I have finally had the opportunity to watch Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo’s 1975 film Winstanley, something I have wanted to see almost since it came out. It is a beautiful film, superbly shot in black and white, and made up of such vivid close-ups. The amateur actors they got to play the Diggers look as if they belong in the 17th century.
But I don’t want to talk about the film, it’s the history behind it I find so fascinating.
Gerrard Winstanley emerged from nowhere three months after the execution of Charles I in 1649, and by the early 1650s he had disappeared into obscurity once more. We do not know his date of birth, though we do know he was baptized in 1609, which would make him 40 when he turned up at St George’s Hill, Cobham, Surrey, in April 1949. He had been a freeman of the Merchant Tailors’ Company in London, but his business failed during the war and he had been bankrupted in 1643. Sometime in the years after that he seems to have become radicalized, writing a series of pamphlets beginning with The Mysterie of God Concerning the whole Creation, Mankinde which appeared probably in the spring of 1648.
Over the next four years a whole string of pamphlets would appear (David Petegorsky lists some 24 in the bibliography to Left-Wing Democracy in the English Civil War). All were utopian in character, though it is doubtful whether Winstanley had read Thomas More, or any of the literary utopias that followed. His references and allusions were invariably biblical, growing out of the radical millenarianism that emerged during the period of the civil war. It was a time when the various branches of Puritanism had taken on a radical political as well as a radical religious aspect. Through tracts and addresses to Parliament, radical thinkers such as John Lilburne and William Walwyn (leaders of what would become known as the Levellers) were laying down such ideas as the rights of man being enshrined in a common law, inalienable rights, and that Parliament is the representative rather than the ruler of the people. The Levellers proposed ‘forming a society based strictly on what a man might call his reason’, and their strength among the rank and file of the New Model Army forced Cromwell and Ireton to pay attention to them during a series of indecisive debates at army headquarters in Putney in October 1647. But the indecisiveness of the debates allowed Cromwell to crush the Levellers. When the Diggers emerged 18 months later, they called themselves the True Levellers (Winstanley and Will Everard co-wrote a pamphlet in April 1649 called The True Levellers Standard Advanced or the State of Community opened and presented to the Sons of Men). Now I know many of the Diggers had been in the New Model Army, though I have no idea how many had actually been Levellers before; Winstanley, I don’t think, was in the army though his writing clearly shows the influence of the Levellers.
Miles Halliwell, the schoolteacher who had a small part in Brownlow and Mollo’s previous film, It Happened Here, and who took David Caute’s novel, Comrade Jacob, to Mollo as a possible source for a film, was chosen to play Winstanley. He looks younger than Winstanley would have been, and plays him as a quiet-spoken messiah figure. Certainly Winstanley must have been charismatic, he attracted plenty of followers, and I don’t think it can all have been through his writing. After all, this was still not a widely literate society and many of those who became Diggers probably were not able to read. On screen, Halliwell’s quiet and stillness are magnetic, but I feel Winstanley himself cannot have been like that.
Brownlow and Mollo took great pains to recreate the period as accurately as possible. They used Gloucester Old Spot pigs, tools from the period, arms and armour borrowed from the Royal Armouries. But we always see the past through the lens of the present, and in Winstanley that becomes obvious with the appearance of the Ranters. Now the Ranters were a weird bunch even by the standards of the weird times, expressing extreme religious radicalism through wild behavior and ‘ranting’ speech. In the film they are presented as proto-hippies. Actually, such characterization is practically inevitable, given that the leader of the Ranters is played by Sid Rawle, who can pretty safely be called Britain’s arch-hippy. Shortly before appearing in Winstanley he had led a commune on a remote Scottish island supported by Paul McCartney, and members of the ranting crew with him in the film were all members of his commune. On the DVD, there’s a fascinating documentary about the filming of Winstanley called It Happened Here Again, during the course of which there is an interview with Rawle. It is obvious that Rawle played the Ranter as himself (even the clothing isn’t that different), and he specifically identifies the ranters and the hippies. I’m not sure the identification holds, but the irruption of the Ranters into Winstanley’s camp is the one moment in the film that makes it feel of its time (the early 1970s) rather than a sort of timeless 17th century.
And everything comes back to Gerrard Winstanley, of course. I’m not sure it’s right to see Winstanley’s utopian vision as a proto-communism, though that is what the film suggests. In his last and perhaps most important pamphlet, The Law of Freedom in a Platform (1652), Winstanley proposed a radical reform built around the belief that: ‘Every Freeman shall have a Freedom in the Earth, to plant or build, to fetch from the Store-houses anything he wants, and shall enjoy the fruits of his labours without restraint from any.’ He doesn’t quite say, from each according to his means, to each according to his needs, but it seems to come close. But in fact this is built on religious rather than social or economic principles; the poor are not necessarily being elevated in these works, the extreme Protestantism espoused by Winstanley and other religious radicals saw industry as essential, every man has a right to work because it is a religious requirement that every man must work (the origins of the Protestant work ethic) and if the poor are seen as indolent they are subject to severe strictures.
By the time Winstanley wrote this, of course, the experiment at St George’s Hill was over. The film neatly frames the story within the turning of the year, and thus it is in winter that they finally admit defeat. It probably wasn’t quite as neat as that, though the film is wonderful in the way it shows that the major problem for the Diggers was not the struggle with nature, but the struggle with man. Throughout their time at St George’s Hill the Diggers were subject to constant harassment from local people who beat them, jailed them, trampled their crops, broke their tools and burned their homes. After a year of such attacks, even a man as stubborn as Winstanley had to admit defeat. By this time Digger communities had been established in nine other counties. In the film we learn nothing of what happened to these other communities, so there is a suggestion that the ideas will live on, but, in fact, all seem to have petered out by the end of 1650. And so the first attempt to turn literary utopias into practical reality failed. Curiously, Winstanley’s account of the experiment, An Humble Request to All the Ministers of both Universities and to all Lawyers of every Inns-a-Court (1650), seems to present this defeat almost in terms of class warfare: ‘The poor have striven with them 12 months, with love and patience; The Gentlemen have answered them all the time with fury.’ The film, which, after all, relies on Winstanley’s texts for much of its script, rather takes him at his word, but in those confused and confusing times it surely wasn’t as simple as that. We don’t really know the story from the other side, but there were famines in the country in the two years preceding the Diggers’ arrival at St George’s Hill, and since it was common land that they took over it would probably have been widely used by local people to graze their livestock. It is possible, therefore, that the arrival of the Digger community, who promptly started arable farming on common grazing ground, was seen as a real threat to the well-being and even the survival of the local people.
The film ends with the end of the community, we learn nothing of what happened to Gerrard Winstanley. In fact he almost immediately became an estate manager for an aristocrat, though he was fired for mismanagement; he became a Quaker, though the fact that he also became a churchwarden suggests he didn’t entirely abandon more conventional forms of religion; he became a property owner when his father-in-law gave him land; he returned to business as a corn chandler, and when he died in 1676 he was in the middle of legal disputes about a will. I find it hard to square these later incarnations of Winstanley with the man we know from his writings (or, indeed, with how he is presented in the film). Was it a brief radicalism inspired by his business reverses? Was it deeply held belief put in abeyance when circumstances changed? All I know is that I find the man almost more fascinating than his utopian writings, or than his portrayal in what is, after all, a superb film.