Winstanley believed that the ruling class held the English commoner under a ‘Norman yoke,’ displaying his notion that the current ruling class was of French descent and had no right to rule true Englishmen.

His major work, The Law of Freedom, outlined sixty-two “short and pithy” laws which he believed to be the tenets of biblical egalitarianism. Winstanley was not as pressured by the Parliament because he stated that Cromwell was the first leader “since Moses’ time, to be the Head of a People, who have cast out an Oppressing Pharaoh” (ODNB). Early in the Interregnum Winstanley argued that Cromwell’s victory presaged a move towards English rule and the free access of land. He argued that every commune ought to be able to create their own set of laws, which his Law of Freedom intended to demonstrate, and that a central government only created inherent hierarchy. Much of his treatise is aimed at the creation of a commune based on equality and merit, separation from central government, and man’s right to own land. Only portions of the text are devoted to religious extemporizing, highlighting the central focus of his work as sociopolitical. He argued that man’s suppression is “the only power that hinders Christ from rising,” and that in order for a true religious society to be formed man must assert his God-given freedom (ODNB). Winstanley attempted to fashion this utopian scheme in Surrey, Kent, and Cobham. He spent most of his time between 1649 and his death in 1676 in Cobham. The contemporary view that Winstanley and the Diggers were “a poor company of half crazed men” was contrasted by an emergence of support for his ideologies in the nineteenth century. He was not particularly effective during his lifetime, but he gained posthumous popularity because he was acclaimed for “formulating alternatives” and being “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” (ODNB). Winstanley stands in opposition to other sectarian groups because he formulated a clear and reasoned objective, as contrasting the more radical and unviable goals of groups like the Ranters.


Matt Smith


Work Cited

C. Davis, J. D. Alsop. “Winstanley, Gerrard (bap. 1609, d. 1676.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. Web. Oct 2009.