Henry Winstanley

I have recently finished writing a full-length biography of the Saffron Walden engineer Henry Winstanley (1644-1703). After researching and writing intermittently over twenty years and on three continents, I have finished it since retiring in 2018. The book should be published, by the Cygnet Press, towards the end of 2020. It is called Henry Winstanley, 1644-1703: The Last Renaissance Engineer. More details of publication date, price and availability will be published here as they become clearer.

Winstanley is probably Saffron Walden’s single most famous historical figure and the story of his life has repeatedly been told as a mildly comic tale of eccentricity and slightly deranged ingenuity. One biographer, Fred Majdalany, called him “a seventeenth century Toad of Toad Hall,” and it is this kind of rather patronising nonsense that I have tried to counter. The same sort of derisive account of his lighthouse (it was often compared to a pagoda in a Chinese cemetery) is the work of nineteenth century engineers looking back without understanding, at the intellectual world of their predecessors.

There is little point in seeing Winstanley as a failed man of our own times: the really interesting question is what he thought he was doing, and why; and what his contemporaries understood his work to be about. He was an engineer-showman in a tradition that one writer was called “Renaissance Engineering,” and this – in a minor key – is the tradition in which men like Leonardo da Vinci and Inigo Jones were also deeply immersed. If we don’t understand that, we shan’t understand the man.

My book examines all the aspects of his life to which we have access. I rethink his extraordinary Eddystone lighthouse as an element in the naval strategy of King William’s war against France; I locate and explore in some detail the mysterious Water Theatre at Hyde Park Corner, a strange and wonderful box of mechanical, hydraulic and pyrotechnic tricks powered by the Tyburn Stream; I examine his etchings, cataloguing them in an appendix which is a full Catalogue RaisonnĂ© and put some order into the account of his print-making career. Along with all this I look at his clerkship of works at Audley End, his relationship with the Howard Earls of Suffolk who were his chief patrons; and at the network of anti-Catholic noblemen, later architects of the Glorious Revolution, to whom he was briefly a sort of court artist in the late 1670s and early 1680s.

There’s a lot more too, of books, machines, houses, agriculture and architecture. From it all emerges a more rounded and more genuinely interesting man than Winstanley has been allowed to be in the past.

Henry Winstanley, 1644-1703: The Last Renaissance Engineer, will be published in the autumn of 2020. Enquiries to martin.rose@magd.oxon.org