Oct 192017

Today is the birthday (1609) of Gerrard Winstanley founder of the True Levellers or Diggers whose history and exploits get resurrected periodically by various revolutionary factions. I first came across him and his cause via Ringolevio by Emmet Grogan. [Worth a read if you want less glitzy hype and more down-to-earth (literally) insight into the hippie culture of San Francisco in the 1960s.] Winstanley’s life and works are astonishingly inspirational, although potentially depressing. Here’s my aphorism du jour in honor of Winstanley: WHEN YOU REBEL AGAINST “THE SYSTEM” THEY WILL BEAT YOU DOWN:  REBEL ANYWAY !!!!!

Winstanley was born in the parish of Wigan, then part of the West Derby hundred of Lancashire. 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. 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.

Winstanley 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 bankrupt. His father-in-law helped Winstanley move to Cobham in Surrey, where he initially worked as a cowherd.

There were many factions at work during the period of the three related English civil wars. Commonly in the history books that students read in school, the civil wars are portrayed as a time of battle between Cavaliers (Wromantic but Wrong) and Roundheads (Repulsive but Right). The times were much more complex and turbulent than this simplistic generalization allows. This was a period in English history when everything was potentially up for grabs. Factions vying for supremacy included the Royalists who supported King Charles I; the Parliamentary forces led by Sir Thomas Fairfax who would later emerge under the name of the New Model Army; 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, led by John Lilburne, who were branded “Levellers” by their enemies; and the True Levellers, generally called “Diggers” because they planted crops on common land, 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.”

Gerrard Winstanley published a pamphlet called The New Law of Righteousness in 1648 that was a call to action. He based his cause on Acts, 2: 44 & 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 people were descended from a common stock, and with its skepticism 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 under the New Covenant. From these and similar texts, he interpreted Christian teaching as calling for the abolition of property (that is, land) 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.” I’m not sure that the Anglo-Saxon kings were much better in this regard, but I get his point. 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?

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. The Council of State received a letter in April 1649 reporting that several individuals had begun to plant vegetables in common land on St George’s Hill, Weybridge near Cobham, Surrey at a time when food prices reached an all-time high. The complaint reported that they had invited “all to come in and help them, and promise them meat, drink, and clothes.” It was also claimed that they intended to pull down all enclosures and cause the local populace to come and work with them. “It is feared they have some design in hand.” In the same month, the Diggers issued their most famous pamphlet and manifesto, “The True Levellers Standard Advanced.”

At the behest of the local landowners, the commander of the New Model Army, Sir Thomas Fairfax, duly arrived with his troops and interviewed Winstanley and another prominent member of the Diggers, William Everard. Everard suspected that the Diggers were in serious trouble and soon left the group. Fairfax, meanwhile, having concluded that Diggers were doing no harm, advised the local landowners to use the courts.

Winstanley remained and continued to write about the treatment they received. The harassment from the Lord of the Manor, Francis Drake (not the famous Francis Drake, who had died more than 50 years before), was both deliberate and systematic: he organized gangs in an attack on the Diggers, including numerous beatings and an arson attack on one of the communal houses. Following a court case, in which the Diggers were forbidden to speak in their own defense, they were found guilty of being Ranters, a radical sect associated with liberal sexuality (though in fact Winstanley had reprimanded Ranter Laurence Clarkson for his sexual practices). Having lost the court case, if they had not left the land, then the army could have been used to enforce the law and evict them; so they abandoned Saint George’s Hill in August 1649. After the failure of the Digger experiment in Surrey in 1650 Winstanley temporarily went to Pirton in 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, The Law of Freedom in a Platform, in which he argued that the Christian basis for society involves the abolition of property and wages.

By 1654 Winstanley was probably working with Edward Burrough, an early leader of the Quakers, later called the Society of Friends. Winstanley is assumed to have been a Quaker from then on since his death was noted in Quaker records. 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, will eventually be reconciled to God; he wrote that “in the end every man shall be saved, though some at the last hour.” His book The Mysterie of God is apparently the first theological work in the English language to affirm this universalism.

In 1657 Winstanley and his wife, Susan, received a gift of property in Ham Manor, Cobham from his father-in-law William King. This marked Winstanley’s restoration to “normal” social status locally and he became waywarden of the parish in 1659, overseer for the poor in 1660 and churchwarden in 1667–68. He was elected Chief Constable of Elmbridge, Surrey in October 1671. These offices on the face of it conflicted with Winstanley’s apparent Quakerism.

When Susan died about 1664 Winstanley was paid £50 for the land in Cobham and he 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. He died in 1676, aged 66.

Among other things that Winstanley wrote was a ballad recorded by Chumbawamba (of “I Get Knocked Down” fame), “The Diggers’ Song”

Winstanley has inspired numerous songs over the years including Leon Rosselson’s “The World Turned Upside Down” – covered by numerous artists and made a hit by Billy Bragg:

Stone soup is the obvious recipe of the day. If you don’t know the story of stone soup – look it up. Your mission – should you choose to accept it – is to invite friends and neighbors around for a big pot of soup. Each should bring one ingredient for the soup pot. There’s no recipe, as such, of course. The point is to bring people together to share a meal based on what each person contributes. Socialist soup !!! Of course, in any gathering of people there is the occasional misfit; so with stone soup. Be a little circumspect concerning some ingredients. I make a soup I call “Chuck Everything in a Pot” which is my version of “Refrigerator Soup” that is, making do with what you have on hand.

For me, the essence of a good stone soup is not to cook it to death, and not to add all the ingredients at once. If you use pasta, for example, add it near the end and cook only until al dente. Usually you’ll have a lot of vegetables, but treat them kindly also. Most don’t need long cooking. However . . . to be true to the story you need to start with water only. Without a stock base you could end up with a bland soup. My solution is to use meat bones to start. If you simmer them for several hours with onions or leeks you will have a good base for your vegetables. If you’re vegan or vegetarian you will have to start with some flavorful vegetables and simmer them for a long time. Onions, leeks, and mushrooms would be a good combination for starting out. Tomatoes can tolerate long cooking also.