Gerrard Winstanley, the son of a mercer, was born in Wigan, Lancashire, in 1609. He moved to London in 1690 and became an apprentice in the cloth trade and became a freeman of the Merchant Taylors' Company in 1637.
In September 1640 Windstanley married Susan King and the couple moved to Walton-on-Thames. The Civil War destroyed his business and later wrote: "the burdens of and for the soldiery in the beginning of the war, I was beaten out of both estate and trade, and forced to accept the good-will of friends, crediting of me, to live a country life."
Influenced by the ideas of the John Lilburne and the Levellers, Winstanley published four pamphlets in 1648. He argued that all land belonged to the community rather than to separate individuals. In January, 1649, he published the The New Law of Righteousness. In the pamphlet he wrote: "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."
Soon after publishing The New Law of Righteousness he established a group called the Diggers. In April 1649 Winstanley, William Everard, a former soldier in the New Model Army and about thirty followers took over some common land on St George's Hill in Surrey and "sowed the ground with parsnips, carrots and beans."
Digger groups also took over land in Kent (Cox Hill), Surrey (Cobham), Buckinghamshire (Iver) and Northamptonshire (Wellingborough). Local landowners were very disturbed by these developments. In July 1649 the government gave instructions for Winstanley to be arrested and for General Thomas Fairfax to "disperse the people by force" in case this is the "beginning to whence things of a greater and more dangerous consequence may grow".
Oliver Cromwell is reported to have said: "What is the purport of the levelling principle but to make the tenant as liberal a fortune as the landlord. I was by birth a gentleman. You must cut these people in pieces or they will cut you in pieces." Instructions were given for the Diggers to be beaten up and for their houses, crops and tools to be destroyed. These tactics were successful and within a year all the Digger communities in England had been wiped out.
Winstanley continued to argue for the redistribution of land and in 1652 published The Law of Freedom. In the pamphlet he criticised the government of Oliver Cromwell: "And now you have the power of the land in your hand, you must do one of these two things. First, either set the land free to the oppressed commoners, who assisted you, and paid the Army their wages; and then you will fulfil the Scriptures and your own engagements, and so take possession of your deserved honour. Or secondly, you must only remove the Conqueror's power out of the King's hand into other men's".
In The Law of Freedom Winstanley takes the view held by the Anabaptists that all institutions were by their nature corrupt: "nature tells us that if water stands long it corrupts; whereas running water keeps sweet and is fit for common use". To prevent power corrupting individuals he advocated that all officials should be elected every year. "When public officers remain long in place of judicature they will degenerate from the bounds of humility, honesty and tender care of brethren, in regard the heart of man is so subject to be overspread with the clouds of covetousness, pride, vain glory."
Winstanley goes on to argue for a society without money or wages: "The earth is to be planted and the fruits reaped and carried into barns and storehouses by the assistance of every family. And if any man or family want corn or other provision, they may go to the storehouses and fetch without money. If they want a horse to ride, go into the fields in summer, or to the common stables in winter, and receive one from the keepers, and when your journey is performed, bring him where you had him, without money."
The Law of Freedom sold well and for a while Winstanley's ideas appeared popular with the English people. However, the Restoration brought an end to the discussion about the way society should be organized.