Gerrard Winstanley: 17th Century Communist at Kingston - Christopher Hill

Christopher Hill

A lecture delivered at Kingston University in 1996 by the great historian of the English Civil War on the subject of Gerrard Winstanley; a founder of the Diggers, visionary, land squatter and early communist pamphleteer.

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Gerard Winstanley: 17th Century Communist at Kingston
- Christopher Hill (24 January 1996)



Well I was cheating a bit when I associated Winstanley and Kingston in my title because Winstanley hadn't all that much to do with Kingston. He turned up in a Court of Law in Kingston but that perhaps was not a sufficient reason for joining them together, but it enabled me to drag Winstanley in and associate him with this exciting new University. But Winstanley himself was a Lancashire man; his father was a clothier in Wigan, quite a significant figure in his town, and Winstanley himself, Gerard, was apprenticed to a London clothier, which suggests that his father had ambitions for him to get out of the backward north. And it looked as though he was going to follow in his father's trade. He married the daughter of a London surgeon, quite classy, who owned some property in Cobham parish, which we shall come back to later. And Winstanley had set himself up in business before the civil war started. He had possibilities of trade with his native Lancashire I think, which he presumably was relying on.

But the civil war disrupted trade links between London and Lancashire and like many other people, Winstanley was ruined in the early 40s and he left London for Cobham where he presumably lived on property belonging to his wife. And the only job that he could get was herding other men's cows as a hired labourer, not a good start. He was very horrified by the poverty which he found around him and by his own poverty and the powerlessness of the poor in face of eviction by landlords or speculative land purchasers. The law gave no protection once one lost one's holding in the land and became dependent on wage labour, and he had a thing against wage labour, which I shall come back to later on, he kept on about it. So Winstanley took the initiative in the early 1640s in the movement by landless peasants to squat on waste and common land, something that is perhaps more common today than it was a generation or two ago, and cultivate them collectively. He started off at St Georges Hill in the parish of Walton on Thames and later moved to Cobham Heath. He was attacked by local landlords who set the locals against him and he was beaten up. A court case was brought against him and he was tried at Kingston which, since Charles I's Charter of 1628 had cognizance of legal actions in Elmbridge and three other hundreds. One of the phrases that he uses about this period is, 'the old world is running up like parchment in the fire', and he saw the collapse of the sort of civilization he had been used to. He hadn't done very well out of it, but he was used to it and like very many others he reflected deeply on what was happening. All 17th century thinking about politics of course took religious forms and Winstanley was deeply concerned about how the helpless poverty of the masses could be explained in terms of a loving and all-powerful God. He was dissatisfied with the explanations of most preachers, whether established Church of England preachers or sectarians. Whether they believed in the beauty of holiness, ceremonies, or had the puritan emphasis on preaching and preaching and more preaching, neither seemed to help the poor. It was no use, Winstanley came to decide, repeating conventional cliches, new remedies were called for. Men must think for themselves, not repeat other people's thoughts, a point that keeps recurring, you must think for yourself.

His own ideas crystallized in what he called a trance, which I think we should call a period of deep meditation, which perhaps sounds a little less mysterious, and he concluded that until everybody had food to eat and some security of livelihood, it was no good preaching pie in the sky to them. He received messages in this trance, if it was a trance, and the messages he received were, 'work together', 'eat bread together', 'let Israel go free'. 'Israel shall neither give nor take hire' and in his written works for 'Israel shall not take hire' he referred to the Epistle of James Chapter 5, verse 4. 'We must go forth and declare it in action, calling upon us that are called the common people to manure and work upon the common lands.' I'm quoting again, I won't repeat that every time. 'True religion and undefiled is to make restitution of the earth, which hath been taken and held from the common people by the power of conquests formerly' and so set the oppressed free. And in another rather similar phrase he said, 'true religion and undefiled is to give everyone land freely to manure co-operatively.' 'Manure' is of course a 17th century word for cultivate but I think he intended to use rather a vulgar word so as to contrast true religion with the religion of ceremonies and/or preaching. True religion and undefiled is to give everyone land freely to manure co-operatively, and he quoted the Bible to the effect that the poor shall inherit the earth and said this is really and immediately to be fulfilled. So he and a handful of poor men established a colony on St Georges Hill to take symbolic ownership of uncultivated common and waste land and came under a great deal of attack.

In addition to collective labour on this farm, which the Diggers occupied, Winstanley wrote pamphlet after pamphlet defending their cause. This was a national issue. The traditional village was breaking up under the pressures of the capitalist market. Some richer peasants were doing very well producing for the market, employing the labour of their less fortunate co-villagers who were evicted or otherwise had to give up their smallholdings and become dependent on wages which were inadequately paid by the richer farmers. But as Winstanley pointed out (I'm quoting again) 'one third part of England lies waste and barren when children starve or want in regard lords of manors will not suffer the poor to manure it. If the wasteland of England were manured by her children it would become in a few years the richest, the strongest and the most flourishing land in the world', advancing economic reasons for cultivating the wasteland as well as reasons of social justice.

A couple of years earlier in the Putney debates of 1647, the leveller Colonel Rainborough had argued that, 'the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the richest he and therefore every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government.' This was in a discussion in the Army Council. Commissary General Ireton replied, 'liberty cannot be provided for in a general sense if property is preserved.' That might be almost Winstanley's starting point. He realised that property must not be preserved if you are going to have justice for all people. We're talking about 1649, just after the trial and execution of Charles I, with one of Wigan's MPs (who Winstanley may have known) as one of the judges in the trial. Levellers in London were arguing for a wide extension of the parliamentary franchise and for a republic. The House of Lords had just been abolished. There were new hopes that the millennium was approaching. Anything seemed possible in those exciting days, including King Jesus as a successor to the executed Charles. There was an outburst of religious and political discussion. And Winstanley argued, plunging into this discussion, that the poor, the rank and file of Parliament's army, should benefit by victory over the King, the Bishops and the landlords. 'The King's blood was not our burden, it was those oppressive Norman laws whereby he enslaved us that we groaned under.' Norman laws, he's harking back to the legend of the Norman yoke: all the evils from which the English lower classes suffer go back to the Norman Conquest, where a foreign aristocracy established itself as the ruling gentry of the land. This of course was not a new problem. Keith Thomas, some time ago suggested that, 'the whole Digger movement can be plausibly regarded as the culmination of a century of unauthorised encroachment upon the forests and wastes by squatters and local commoners, pushed on by land shortage and the pressure of population.'Winstanley was trying to organise them in his locality. It was of course a time of great economic hardship for the lower classes. Over the century before 1640, real wages, they tell us, had halved, and the years 1620-50 were among the most terrible the lower classes had ever endured. That's saying quite something. The civil war added to these burdens, high taxation, pillaging and plunder by both sides. Men were said to lie starving in the streets of London. The rioting crowds seized corn.

A lot of other pamphlets as well as Winstanley's advocated using lands belonging to the King, the Church and the Royalists to provide for the poor and even to introduce new land confiscations. Others before Winstanley had suggested expropriating the rich and establishing a communist society but Winstanley was the only pamphleteer who had a systematically worked out theory that could be put into practice immediately. 'Action is the life of all', he wrote, 'and if thou dost not act thou dost nothing.' But of course there was counter action from the other side; the landlords in the Cobham area had Winstanley arrested and while he was waiting for his trial a friend of his was told by an officer of the Kingston Court that, 'if the Diggers' cause was good, nevertheless he would pick such a jury as should overthrow them'. Winstanley said that the court was upholding the Norman conquest, (going back to the Norman yoke again) by fining him and others. Winstanley refused to take off his hat in respect for the court or to pay a lawyer to defend him and he was fined. Others from the colony were too.

Nevertheless the colony lasted for a year, permanently under siege, but during that period at least ten more communes were established in imitation of that at Cobham on similar lines, in the south Midlands. 'All men have stood for freedom', wrote Winstanley about the civil war, 'and now the common enemy has gone you are all like men in a mist, seeking for freedom and know not where nor what it is, and those of the rich among you are ashamed and afraid to own it, because it comes clothed in a clownish garment. Freedom is the man that will turn the world upside down, therefore no wonder he hath enemies'. Speaking to his landlord enemies, he said, 'if thou consent to freedom for the rich in the city and givest freedom to the freeholders in the country and to priests and lawyers and lords of manors, and yet allowest the poor no freedom, thou art a declared hypocrite. The land was made for all as their creation birthright. True freedom lies where a man receives his nourishment and preservation and that is in the use of the earth. A man had better to have no body than to have no food for it. The commonwealth's freedom lies in the free enjoyment of the earth.' This emphasis on the land of course continues all through England, still preponderantly an agricultural country. Winstanley insisted that the common people are 'a part of the nation and, without exception, all sorts of people in the land are to have freedom not just the gentry and clergy. There cannot be universal liberty until this universal community of property be established.' And in a programmatic statement he said, 'seeing the common people of England by joint consent of person and purse have cast out Charles our Norman oppressor [Charles I of course] we have by this victory recovered ourselves from under his Norman yoke and the land now is to return into the hands of those who have conquered, that is the commons, and the land is to be held no longer by you that were the gentry, from the use of them by the hand of any who will uphold the Norman and kingly power still. Otherwise we that are impoverished by sticking to the parliament shall lose the benefit of all our taxes, water and blood and remain slaves still to the kingly power in the hands of lords of manors. In them kingly power reigns strongly.' This is one of his key phrases, kingly power reigns, a power not based on any just claim.

For Winstanley, the introduction of private property (and he speaks especially of course of property in land) had been the fall of man. 'In the beginning of time, the great creator reason', (Winstanley's phrase for God, if he believed in a god) 'made the earth to be a common treasury' and all men were equal. 'When self love began to arise in the earth, then man began to fall.' Property is the devil and to support it is, 'rebellion and high treason against the king of righteousness. Though their chief captain Charles be gone, yet his colonels, landlords, his councillors and divines, lawyers and clergy, and his inferior officers and soldiers, freeholders and lords of manors, which did steal our land when they murdered our fathers in that Norman conquest', they represent today kingly power. Buying and selling, hiring wage labour are all part of the fall of man. 'Everyone without exception, ought to have liberty to enjoy the earth for his livelihood and to settle his dwelling in any part of the commons of England without buying or renting land of any.' Again, rather a modern note there. 'And surely if the common people have no more freedom in England but only to live among their elder brothers and work for them for hire, what freedom then have they in England more than you can have in Turkey or France?'

Levellers thought that Parliament's victory over the King in the civil war ought to lead to the establishment of political democracy. Winstanley saw no point in this without a restoration of economic equality. 'Everyone upon the recovery of the Norman conquest ought to return to freedom again without respect of persons. Surely all sorts, both gentry in their enclosures, and the communalty in their commons, ought to have their freedom, not compelling one to work for another for wages. The laws that were made in the days of the kings give freedom to the gentry and clergy, all the rest are left servants and bondsmen to those taskmasters.'

Although he was fairly sweeping in his ideas and claims, Winstanley was also very down to earth when it came to practical things. He advocated a state monopoly of foreign trade because there would be no private property and common land would belong to the commonwealth so he realised there would have to be a state monopoly of foreign trade. Interestingly enough, that's one of the first things that Lenin established after the Bolsheviks took power in 1917, a Commissariat of foreign trade.

Winstanley had his own idiosyncratic interpretations of the Christian myth. Whether one should regard him as a Christian or not, I don't know. If so, he was he was a very heretical Christian. He interpreted heaven as being a comfortable livelihood in the earth and Adam for him symbolises, 'the wisdom and power of the flesh'. Adam and his successors advanced themselves of dust, accumulated property and took political power. Winstanley thus distinguished between the man of the flesh, Adam, and the spiritual man, Jesus Christ. Kingly power didn't perish with Charles I. It lives on in all great landlords and there is something of the old Adam in every man and woman. Adam will ultimately be defeated by, 'the universal spreading of the divine power, which is Christ in mankind, who will make them all to act in one and spirit in and after the laws of reason and equity.' Reason requires that every man should live upon the increase of the earth comfortably. And Winstanley revealingly said that he had been held under darkness by the word God. He preferred the word reason, not a personal god, an intellectual attitude, and he insisted that in the ideal of society he was putting forward none ought to be troubled for his practice in the matter of his God. What I want to emphasise is 'his God', that as long as he does it quietly he can worship as he likes and whom he likes. And then again, allegorically interpreting the Bible, in this garden of mankind, there is a tree of knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life called universal love. The first calls good evil and evil good. When he was driven out of the garden man lived like beasts of the field in fears, doubts, troubles, evils and grudges, wars and divisions. They come to delight in riches, places of government, pleasures, society of strange women. All these lead to troubles until men come to see themselves as naked and ashamed. The tree of life brings to the kingdom within universal love or pure knowledge, which is Christ. Not a person, but this universal love rather than the kingdom which lives in objects outside, which is the devil. The shame and misery of our age is that everybody professes Christ and the spirit, preaches in praise of them, but they know not inwardly by what spirit or inward power they are ruled. Kingly power in its several governments by the sword shall dash against one another. There will be no peace and rest until Christ, universal love, takes the kingdom. Bondage is Satan in you and among you. And the Bible describes, for Winstanley, three beasts, the clergy, the law and buying and selling.

The clergy, he's got it in for the clergy, will serve any side like our ancient laws which will serve any master. William the Conqueror in 1066 bought off the clergy by instituting tithes to pay them. 'Yet the clergy tell the poor people to be content with poverty now and heaven hereafter. Why may people not have a comfortable maintenance here and heaven hereafter too. We gave no consent to acknowledge crown and royalist land, our purchased inheritance, being sold.' - as they were being sold of course in the late 40s and early 50s. Winstanley thought they should be communal property. 'This man will have no government', some will say, as yet the power and dominion of the prince of darkness rules everywhere and that must be thrown down. 'If you would find true majesty indeed, go among the poor, despised ones of the earth and there you shall see light and love shine in majesty indeed, rising up to unite the creation indeed into the unity of spirit and bond of peace. These are too stately figures for Christ to dwell in, he takes up his abode in a manger amongst the poor in spirit and despised ones of the earth.' And so the battle, as Winstanley sees it, the battle between the first Adam, the first man Christ, and Adam the second man goes on in the minds of all human beings till the Lord Christ rises in multiplicities of bodies, making them all of one heart and one mind, acting in righteousness one to another. This is a process which will take place in the minds of men. Ultimately Christ the restorer will stop up the stinking waters of self-interest and cause the waters of life and liberty to run plentifully in and through the creation. When the king of righteousness comes to rule in everyone's heart, then he will kill the first Adam, covetousness, and man shall have meat and drink and clothes by his labour in freedom. What more could he desire? But this, Winstanley recognised, would be a long struggle. There's not going to be any miraculous coming of Jesus Christ. He won't come down from heaven and impose a world of order. It will have to spring up in the minds of men and women. 'Christ lying in the grave like a corn of wheat buried under the clods of the earth for a time, and Christ rising up from the power of your flesh above that corruption and above the clouds, treading the curse under his feet, is to be seen within each individual human being, Christ. Heaven and hell, light and darkness, sorrow and comfort, are all to be seen within the power of darkness and the power of life and light, good angels and bad angels, are all to be seen within and are to be taken as allegories.'

An important aspect of the battle of ideas will be the abolition of wage labour which I referred to earlier. 'Whoever shall help the man to labour his proper earth, as he calls it, his own land, whoever shall help the man to labour on the land for wages, the hand of the Lord shall be upon such labourers, for they lift up the curse above the spirit by their labour and so hold the creation still under bondage.' Winstanley wanted to organise a national strike of wage labour so that the rich wouldn't be able to get their lands cultivated, wouldn't be able to sell the proceeds and so would be reduced to the level of everybody else. If they chose to turn their land into the common stock they might get some compensation, but this would be a voluntary cession of their land. It sounds an easy way of arranging a transition from one social system to another.

'In the day of restoration, Israel is neither to give nor to take wages.' Winstanley's aims is rationalisation of the traditional village economy which the spread of the capitalist market was breaking up. 'The earth was meant to be a common treasury for all, not a private treasury for some. We can as well live under a foreign enemy working for day wages as under our own brethren with whom we ought to have equal freedom. Private property is the cause of all wars, bloodshed, theft and enslaving laws that hold the people under misery. The laws of kings have been always made against such actions as the common people were most inclined to. Whensoever there is a people thus united by common community of livelihood into oneness it will become the strongest land in the world, for they will be as one man to defend their inheritance.' It's property that divides us. 'If you look for heaven, or for the manifestation of the father's love in you in any place but within yourselves, you are deceived. If you look for any other hell or for sorrows in any other place than what shall be made manifest within the bottomless pit, your very flesh itself, you are deceived. When this bottomless pit is open to your view it will be a torment sufficient, but when the second Adam rises up in the heart of Christ, he makes a man see heaven within himself and judge all things that are below him. This is heaven that will not fail us, where moth and rust cannot corrupt. This Christ is within you, your everlasting rest and glory, and Christ within, when you become conscious of him being there, leads to action. If thou dost not act, thou dost nothing. Words and writing are all nothing and must die.'

Winstanley's concern then is with the world as he knows it, not at all with the after life. 'What are the greatest sins in the world', he asks. 'One is for a man to lock up the treasuries of the earth in chests or houses and suffer it to rust or moulder, while others starve for want to whom it belongs and it belongs to all. This is the greatest sin against universal love', the sin covetousness. The second sin is 'for any man or men first to take the earth by the power of the murdering swords from others and then by the laws of their own making do hang or put to death any who takes the fruits of the earth to supply his necessaries from places or persons where there is more than can be made use of by that particular family where it is hoarded up.' Winstanley has a rudimentary labour theory of value. 'No man can be rich but he must be rich either by his own labours or by the labours of other men helping him. If an man hath no help from his neighbours he should never gather an estate of hundreds and thousands a year. If other men help him to work then are those riches his neighbours' as well as his. And what rich men give, they give away other men's labours, not their own.'

'So, in the beginning of time, the great creator reason, (whom some call God) made the earth to be a common treasury and man the lord was to govern this creation. But not one word was spoken in the beginning that one branch of mankind should rule over another. But thanks to covetousness, man was brought into bondage and became a greater slave to those of his own kind than the beasts of the field were to him. But when once the earth becomes a common treasury again, as it must, then this enmity in all lands will cease and none shall dare to seek dominion over others.' And speaking to landlords again, he says, 'you promised liberty to the English people for defeating the King, lords and bishops, promising to make the land a free nation for those who stand to maintain a universal liberty which is our birthright and your promise. Not by force of arms, we abhor that, but by labouring the earth in righteousness together, to eat our bread with the sweat of our own brows, neither giving wages nor taking wages but working and eating together. So we endeavour to lift up the creation from that bondage of civil property it groans under. The King's old laws cannot govern a free commonwealth.... Such laws have always been made against such actions as the common people were most inclined to ...' Private property, 'hath made laws to hang those that did steal, it tempts people to do an evil action and then kills them for the doing of it. All laws that are not grounded upon equity and reason, not giving a universal freedom to all but to certain persons, ought to be cut off with the King's head. England is not a free people till the poor that have no land have a free allowance to dig and labour the commons and so live as comfortably as the landlords that live in their enclosures. .... Christ comes to set all free. Kingly power, on the other hand, is like a great spread tree, the old Adam. If you lop the head or top off and let the other branches and root stand, it will grow again and recover precious strength. In England that top power is lopped off the tree of tyranny but alas oppression is a great tree still and keeps the sun of freedom from the poor commoners still. He hath many branches and greater roots which must be grubbed up before everyone can sing their songs in peace. If so be kingly authority be set up in your laws again (as they are trying to do) King Charles hath conquered you by policy and won the field of you though you seemingly have cut off his head.' (Nice phrase that) 'you seemingly have cut off his head, but he's still going to beat you'. 'That government that gives liberty to the gentry to have all the earth and shuts out the poor commoners from enjoying any part, is the government of imaginary self seeking... and every plant which my heavenly Father hath not planted shall be rooted out. The work of digging is freedom or the appearance of Christ in the earth', Christ rising in sons and daughters and making an equal society. Whereas now 'Cain is still alive in all great landlords'. (That's not Winstanley actually, that comes from one of the communes established in imitation of his colony at Iver in Buckinghamshire.)

The dispersal of the Digger colonies was done by state power - the army was sent down to clear them out, though Winstanley thought the rank and file were on his side, but he couldn't do anything about it. After this dispersal, Winstanley made one last effort. He published The Law of Freedom in 1652, with a dedication to Oliver Cromwell. This is the description of an ideally free commonwealth, in the hope that Oliver might introduce it into England. This seems absurd to us with our hindsight about Oliver, but he had done some odd things in his time - co- operating with Agitators, accepting Pride's Purge and himself dissolving the Rump and dismissing them in 1653. 'You have power', said Winstanley to Oliver, 'I have no power.' Perhaps he was not really expecting Oliver to do it, but he thought this would be a way of getting publicity for his ideas. But where else could he turn .... ?

There are many interesting remarks in The Law of Freedom. 'Money must not any longer be the great god that hedges in some and hedges out others.' 'You have taken the people's money in taxes and free quarter whereby they are made worse able to live than before the war.' 'Freedom is the man that will turn the world upside down, therefore no wonder he hath enemies.' 'The word of God is love, and when all thy actions are done in love to the whole creation thou advances freedom, and freedom is Christ in you and Christ among you.' 'Bondage is Satan in you and Satan among you.' 'Everyone talks of freedom but there are few that act for freedom. The actors for freedom are oppressed by the talkers and verbal professors of freedom.' 'The common people who have cast out the oppressor by their representatives have not authorised any yet to give away their freedom.' 'Therefore England beware, William the Conqueror's army begins to gather into head again and the old Norman prerogative law is the place of their meeting, though their chief captain, Charles, be gone, yet his colonels, lords of manors, his councillors and divines, which are our lawyers and priests, his inferior officers and soldiers, which are the freeholders and landlords, all did steal away our land from us when they killed and murdered our fathers in that Norman conquest.' 'I see the poor must first be picked out and honoured in this way, for they begin to receive the word of righteousness, but the rich generally are enemies to true freedom', he said. 'In Cobham on the little heath, the digging still goes on and all our friends, they live in love as if they were but one.' But it didn't last.

He's still asking these questions. 'Who are chosen state officers but freeholders or landlords and you still prop up that Norman yoke and slavish tyranny; and truly you councillors and powers of the earth, know this, that wheresoever there is a people thus united into oneness it can become the strongest land in the world. Pleading for property divides the people of the land and the whole world into parties and is the causes of all wars and bloodshed everywhere. Oh ye Adams of the earth, Jacob has been low, but he is rising and will rise'.

Kingly power reigns strongly and in the lords of manors.

'Do not all strive to enjoy the earth as well as the poor; and buying and selling are a cheat to get land into rich men's hands. The people shall all fall off from you and you shall fall .... like a great tree that is undermined ... Jesus Christ who is that powerful spirit of love is the head Leveller, as he is lifted up, he will draw all men after him.' By this Winstanley meant Christ or the king of righteousness in us. It is we who have to to be converted and we have got to do the overthrowing. 'Will you be slaves and beggars still when you may be free men?' 'The clergy lay claim to heaven after they are dead and yet they require their heaven in this world too and grumble mightily against the people that will not give them a comfortable maintenance. And yet they tell the poor people they should be content with poverty, and heaven hereafter. Why may we not have heaven, a comfortable maintenance here and hereafter too?' And he argued, rather speciously I think, that two acts of Parliament worked in his favour. The first one he describes as the act against Kingly Power, which I think is the act abolishing monarchy, and the second was the Act declaring England to be a free commonwealth by which they meant a republic. He tried to interpret these as establishing conditions in which his equal community could be established. All the old laws have been abolished by these two acts of Parliament; but now still under the old laws, if the poor beg, they whip them by their law for vagrants, if they steal they hang them. In England bondages of the mind, he says in a perceptive phrase I think, are all occasioned by the outward bondage that one sort of people lay upon another. His adaptation of Christianity to his own purpose is, I suppose, original: in a letter to Fairfax, he speaks of your scriptures, not his. If there is an afterlife he tells us nothing about it except that we can't know anything. Heaven is a comfortable life in the earth; heaven and hell are to be found now, within men and women. Winstanley said he had been held in the darkness by the word God 'as I see many people are'. He preferred Reason as the name for God. And the name of community and freedom is Christ. 'The word of life, the restoring power, is to be found within you. Go read all the books in your University, your heart still shall be a barren wilderness till you read in your own book, your heart.' I could go on but I've gone on enough.

I don't know much about Winstanley's life after he published that pamphlet, that was itself after the dissolution of his community. In it, he treated the civil war as a true revolution in which the men of property have been defeated and their land and with it their power must be restored to the people. And he urges his readers to become 'like wise-hearted Thomas, to believe nothing but what they see reason for.' God is not in some particular place of glory beyond the skies, he is within each one of us. 'The subtle clergy do know that if they can but charm the people by this their divining doctrine to look after riches, heaven and glory when they are dead, then they shall easily be the inheritors of the earth and have the deceived people to be their slaves.' This was not the doctrine of Christ. 'When men are assured food and raiment their reason will be ripe and they will be ready to dive into the secrets of creation.' Winstanley has a wonderful passage about the scientific discoveries that will be made when more people have enough food to be able to think for themselves and to join in intellectual discussion. The spirit of knowledge will rise up in its beauty and fullness in a free commonwealth. 'Fear of want and care to pay rent to taskmasters have hindered many rare inventions' but in future men will be able to employ their reasoned industry in making discoveries to benefit all, not just the inventors. There shall be a free state medical service.

We know little about Winstanley's later life. He lived on until 1676 in Cobham. A man called Gerard Winstanley died in London in 1676 as a Quaker. He was described as a corn chandler. It's uncertain whether this was our Gerard Winstanley or not. But where else could he go except to the Quakers, after the restoration of the Church of England and the House of Lords and the monarchy? But he was not altogether forgotten. He didn't figure much in the history books until very recently; but in the late 17th and early 18th centuries radicals like Benjamin Furley, Anthony Collins, Thomas Hollis and the novelist Henry Fielding, possessed or knew of Winstanley's writings. In the 1790s, a group in a Welsh valley was discussing Winstanley's ideas, an interesting place and an interesting time. He was rediscovered at the end of the last century and in the present century. He is particularly famous, and rightly, not just for his ideas, interesting though they are, but for his prose style, which is something which stands out as remarkable even in that great age of English prose. So if you get a chance, read some of it, it really is quite good. Thank you.

Question: I was interested to what extent you think Winstanley took a view of women and as to how much he thought equality extended to women?

Hill: Winstanley's view of women? I would have said something about that but I went on too long anyway. He says that, I think I can quote him roughly, marriage should not be a church ceremony and every man and woman should be able to marry freely those whom they love provided they get the willing consent of the other party, and if they haven't enough money for a dowry, there will be money in the common stock which will exist in his society. Money will no longer be the main object in marriage. So everyone shall have freedom to marry those whom he loves, or she loves. He wishes to treat women as equal to men, certainly in marriage but I think in other respects too.

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Red Marriott
Jul 12 2006 21:51

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