Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Winstanley, Gerrard

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WINSTANLEY, GERRARD (fl. 1648–1652), ‘digger’ or ‘leveller,’ was a Lancashire man, but his parentage and birthplace have not been identified. He came into notice in April 1649 as the leader, with William Everard, of a small party of men who began cultivating some waste land at St. George's Hill, Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, asserting that it was ‘an undeniable equity that the common people ought to dig, plow, plant, and dwell upon the commons, without hiring them or paying rent to any.’ The diggers being removed by the authorities, Winstanley wrote ‘A Letter to the Lord Fairfax and his Councell of War, with divers Questions to the Lawyers and Ministers,’ 1649, 4to; reprinted in ‘Harleian Miscellany’ (ed. Park, viii. 586). Everard, in conjunction with Winstanley and others, wrote a pamphlet, ‘The True Levellers Standard,’ 1649, in defence of these proceedings, and was afterwards imprisoned at Kingston. Winstanley, along with John Barker and Thomas Star, was also arrested and he was sentenced to pay 9l. 11s. 1d. for fine and costs. The three men then addressed an ‘Appeal to the House of Commons, desiring their Answer: whether the Common People shall have the quiet enjoyment of the Commons and Waste Land, or whether they shall be under the will of Lords of the Mannor still,’ 1649.

Winstanley also published the following tracts on the same matter:

  1. ‘A Vindication of those whose Endeavours is only to make the Earth a Common Treasury, called Diggers,’ 1649.
  2. ‘A Watchword to the City of London and the Armie,’ 1649.
  3. ‘A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England,’ 1649.
  4. ‘A New Yeers Gift to the Parliament and Armie: shewing what the Kingly Power is, and that the Cause of those they call the Diggers is the Life and Marrow of that Cause the Parliament hath declared for and the Army fought for,’ 1650.
  5. ‘An Appeal to all Englishmen to judge between Bondage and Freedome,’ 1650.
  6. ‘The Law of Freedom in a Platform, or True Magistracy Restored. Humbly presented to Oliver Cromwell … wherein is declared, what is Kingly Government, and what is Commonwealth's Government,’ 1652.

An interesting memorial to the council of state was presented by Winstanley and John Palmer in vindication of the diggers in 1649 (wrongly dated in Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1653–4, p. 338). A stirring ‘Digger's Song,’ probably written by Winstanley, is printed in the ‘Clarke Papers’ (ii. 221). His writings mentioned above show him to have been an absolute socialist. In the scheme which he gravely put before Cromwell in the ‘Law of Freedom’ there were to be no lords of manor, lawyers, landlords, or tithe-supported clergy; nor was the use of money to be allowed. Mr. G. P. Gooch, in his ‘English Democratic Ideas in the Seventeenth Century’ (1898, pp. 206–26), shows that Winstanley was often a clear-headed teacher of communistic principles, then strange but now familiar.

In the following religious treatises he expressed his views against the old and then existing systems of Christian belief and ecclesiastical government. He was a universalist, and his works are perhaps the earliest in English in which that doctrine is enforced: 1. ‘The Breaking of the Day of God,’ 1648; some editions 1649. 2. ‘The Mysterie of God concerning the whole Creation, Mankinde,’ &c., 1648; another edit. 1649. 3. ‘The Saints Paradise, or the Fathers Teaching the only Satisfaction to Waiting Souls,’ 1649. 4. ‘Truth lifting up his Head above Scandals, wherein is declared what God, Christ, Father, Sonne, Holy Ghost, Scriptures, Gospel, Prayer, Ordinances of God, are,’ 1649 and 1650. 5. ‘The New Law of Righteousness Budding Forth, in restoring the whole Creation from the Bondage of the Curse,’ 1649. The above five tracts were collected and published together in December 1649. 6. ‘Fire in the Bush. The Spirit Burning, not Consuming, but Purging Mankinde,’ 1650. In the dedication, to his ‘Countrymen of the county of Lancaster,’ prefixed to the ‘Mysterie of God,’ he describes himself as not a learned man. Thomas Comber, afterwards dean of Durham, in his ‘Christianity no Enthusiasm,’ 1678, attempted to show that Winstanley and his associates were the real founders of the quaker sect.

[Article by W. A. Abram in Palatine Notebook, iii. 104, iv. 95; Whitelocke's Memorials, 1732, pp. 396–7, 448; Nath. Stephens's Plaine and Easie Calculation of the Name of the Beast, 1656, p. 267; Carlyle's Cromwell, pt. v., ‘The Levellers;’ Clarke Papers, ed. Firth (Camden Soc.), ii. 211, 217; Gardiner's Commonwealth and Protectorate, 1894–7, i. 47, ii. 5; Hazlitt's Collections and Notes, ii. 652, iii. 267; Russell Smith's Cat. of Topogr. Tracts, 1878, p. 376; Notes and Queries, 8th ser. xii. 185; Brit. Mus. Cat.; Co-operative News, 13 April 1895, p. 361; notes kindly supplied by the Rev. A. Gordon.]

C. W. S.