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Interpreting Gerrard Winstanleys True Levellers Standard Advanced History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

The 17th century was a pivotal point in England’s history and the year 1649 CE in particular was a time of great social unrest in England. The Parliamentarian faction had won the First English Civil War, but they failed to arrive at a constitutional settlement with the defeated Charles I. When the members of Parliament and New Model Army were faced with Charles’ perceived duplicity, they tried and executed him. Government was replaced with a new body called the Council of State, which due to fundamental disagreements within a weakened Parliament, was dominated by the Army. One of the notable aspects of the Civil War was the Cromwellian Interregnum period which followed it, and the multitude of political and religious movements that blossomed in this period. Research by historians such as Christopher Hill has begun to bring recognition to some of the more neglected Civil War movements and events. Many of these movements were radically active in politics – suggesting alternative forms of government to replace the old order – including agitators called Levellers, who wanted parliamentary government based on an electorate of every male head of a household; Fifth Monarchy Men, who advocated a theocracy; and the True Levellers led by Winstanley. It is Winstanley’s True Leveller movement – specifically an understanding of the arguments and significance of the True Leveller Standard Advanced manifesto – that shall be the focus of this paper. In this paper I will make the case that Winstanley’s True Leveller Standard Advanced of 1649 espoused a breakdown, or “Levelling” of private property – due to the corruption of the flesh and soul that it was perceived to cause – and a restructuring of English social hierarchy, which is significant because it can be seen as an early attack on the very root of class divisions. In order to strengthen my thesis argument, I will incorporate interpretations of Winstanley’s document from two authors – Alun Hopkins and Walter F. Murphy – into my paper.

The True Levellers were an agrarian group of English Protestants, founded by Gerrard Winstanley in 1649 – a man that Walter F. Murphy sees as a communist [1] . They became known as the Diggers due to their actions of digging up and working of the Common lands in several English counties. On Sunday 1 April 1649, a group of ‘poor men’ moved on to the common land at St George’s Hill in Surrey and began to dig and plant it with corn, parsnips, carrots and beans [2] . They built houses and cleared the land for further cultivation, but the settlement was short-lived. Action was brought against them in the local courts and their goods were seized. In August 1649 they moved to Cobham Heath about two miles away. Again they began digging, incurring the wrath of the local gentry who called on the support of the government. Soldiers were brought in: the crops they were growing for winter were burnt, their houses pulled down and tools and implements destroyed – by April 1650 the colony was finally dispersed [3] . It was around the time of the formation of the St. George’s Hill settlement that Gerrard Winstanely created a document – the True Levellers Standard Advance – laying out the Diggers’ manifesto.

Gerrard Winstanley’s 1649 “True Levellers Standard Advanced” Digger manifesto appears to serve both as an articulation of the Diggers motivations, as well as an proclamation to all of England at large to give notice to the revolutionary notion of cultivating the common land. Winstanley’s argument for the levelling of private property and contemporary social hierarchy begins with a declaration that, “…the great Creator Reason made the Earth to be a Common Treasury … for Man had Dominion given to him, over the beasts, birds, and fishes; but not one word was spoken in the beginning that one branch of mankind should rule over another. And the reason is this: every single man, male and female, is a perfect creature in himself…” [4] . This idea of the Earth as a “common treasury” – where no branch of man ruled over another – is essential to the Digger philosophy. Central in Winstanley’s argument is his addressing of land poverty and dispossession, leaving those who had been masters of their own destiny in “the cruel Oppression of Landlords, and Lords of Mannours”. Author Walter F. Murphy agrees that Winstanely’s document is preaching an end to private property. He argues that – in Winstanley’s philosophy – human history had been a conflict between the flesh and the spirit, a conflict that, in his day at least, had been won by the flesh. Practical proof of this was easily to be seen in the institution of private property, which in Winstanley’s eyes was nothing more than individual sinful seizures of portions of the original “common treasurie.” To preserve these appropriations, government had been instituted, and people had been persuaded that personal ownership was better than common ownership. This notion of private property was the curse of mankind. Property could be obtained only by theft, murder, or oppression [5] . Author Alun Howkins also interprets Winstanley’s writings to be a, “an eloquent and powerful defence of common property in land” and to endorse a, “popular radicalism which saw in the conquest the theft of the land of England by an alien power, which then created itself as a class… [behind which] lay the original sin – the sin of property” [6] . I agree with the interpretations of both authors regarding Winstanley’s True Levellers Standard Advanced.

Winstanley demands in his True Levellers Standard Advanced argument no less than direct personal access to natural resources, and equates the extension of private property rights with evil [7] . He particularly highlighted land being privatised or enclosed as the key social issue of his day, against the interests’ of the dispossessed commoners, who would “never have their liberty, nor the land ever freed from troubles, oppressions and complainings” until this issue was dealt with [8] . Winstanley strikes at this root cause of social conflict in his document, and sees it as providing justification for the Diggers’ actions:

“And the First Reason is this, That we may work in righteousness, and lay the Foundation of making the Earth a Common Treasury for All, both Rich and Poor, That every one that is born in the Land, may be fed by the Earth his Mother that brought him forth, according to the Reason that rules in the Creation. Not Inclosing any part into any particular hand, but all as one man, working together and feeding together as Sons of one Father, members of one Family; not one Lording over another, but all looking upon each other as equals in the Creation” [9] 

According to Winstanley, life in Eden was ideal in its relationship with the bounty of nature. Winstanley contends that living from the land is Godly, and man needs neither ruler nor teacher to know how to farm communally, with any other arrangement being an unholy compromise. Winstanley argues that the simple, divine lifestyle intended for man went awry as a “covetous spirit” obscured the “meekness of reason.” As man convinced himself that accumulation of property was an important pastime, he simultaneously “advanced the creation of his own bondage.” When one man rules another, neither is free, for their individual spirit of reason dies. “Civil propriety is the curse”, Winstanley argues, and is manifest thus, “…Those that buy and sell land, and are landlords, have got it either by oppression, or murder, or theft, and all landlords live in the breach of the seventh and eighth commandments, thou shalt not steal, nor kill.” [10] .

Winstanley’s document makes ready use of biblical allegories as Cain’s jealousy and Esau’s pride [11] . These comparisons of fundamental biblical lessons against hierarchic society seem to argue for a restructuring of English social hierarchy to return to alignment with biblical human society. Moreover, Winstanley sets the radical struggle for freedom of his contemporary English movement within the terms of both the Egyptian enslavement of the Israelites and Norman occupation of England. Gerrard Winstanley writes, “O what mighty delusion to do you, who are the powers of England, live in, that while you pretend to throw down that Norman yoke, and Babylonish power, and have promised to make the groaning people of England a free people; yet still … you hold the people as much in bondage as the Bastard Conqueror himself” [12] . With “plausible words of flattery,” the poor people have been kept enslaved, and his cry of “Let Israel go free!” is a clear attempt to relate the plight of the English commoners with that of the enslaved Israelites.

In comparing the contemporary state of the English commoners with that of the Israelites in Exodus, Winstanley has clearly challenged the English social hierarchy. If the English commoners are compared in analogy to the Israelites, there must be an analogy to the Egyptians – the rich landowners of England. Notably, Winstanley does not greatly condemn the ruling class, aside from chastising them for delusion, and does not emphasis the typical proletariat versus bourgeois class conflict – in fact, he places a lot of responsibility on the individual people of society, declaring that each time one of the poor English people consents to be governed, he is “raising up tyranny,” and that by opting out of the hierarchic society, he can again lower it [13] .

In conclusion, this paper has demonstrated that Winstanley’s 1649 True Levellers Standard Advanced advocates the levelling of private property – due to the corruption of the flesh and soul that it was perceived to cause – as well as revolution of the English social hierarchy so that no branch of mankind should rule over another, in keeping with biblical lessons. Authors Alun Howkins and Walter F. Murphy offer interpretations in keeping with this paper’s conclusions. Winstanley’s document is significant it can be seen as an early attack on the very root of class divisions, heavily reliant on the system of land-ownership.

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