John Gurney has recently written two excellent books on Winstanley and the Diggers: Brave Community: The Digger Movement in the English Revolution and Gerrard Winstanley, The Digger’s Life and Legacy. In the end, these continue to endow the central character with too much wisdom, consistency, goodness and modernity: but they have thrown new light on Winstanley’s life.
It has long been known that Winstanley’s Digger tracts were all written between 1648 and 1652: there is nothing from the 1640s when he was a rather unsuccessful cloth merchant or from the 1660s when he had once again become ‘respectable’. However, Gurney tells us that in August 1650, after the failure of the second commune at Little Heath, Winstanley and a number of Diggers went to stay at Pirton in Hertfordshire, with the eccentric widow Lady Eleanor Douglas or Davies (née Touchet, 1590-1652), who owned a manor there. Quite how this came about is unknown, but it is surely significant that Lady Eleanor was a prophetess, who had accurately predicted the deaths of one of her husbands and of the Duke of Buckingham, and announced that 1650 was to be a year of ‘jubilee and restoration’. The fact that the Diggers went to work for her at all is surely an indication that, even during his most political period, Winstanley still retained a messianic belief that the end of the word might be nigh.
The Diggers stayed in Pirton until December 1650, helping to gather in the crops and save Lady Eleanor’s estate from financial ruin. Even at the time, this gave rise to accusations that they had ‘sold out’ because the Lady owned tithes, and the Diggers had therefore become ‘tithe-gatherers’. In any event there was a quarrel and Winstanley accused his hostess of exploitation. She, for her part, accused him of fraud, and there was a parting of the ways; but it was after this that Winstanley wrote The Law of Freedom in a Platform (1652). Gurney thinks that this demonstrates a new sophistication in his thinking about the ideal society. Others may think that the new system he recommends now is simply a more repressive version of the old, with the addition of numerous apparatchicks, with powers of life and death over the rest of the population.
Gurney makes light of the evidence that Winstanley became an ‘Anglican’ in the 1660s. He thinks it possible that he still felt the same about fundamentals; but it is striking that even Winstanley’s erstwhile persecutor Parson Platt refused to conform, when the clergy were required to read the Anglican Book of Prayer in 1662; and was ejected from his living on that account. On the other hand, we know that in the last year of his life, 1675, Gerrard moved back to London, where he had a substantial house, went into business as a corn chandler and became a Quaker.
It is remarkable that those who have written about Gerrard Winstanley since 1940 have tended to adhere to David Petegorsky’s view that he was a pioneering socialist, but it could equally well be said that his life is a classic demonstration of the shortcomings of socialism as a creed – in particular, its essentially utopian view of human nature and politics. It could equally well be said that the Digger episode was merely a phase in Winstanley’s life. After all, he was 40 when he was involved in the communes in Walton and Cobham, but 51 at the time of the Restoration and 66 when he moved back to London. Why should we not conclude that, rather than becoming a reluctant conformist after 1660, he simply saw the errors of his former ways?