Religion Wiki

Gerrard Winstanley

34,279pages on
this wiki
Add New Page
Add New Page Talk0

Gerrard Winstanley (1609 - 10 September 1676) was an English Protestant religious reformer and political activist during the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. Winstanley was one of the founders of the English group known as the True Levellers for their beliefs, based upon Christian communism, and as the Diggers for their actions because they took over public lands and dug them over to plant crops.

Brief biography

Gerrard Winstanley's early life is broadly unknown, however it is known that he was baptised in 1609 in the parish of Wigan, then part of the West Derby hundred of Lancashire, and that he was the son of an Edward Winstanley, mercer. His mother's identity remains unknown and he could have been born anywhere in the parish of Wigan.[1] The parish of Wigan contained the townships of Abram, Aspull, Billinge-and-Winstanley, Dalton, Haigh, Hindley, Ince-in-Makerfield, Orrell, Pemberton, and Upholland, as well as Wigan itself.[2]

He moved in 1630 to London, where he became an apprentice and ultimately, in 1638, a freeman of the Merchant Tailors' Company or guild. He married Susan King, the daughter of London surgeon William King, in 1639. The English Civil War, however, disrupted his business, and in 1643 he was made bankrupt. His father-in-law helped Winstanley move to Cobham, Surrey, where he initially worked as a cowherd.[3]

English Civil Wars

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, called "Roundheads," who later emerged under the name of the New Model Army led by Oliver Cromwell; 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 Freeborn John Lilburne; and the Christian communists, who called themselves the True Levellers for their beliefs but who were branded "Diggers" because of their actions. The latter were led by Gerrard Winstanley. Whereas Lilburne sought to level the laws and maintain the right to the ownership of real property, Winstanley sought to level the ownership of real property itself, which is why Winstanley's followers called themselves "True Levellers".

The New Law of Righteousness

Gerrard Winstanley published a pamphlet called The New Law of Righteousness, which advocated a form of Christian communism. The basis of this communistic belief came from the Book of Acts, chapter two, verses 44 and 45: "All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need." Winstanley argued that "in the beginning of time God made the earth. Not one word was spoken at the beginning that one branch of mankind should rule over another, but selfish imaginations did set up one man to teach and rule over another."

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, Jews or Gentiles, male or female under the New Covenant. From these and similar texts, he interpreted Christian teaching as calling for what would later be called communism, and the abolition of property and 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 [a]

The Diggers

In 1649, Winstanley and his followers took over vacant or common lands in Surrey, Buckinghamshire, Kent, and Northamptonshire and began cultivating the land and distributing the crops without charge to their followers. Local landowners took fright from the Diggers' activities and in 1650 sent hired thugs to beat the Diggers and destroy their colony. Winstanley protested to the government, but to no avail, and 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 mystic aristocrat Lady Eleanor Davies. This employment lasted less than a year after Davies accused Winstanley of mismanaging her property and Winstanley 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 patriarchal lines.


By 1654 Winstanley was possibly assisting Edward Burrough, an early leader of the Quakers, later called the Society of Friends.[4] It is apparent that Winstanley remained a Quaker for the rest of his life as his death was noted in Quaker records.[5] 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 should be noted that 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, would eventually be saved; he wrote that "in the end every man shall be saved, though some at the last hour." His book The Mysterie of God was probably the first theological work in the English language to argue for universalism.[6]

Later life

In 1657 Winstanley and his wife Susan received a gift of property in Ham Manor, near Cobham from his father-in-law William King. This marked Winstanley's renovation in social status in his local community and he became waywarden of the parish of Cobham in 1659, overseer for the poor in 1660 and churchwarden in 1667-68. He was elected Chief Constable of Elmbridge in October 1671. Although these offices conflicted with Winstanley's apparent Quakerism, the Quakers had not yet become the quietist religion of later centuries.

When Susan died in around 1664 Winstanley was paid £50 for the land in Cobham by King. Winstanley returned to London trade, whilst retaining his 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 vexed by legal disputes concerning a small legacy owed to him in a will.[7]

Related works

1975 saw the release of Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo's film Winstanley.[8] As with the duo's previous film, It Happened Here, it had taken several years to produce with a very low budget. Winstanley was based on a book by David Caute entitled "Comrade Jacob"[9] 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.[10][11]


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."

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 said to be written by Gerrard Winstanley was recorded by the English group "Chumwabamba" on their "English Rebel Songs 1381-1914" in 1988.

As the lyrics are Winstanley's, they paint a better picture of the time period in song.

The Diggers’ Song

You noble Diggers all stand up now, stand up now!
You noble Diggers all stand up now!
The wasteland to maintain, seeing Cavaleers by name,
Your digging does maintain and persons all defame,
Stand up now, stand up now!

Your houses they pull down stand up now, stand up now // (means, repeat line as in verse one)
Your houses they pull down, to fright your men in town,
But the gentrye must come down,
And the poor shall wear the crown,
Stand up now, Diggers all.

With spades and hoes and plowes, stand up now, stand up now //
Your freedom to uphold, seeing Cavaliers are bold,
To kill you if they could and rights from you to hold,
Stand up now Diggers all.

Theire self-will is theire law, stand up now, //
Since tyranny came in they count it now no sin
To make a gaol a gin, to starve poor men therein.
Stand up now, Diggers all.

The gentrye are all ‘round, stand up now... //
The gentrye are all ‘round, on each side they are found,
Theire wisdom’s profound; to cheat us of our ground,
Stand up now, stand up now.

The lawyers they conjoyne, stand up now... //
To arrest you they advise, such fury they devise,
The devill in them lies, and hath blinded both their eyes,
Stand up now, stand up now.

The clergy they come in, stand up now.... //
The clergy they come in and say it is a sin,
That we should now begin our freedom for to win,
Stand up now, Diggers all.

The tithes they yet will have, stand up now.... //
The tithes they yet will have, and lawyers their fees crave,
And this they say is brave, to make the poor their slave.
Stand up now, Diggers all.

‘Gainst lawyers and ‘gainst Priests stand up now... //
For tyrants they are both, even flatt against their oath,
To grant us they are loath, free meat and drink and cloth,
Stand up now, Diggers all.

The club is all their law, stand up now.... //
The club is all their law, to keep all men in awe,
But they no vision saw, to maintain such a law,
Stand up now, Diggers all.

The Cavaleers are foes, stand up now, //
The Cavaleers are foes, themselves they do disclose
By verses not in prose to please the singing boyes.
Stand up now, Diggers all.


  1. Bradstock, Andrew (2000) Winstanley and the Diggers 1649 - 1999 Frank Cass, London p.20;
  3. Alsop, JD (April 1989) Ethics in the Marketplace: Gerrard Winstanley's London Bankruptcy, 1643 Journal of British Studies no.28 p.97-119;
  4. See Friends House Library, London, William Caton MS 3 p. 147.
  5. R. T. Vann 'From Radicalism to Quakerism: Gerrard Winstanley and Friends' Journal of the Friend's Historical Society, XLIX (1959-61) pp. 41-6.
  6. David Boulton. "Militant Seedbeds Of Early Quakerism Winstanley And Friends". Accessed November 25, 2007.
  7. See James Alsop, 'Gerrard Winstanley's Later Life' Past and Present no.82 (1979) pp. 73-81 and J. D. Alsop, Gerrard Winstanley: Religion and Respectability’ Historical Journal Vol.28, No.3 (September 1985) pp. 705-709.
  8. [1]
  9. [2]
  10. [3]
  11. .pdf

External links



ru:Уинстенли, Джерард sk:Gerrard Winstanley

Also on Fandom

Random Wiki