1. Gerrard Winstanley and the impact of the Civil Wars on the lives of common people

By Lívia Bernardes Roberge
liv.roberge@gmail.com | @LivLeFay

Like so many people during the 1640s in England, Gerrard Winstanley was an ordinary man suffering from the consequences of the Civil Wars.

These events are often remembered by the many battles, sieges and political disputes involving the King and Parliament, but what about the everyday lives of common people? How did these events affect them? And what did they think about the conflicts?


  • Baptist
  • Clericalism
  • Covenant
  • Millenarianism


Generally speaking, a set of Christian Protestant beliefs that entailed adult baptism (so the person would only be baptised once he or she was an active ‘believer’). Some Baptists believed in universal salvation (General Baptists), while others believed in election, where only a few would be saved or ‘elected’ on judgement day (Particular Baptists).


A church which is organised based on the existence of ordained clergy, such as bishops, implicating the existence of a hierarchical structure and leadership.


A sort of mutual agreement. In the Bible it is often used to refer to an agreement with God. 


A belief in the coming of a millennium after the end of the present world. It would begin with the Second Coming of Christ, which would bring a thousand years of happiness to mankind.

The impacts of war on ordinary people

Gerrard Winstanley was struggling to keep his business going during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, with little success. Originally from Wigan, in Lancashire, he was working as merchant tailor in the parish of St. Olave Jewry, in the City of London. When the conflicts between crown and parliament started, at first Winstanley did not seem to align strongly with either of the sides, not having volunteered for the parliament’s army, for example (Corns; Hughes; Lowenstein, 2009, p. 7).

Winstanley did, however, sign the Solemn League and Covenant on 8 October 1643 (Corns; Hughes; Lowenstein, 2009, p. 7). This was an agreement for the reformation of religion in England, originally drawn between the English Parliament and the Scottish Covenanters, where the latter agreed to help the Parliament in its fight against the king during the First Civil War (1642-1646), under the condition that Scottish Presbyterianism was adopted in England.

This is an indication that Winstanley’s perceptions of the conflicts were very much influenced by his personal experience in them: the characteristic anti-monarchism that is later identifiable in his writings did not necessarily entail a strong support for parliament when the conflicts first begun, exemplifying how complex civil war allegiances were.


The Move to Cobham

Aerial view of Church Cobham with St. Andrew's Church in the centre, 1923

Aerial view of Church Cobham with St. Andrew’s Church in the centre, 1923

The wars soon started having a negative impact on the tailoring business, especially with the collapse of the Irish market (Alsop; Davis, 2014). This caused Winstanley to accumulate a serious amount of debt, and eventually to go bankrupt in 1643. Alongside his wife, Susan Winstanley (born King), the couple was forced to exchange London for a life in Cobham, Surrey, where Susan’s father, William King, owned some property (Gurney, 2007, p. 71; Corns; Hughes; Lowenstein, 2009, p. 1-11).

There the couple resorted to modest farming, pasturing cattle and harvesting corn. But the war would affect life in Cobham as well, especially with war taxation weighing on common folk, which led Winstanley to experience financial problems yet again between 1647 and 1648. Cobham was also a place where tensions regarding property and land rights were escalating, with landlords and commoners disputing their interpretations on the common law, enclosures, waste and common lands (Gurney, 2007). This also probably affected Winstanley’s own feelings and reflections about issues concerning access to land.  


Winstanley's 'Spiritual Awakening'

In addition to his economic difficulties, Winstanley also seemed to have started to experience some crisis of faith. In 1648, he went through a sort of ‘spiritual awakening’ (Corns; Hughes; Lowenstein, 2009, p. 54), proceeding to write five mainly religious pamphlets, which also encompassed some of his first reflections on matters concerning access to land, equality and freedom. These were: The Mysterie of God concerning the whole Creation, Mankind (1648); The Breaking of the Day of God (1648); The Saints Paradise (1648); Truth Lifting up its Head above Scandals (1649); and The New Law of Righteousnes (1649).

Winstanley justified these writings as having been inspired by God himself, alleging that he had written nothing but what was given to him by the Father (Winstanley, 1648, p. 255). In the pamphlet The New Law of Righteousnes he speaks of having experienced a ‘revelation’ sent to him by God, which commanded him and his companions to ‘work together, eat bread together’ and to ‘declare this all abroad’.

Gerrard Winstanley, 1649:

'As I was in a trance not long since, divers matters were present to my sight, which here must not be related. Likewise I heard these words, Worke together. Eat bread together, declare this all abroad. Likewise I heard these words. Whosoever it is that labours in the earth, for any person or persons, that lifts up themselves as Lords & Rulers over others, and that doth not look upon themselves equal to others in the Creation, The hand of the Lord shall be upon that labourer: I the Lord have spoke it and I will do it; Declare this all abroad.' (p.513)

It is important to note that these were written and published before Winstanley’s involvement with the Diggers. The views exposed by Winstanley in these writings show a man that was becoming increasingly critical of social hierarchies, of clericalism and of formal education, of monarchy as well as of parliament itself, and who was attempting to find explanations and solutions to the many perils he had been through in God. He was starting to advocate that everyone should have free access to the word of God and emphasizing that He could only be found within every man and woman.

Winstanley was not alone in these perspectives. Many of the beliefs he was forwarding were also being explored by other groups, such as Baptists, for example, with whom Winstanley is believed to have had quite a fair amount of contact (Hessayon, 2014). So even though he was fashioning and advancing various perspectives in his own terms and according to his own understandings, it is important to remember that his ideas did not spring ‘out of nowhere’, they related to the fruitful and broader background of protestant sectarian religious and social discussion that was taking place in England in the 1640s.

Source: Copy of the original in the British Library, Thomason Tracts E.655[8]Source: Copy of the original in the British Library, Thomason Tracts E.655[8]

Millenarianism and Anxiety

Finally, in these pamphlets Winstanley was starting to express what we call ‘millenarian beliefs’, that is, a belief that Christ was returning to perform the Last Judgement, when those that had stayed true to the ‘righteous’ beliefs forwarded by himself would be saved and enjoy a thousand years of happiness. In other words, Winstanley had started to believe that what he and his fellow companions were experiencing in England were signs that the world of men was coming to an end.

It is not rare, in history, for people to start fostering apocalyptical beliefs such as this when society is facing a period of prolonged crisis and instability. It makes people prone to project all the fear, uncertainty and anxiety that they are experiencing into all kinds of beliefs, from finding a scapegoat to blame, to endorsing superstitions and trying to make sense of a world that they no longer understand. This is part of the reason why, for example, the period of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms also saw an increase in witch hunts in England and in Scotland. For the sake of comparison, just think of how the COVID-19 pandemic promoted the rise of various conspiracy theories all over the world!

Maybe nowadays these ideas don’t strike us as extremely ‘radical’, ‘revolutionary’, or even new, but let’s remember the context in which Winstanley existed. For a common man to openly express his views, to whoever was interested in hearing or reading them, was already a bold step. At the same time, his ability to take such a step had only been made possible because of the political and cultural changes he was living through: the Wars of the Three Kingdoms had turned England, Scotland, and Ireland ‘upside down’, and created an environment where the authorities, who once oversaw censorship of what was being published, found themselves disjointed, as all the institutional attention was on the war effort.

Consequently, this was a period that experienced a very particular kind of ‘freedom of expression’ – at least in practice if not in theory – for the first time in British history. It allowed Winstanley to find his voice through print, a topic we are going to explore further in the next post.

About the Author

Lívia Bernardes Roberge
I'm currently volunteering as the Academic in Residence at Elmbridge Museum. I obtained my master’s degree in history at the Universidade Federal Fluminense (UFF – Rio de Janeiro) in 2017 and started my PhD in history at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (UFMG – Belo Horizonte) in 2018, being fully funded by CAPES (Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior). At the moment I'm a visiting researcher at the University of Sheffield, specialising in Early Modern British history and developing research about the 17th century Diggers. My main interests are cultural history and the history of political thought, particularly representations and identity formation in Early Modern Britain.

Further Reading

Gerrard Winstanley: The Digger’s Life and Legacy’ by John Gurney

'Gerrard Winstanley: The Digger's Life and Legacy' by John Gurney

View this book in the Surrey Libraries catalogue


The English Civil War: A People’s History’ by Diane Purkiss

'The English Civil War: A People's History' by Diane Purkiss

View this book in the Surrey Libraries catalogue


The titles used in the research for this blog, including primary sources

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Read more blogs in the series

The first in our Academic in Residence blogs, looking in more detail at Digger leader Gerrard Winstanley and how he was affected by the English Civil War.

read more
2. From pamphlet wars to Twitter wars: print and opinion in seventeenth century England Investigate the development of the printing press, and the repercussions this had for Early Modern society - including emerging radical groups - during the Civil War.

read more
3. Seventeenth century squatters? The Diggers and the occupation of St. George’s Hill Learn about the motivations behind the Diggers' occupation of St. George's Hill in 1649, and explore some modern comparisons.

read more
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