George Winstanley’s True Levellers, or Diggers, in Early Modern England


John Lilburne, reading from Coke’s Institute’s of the Lawes

Their original name came from their belief in economic equality.


Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Public Historian
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief


Introduction

Woodcut from a Diggers document by William Everard / Wikimedia Commons

The Diggers were a group of Protestant radicals in England, sometimes seen as forerunners of modern anarchism,[1] and also associated with agrarian socialism[2][3] and Georgism. Gerrard Winstanley’s followers were known as True Levellersin 1649 and later became known as Diggers, because of their attempts to farm on common land.

Their original name came from their belief in economic equality based upon a specific passage in the Acts of the Apostles.[4][5] The Diggers tried (by “leveling” land) to reform the existing social order with an agrarian lifestyle based on their ideas for the creation of small, egalitarian rural communities. They were one of a number of nonconformist dissenting groups that emerged around this time.

Historical Background

Title page of A Brief description of the Fifth Monarchy or Kingdome (1653) by William Aspinwall. / Wikimedia Commons

The year 1649 was a time of great social unrest in England. The Parliamentarians had won the First English Civil War but failed to negotiate a constitutional settlement with the defeated King Charles I. When members of Parliament and the Grandees in the New Model Army were faced with Charles’ perceived duplicity, they tried and executed him.

Government through the King’s Privy Council 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. Many people became active in politics, suggesting alternative forms of government to replace the old order.

Royalists wished to place King Charles II on the throne; men like Oliver Cromwell wished to govern with a plutocratic Parliament voted in by an electorate based on property, similar to that which was enfranchised before the civil war; agitators called Levellers, influenced by the writings of John Lilburne, wanted parliamentary government based on an electorate of every male head of a household; Fifth Monarchy Men advocated a theocracy; and the Diggers, led by Gerrard Winstanley, advocated a more radical solution.

Theory

Gerrard Winstanley

In 1649 Gerrard Winstanley and 14 others published a pamphlet[6] in which they called themselves the “True Levellers” to distinguish their ideas from those of the Levellers. Once they put their idea into practice and started to cultivate common land, both opponents and supporters began to call them “Diggers”. The Diggers’ beliefs were informed by Winstanley’s writings which envisioned an ecological interrelationship between humans and nature, acknowledging the inherent connections between people and their surroundings. Winstanley declared that “true freedom lies where a man receives his nourishment and preservation, and that is in the use of the earth”.[7]

An undercurrent of political thought which has run through English society for many generations and resurfaced from time to time (for example, in the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381) was present in some of the political factions of the 17th century. It involved the common belief that England had become subjugated by the “Norman Yoke”. This legend offered an explanation that at one time a golden Era had existed in England before the Norman Conquest in 1066.

Practice

St. George’s Hill, Weybridge, Surrey

The Old Bridge on River Wey / Photo by Hellimli, Wikimedia Commons

The Council of State received a letter in April 1649. Sanders reported that they had invited “all to come in and help them, and promise them meat, drink, and clothes.” They intended to pull down all enclosures and cause the local populace to come and work with them. They claimed that their number would be several thousand within ten days. “It is feared they have some design in hand.” In the same month, the Diggers issued their most famous pamphlet and manifesto, called “The True Levellers Standard Advanced”.[6]

At the behest of the local landowners, the commander of the New Model Army, Sir Thomas Fairfax, duly arrived with his troops and interviewed Winstanley and another prominent member of the Diggers, William Everard. Everard suspected that the Diggers were in serious trouble and soon left the group.

Winstanley remained and continued to write about the treatment they received. The harassment from the Lord of the Manor, Francis Drake (not the famous Francis Drake, who had died more than 50 years before), was both deliberate and systematic: he organised gangs in an attack on the Diggers, including numerous beatings and an arson attack on one of the communal houses. Following a court case, in which the Diggers were forbidden to speak in their own defence, they were found guilty of being Ranters, a radical sect associated with liberal sexuality (though in fact Winstanley had reprimanded Ranter Laurence Clarkson for his sexual practices).[8][9] Having lost the court case, if they had not left the land, then the army could have been used to enforce the law and evict them; so they abandoned Saint George’s Hill in August 1649, much to the relief of the local freeholders.

Little Heath Near Cobham

St. Andrew’s Church, Cobham / Photo by Danny Robinson, Wikimedia Commons

Some of the evicted Diggers moved a short distance to Little Heath in Surrey. 11 acres (4.5 ha) were cultivated, six houses built, winter crops harvested, and several pamphlets published. After initially expressing some sympathy for them, the local lord of the manor of Cobham, Parson John Platt, became their chief enemy. He used his power to stop local people helping them and he organised attacks on the Diggers and their property.

Wellingborough, Northamptonshire

Wellingborough Croyland Abbey / Photo by Kokai, Wikimedia Commons

There was another community of Diggers close to Wellingborough in Northamptonshire. In 1650, the community published a declaration which started:A Declaration of the Grounds and Reasons why we the Poor Inhabitants of the Town of Wellingborrow, in the County of Northampton, have begun and give consent to dig up, manure and sow Corn upon the Common, and waste ground, called Bareshanke belonging to the Inhabitants of Wellinborrow, by those that have Subscribed and hundreds more that give Consent….[10]

This colony was probably founded as a result of contact with the Surrey Diggers. In late March 1650, four emissaries from the Surrey colony were arrested in Buckinghamshire bearing a letter signed by the Surrey Diggers including Gerrard Winstanley and Robert Coster inciting people to start Digger colonies and to provide money for the Surrey Diggers. According to the newspaper A Perfect Diurnall the emissaries had travelled a circuit through the counties of Surrey, Middlesex, Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Huntingdonshire and Northamptonshire before being apprehended.[11]

On 15 April 1650 the Council of State ordered Mr Pentlow, a justice of the peace for Northamptonshire to proceed against ‘the Levellers in those parts’ and to have them tried at the next Quarter Session.[12]The Iver Diggers recorded that nine of the Wellingborough Diggers were arrested and imprisoned in Northampton jail and although no charges could be proved against them the justice refused to release them.

Captain William Thompson, the leader of the failed “Banbury mutiny,” was killed in a skirmish close to the community by soldiers loyal to Oliver Cromwell in May 1649.

Iver, Buckinghamshire

The Swan at Iver, Buckinghamshire / Creative Commons

Another colony of Diggers connected to the Surrey and Wellingborough colony was set up in Iver, Buckinghamshire about 14 miles (23 km) from the Surrey Diggers colony at St George’s Hill (see Keith Thomas, ‘Another Digger Broadside’ Past and Present No.42, (1969) pp. 57–68). The Iver Diggers’ “Declaration of the grounds and Reasons, why we the poor Inhabitants of the Parrish of Iver in Buckinghamshire …[13] revealed that there were further Digger colonies in Barnet in Hertfordshire, Enfield in Middlesex, Dunstable in Bedfordshire, Bosworth in Leicestershire and further colonies at unknown locations in Gloucestershire and Nottinghamshire. It also revealed that after the failure of the Surrey colony, the Diggers had left their children to be cared for by parish funds.

Influence

The San Francisco Diggers

Location within Central San Francisco, Haight-Ashbury / Wikimedia Commons

During the middle and late 1960s, the San Francisco Diggers (who took their name from the original English Diggers) opened stores which simply gave away their stock; provided free food, medical care, transport and temporary housing; they also organised free music concerts and works of political art. Some of their happenings included the Death of Money Parade, Intersection Game, Invisible Circus, and Death of Hippie/Birth of Free.

The Diggers were a radical community-action group of community activists and Improv actors operating from 1966 to 1968, based in the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood of San Francisco. Their politics were such that they have sometimes been categorised as “left-wing”. More precisely, they were “community anarchists” who blended a desire for freedom with a consciousness of the community in which they lived. They were closely associated with and shared a number of members with a guerrilla theatre group named the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Like the original English Diggers, they envisioned a society free from private property, and all forms of buying and selling. Actor Peter Coyote was a founding member of the Diggers.

Other

The American Diggers were echoed in the 1960s in the UK (see Alternative Society and Sid Rawle). Since the revival of anarchism in the British anti-roads movement, the Diggers have been celebrated as precursors of land squatting and communalism. April 1, 1999, on the 350th anniversary of Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers’ occupation of the English Civil War on the same hill, The Land Is Ours organised a rally, then occupied land at St. George’s Hill near Weybridge, Surrey. In 2011, an annual festival began in Wigan to celebrate the Diggers. In 2012, the second annual festival proved a great success and the sixth took place in 2016.[14] In Wellingborough, a festival has also been held annually since 2011.[15] Bolton Diggers were established in 2013 and have promoted “the commons” as a foil to privatisation. They have established community food gardens, cooperatives and the Common Wealth café, a pay-as-you-feel café using surplus food from supermarkets. [16]

Appendix

Notes

  1. See Nicolas Walter, Anarchism and Religion (The Anarchist Library, 1991), p.3
  2. Campbell 2009, p. 129.
  3. E.g. “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;” in The True Levellers Standard A D V A N C E D: or, The State of Community opened, and Presented to the Sons of Men
  4. Acts 4:32, Today’s English Version: “The group of believers was one in mind and heart. No one said that any of his belongings was his own, but they all shared with one another everything they had.”
  5. The True Levellers Standard A D V A N C E D” specifically mentions Acts 4.32
  6. The True Levellers Standard A D V A N C E D: or, The State of Community opened, and Presented to the Sons of Men
  7. Grant, Neil. Hamlyn Children’s History of Britain: From the Stone Age to the Present Day, 2nd Rev edition (Dean, 1992), p.144
  8. Laurence 1980, p. 57.
  9. Vann 1965, p. 133.
  10. “A Declaration by the Diggers of Wellingborough – 1650”www.rogerlovejoy.co.uk. Retrieved 21 March2018.
  11. Keith Thomas, ‘Another Digger Broadside’ Past and Present No.42, (1969) pp. 57–6.)
  12. Calendar of State Papers, Domestic, 1650 (London, 1876) p. 106.
  13. A Declaration of the Grounds and Reasons (Iver) from Hopton, Andrew, ed. Digger Tracts, 1649–50. London: Aporia, 1989. (transcribed by Clifford Stetner)
  14. “Wigan Diggers’ Festival”Wigan Diggers’ Festival. Retrieved 21 March 2018.
  15. About the Diggers, The Wellingborough Diggers’ Festival diggersfestival.org.uk, accessed 7 November 2018
  16. “Up to 40 people per day visit free soup kitchen in Bolton town centre”The Bolton News. Retrieved 21 March 2018.

References

  • Campbell, Heather M, ed. (2009). The Britannica Guide to Political Science and Social Movements That Changed the Modern World. The Rosen Publishing Group. pp.
  • Laurence, Ann (February 1980). “Two Ranter Poems”. The Review of English Studies (New Series ed.). 31 (121): 56–59 [57]. doi:10.1093/res/xxxi.121.56. JSTOR 514052.
  • Vann, Richard T. (January–March 1965). “The Later Life of Gerrard Winstanley”. Journal of the History of Ideas26 (1): 133–136. doi:10.2307/2708404. JSTOR 2708404.
  • Berens, Lewis Henry. The Digger Movement in the Days of the Commonwealth at Project Gutenberg
  • Hill, Christopher (1972). “Levellers and True Levellers”. The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution. London: Temple Smith.
  • Petegorsky, David W. (1995) [1940]. Left-wing Democracy in the English Civil War: Gerrard Winstanley and the Digger Movement. Stroud: Alan Sutton.
  • Johannes Agnoli. Subversive Theorie (Subversive Theory)
  • Kennedy, Geoff (2008). Diggers, Leveller and Agrarian Capitalism : Radical Political Thought in Seventeenth Century England. United States: Lexington Books.


Originally published by Wikipedia, 01.30.2019, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

Comments

comments