It Happened First in England ...


This short article was written in 2014 and remains unpublished. It is concerned with that radical group that emerged during the English Civil War (1642-1651) known as 'the Diggers' or 'True Levellers' led by a man named Gerrard Winstanley.

April Fools Day, 1649

It is a bright but cool morning. The sun has just topped the highest trees of the deep wood that cloaks and crowns the nearby hill. These trees flow down and around the lands that encircle its foot. Somewhere, perhaps on the other side of the hill, a dog is barking, its echoes are carried across the stillness of the morning quiet. Nearby, some tethered goats are grazing on the scrubby land that lies before the woods. They are grazing and suspiciously watching a group of about fifteen men who have recently arrived in a number of vehicles. The men are standing in silence on the edge of the open land scrutinising the bare acres that lie before them. If the goats have an owner he is not nearby but the men are not interested in the goats. The men have come to work the land and each carries a spade, pick, rake or hoe. One of the men who is standing slightly in front of the group, is looking to a point near the centre of the open space and a moment later they begin to move forward as one. The man who leads them is called Gerrard Winstanley. He is a short man in middle age and his years lie heavily on him. Yet when his calloused hand rubs his stubbled jaw (a habit that is familiar to his fellows) and his gap toothed smile breaks his face into a splinter of lines, it is evident that there is both wit and wisdom behind the weathered and beaten face. Next to him is a sterner figure, who stands almost to attention when he listens to the flat-vowelled Lancashire cadences of Winstanley. In fact, the man is a former soldier and his time spent soldiering and more recently in prison, have moulded the quiet severity of his manner. His name is William Everard.

Soon the men have reached the centre of the field. The ground is hard and stony, the grass deep rooted and tough, the gorse and the fern entrenched. But Winstanley is undaunted and with a grunt swings a large pick up and over and down into the earth and the digging begins.

Later when jackets and jerkins have been discarded and sweat is profuse they are observed by a figure watching from the edge of the trees. Winstanley leaves off digging to go across to talk to the man. It is a local farmer and he is obviously concerned by the activities of the men in the field. Already some of the men have begun erecting a shed and others are making good progress in clearing the ground, turning the earth and removing the largest of the rocks. There is a heated exchange between Winstanley and the watcher and the latter quickly makes off with a two fingered gesture aimed at the entire digging company. Winstanley, shaking his head, walks back over to his taller companion. ‘There’ll be trouble I reckon’, he advises, ‘quite soon.’

And he was right, there was trouble, with landowners and authorities and even the government. But before that, for a very brief time, these people, these Diggers, dug, spun, chopped, mended and ate off the land that they lived on and shared. They were equal in Commonwealth together, before it all ended beneath the trampling of soldiers boots.

True Levellers

The account above is based on an actual event that occurred on Thursday April 1st 1649, towards the end of the English Civil War and three months after the regicide of Charles Stuart.

The leader, or more correctly one of the chief proponents, of the movement, these 'Diggers' or 'True Levellers', was Gerrard Winstanley (1609-1676). His ex-soldier companion and sometime spokesman of the Diggers was William Everard (1602?-1651?). Everard did indeed spend time in gaol for his radical views [i]. Whilst incarcerated he was similarly inspired to become involved in a radical new approach to communal living and land use.

Everard wrote:

“… And that there had lately appeared to him a vision which bade him arise, and dig and plough the earth, and receive the fruits thereof; that their intent is, to restore the creation and its former condition.” [ii]

When Winstanley arrived with his group at St. George’s Hill near Weybridge on that April morning of 1649 they settled in and began to use the common land to cultivate and grow their own food. Their utopian desire was to form a commune of people that, leading by example and through the exposure of public speaking and pamphleteering, would transform the new English Commonwealth into a New Albion consisting of small, and what we might term proto-Ethno-Anarchist, communities. They looked to a golden age prior to the ‘Norman yoke’, when they believed Englishman lived free of any foreign ruling class or usurious plutocracy and inhabited an agrarian paradise of like minded Anglo-Saxon freemen. It was both tribal and revolutionary.

Winstanley felt that the spirit of change in post revolutionary England should be taken to its logical conclusion. The King was dead. The next step must be the abolition of private property – no landlords or land-owning clergy, no manorial control of the land whatsoever, ergo the land returned to the English folk that used it. But Winstanley and the Diggers eschewed violence and propounded an ideology that began by settling on common or ‘free’ land where ownership was in doubt or non-existent. Indeed, they despised the entire concept of ownership. Winstanley wrote a tract that year (and it is remarkable that he was able to write at all considering that he and the other Diggers and their families were experiencing incredible hardship under pressure from landowners and angry local residents [iii] as well as trying to work the poorest of land with limited tools and equipment) entitled 'A Declaration From The Poor Oppressed People of England Directed to All That Call Themselves Or Are Called Lords Of Manors' [iv]:

“Therefore we require and we resolve to take both common land and common woods to be livelihood for us, and look upon you as equal with us, not above us, knowing very well that England, the land of our nativity, is to be a common treasury of livelihood to all, without respect of persons.” [v]

In the end the Diggers were forced to relocate from St. George’s Hill due to the constant threats, agitation and aggression of the landowners. They initially moved to land near Cobham where Winstanley thought the locals might be less vociferously aggressive but there they met a similar wall of moneyed resistance. Heeding appeals from the landed gentry, General Fairfax [vi] was sent to observe these Diggers and meet Winstanley and Everard (who symbolically refused to remove their hats when summoned before Fairfax as a sign of the equality of all men) and in fact could find no fault with the group deciding that Winstanley was merely a madman. But Fairfax was forced to bow to continual lobbying and pressure from the landowners and eventually sent in the troops to forcefully remove the settlement. The soldiers, many of whom were radicalised themselves and had a great deal of sympathy with the Digger cause, nonetheless carried out their orders and trampled the crops, broke down the buildings and moved the Diggers off the land.

Refusing to ever sanction violence [vii] Winstanley gradually retired from agitation and, partly supported by his father-in-law and later by commercial successes of his own, he gradually faded into ‘respectable’ obscurity living out his days in Cobham as a reformed member of the community. As he wrote in his final tract addressed to Oliver Cromwell [viii]:

“I do quiet my own spirit. And now I

have set the candle at your door, for you have

the power in your hand … I have no power.” [ix]

Of course Cromwell was never the friend such radicals hoped he might be. The money power prevailed and 'King Finance' was restored as the ruler of Mammon over Albion. [x]

Despite the short lived period of the Digger movement in the late 1640’s and early 1650’s, a precedent was set that would ripple across political thinking into the modern era. It is not so much the admirable but ineffective actions of the Diggers themselves but rather the tracts that Winstanley and others wrote that would set up the political resonances for both those on the so-called left and right. It is in the system advocated by Winstanley in his writings whereby the dispossessed were reckoned against the property owners, where a freeman might claim his rightful place, where the earth would be required to produce not for profit or excess but enough to sustain small low impact cohesive communal groups in an agrarian ideal, that marks the visionary greatness of Winstanley’s writing.

It happened first in England.

“Your houses they pull down, stand up now, stand up now,

Your houses they pull down, stand up now.

Your houses they pull down to fright poor men in town,

But the gentry must come down, and the poor shall wear the crown.

Stand up now, Diggers all.”[xi]

Bibliography

Petegorsky, David W. Left-Wing Democracy in the English Civil War. Stroud: Alan Sutton Publishing Limited, 1995.

Winstanley and the Diggers. Ed. Andrew Bradstock. London: Frank Cass, 2000.

Winstanley. The Law of Freedom and Other Writings. Ed. Christopher Hill. London: Pelican books, 1973.

Notes

[i] Everard had been a radicalised soldier in the New Model Army and had been involved in a mutiny at Ware and was imprisoned at Kingston in 1648.

[ii] Winstanley and the Diggers. Ed. Andrew Bradstock. London: Frank Cass, 2000, 87.

[iii] Property owners raided the colony on St. George’s Hill more than once destroying crops, physically assaulting Diggers, breaking down huts and killing horses.

[iv] In full: A Declaration From The Poor Oppressed People of England Directed to all that call themselves, or are called Lords Of Manors, through this Nation; That have begun to cut, or that through fear and covetousness do intend to cut down the Woods and Trees that grow upon the Commons and Waste Land.

[v] Winstanley. The Law of Freedom and Other Writings. Ed. Christopher Hill. London: Pelican books, 1973, 104.

[vi] Sir Thomas Fairfax (1612-1671) a General in the Parliamentary army.

[vii] Winstanley and the Diggers. Ed. Andrew Bradstock. London: Frank Cass, 2000, 31.

[viii] The text is The Law of Freedon in a Platform (1652) presented to Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland.

[ix] Winstanley and the Diggers. Ed. Andrew Bradstock. London: Frank Cass, 2000, 32.

[x] The financial state of the so-called Commonwealth was clearly as much in Cromwell’s mind as its spiritual state. In 1655 he began negotiating with Menasseh ben Israel, the Dutch based Rabbi from Lisbon. There are echoes here of modern Christian Zionism and the restoration and protection of the state of Israel. Cromwell believed that the conversion of Jews to Christianity was a prerequisite of the Second Coming and they should therefore be tolerated and might be potentially ‘converted’. In turn, Menasseh ben Israel believed that the Jewish messiah needed the spread of his people across the globe before his return. Of course, both anticipated it would also be very good for ‘business’.

[xi] From 'The Digger’s Song' in Winstanley. The Law of Freedom and Other Writings. Ed. Christopher Hill. London: Pelican books, 1973, 393.

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