Saturday, November 10, 2007
For other meanings see Diggers (disambiguation)
The Diggers were an English group, begun by Gerrard Winstanley as True Levellers in 1649, who became known as "Diggers" due to their activities.
Their original name came from their belief in economic equality based upon a specific passage in the Book of Acts. The Diggers attempted to reform (by "levelling" real property) the existing social order with an agrarian lifestyle based upon 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.
Winstanley and fourteen others published a pamphlet in which they called themselves the True Levellers to distinguish their ideas from the Levellers. Once they put their idea into practice and started to cultivate common land, they became known as "Diggers" by both opponents and supporters. The Diggers' beliefs were informed by Gerrard Winstanley's writings, which encompassed a worldview that envisioned an ecological interrelationship between humans and nature, acknowledging the inherent connections between people and their surroundings.
An undercurrent of political thought which has run through English society for many generations and resurfaced from time to time (for example, during the Peasants' Revolt in 1381) was present in some of the political factions of the 1600s, including those who formed the Diggers, and held 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. From the conquest on, the Diggers argued, the "common people of England" had been robbed of their birthrights and exploited by a foreign ruling class.
More important was the democratic, even anarchist aspect of the Diggers' beliefs. They contended that if only the common people of England would form themselves into self-supporting communes, there would be no place in such a society for the ruling classes. The ruling elite would be forced to join the communes or starve, as there would no longer be anyone left to hire to work their fields or pay rent to them for use of their property.
The Council of State received a letter in April 1649 reporting that several individuals had begun to plant vegetables in common land on Saint George's Hill, Weybridge near Cobham, Surrey at a time when food prices reached an all-time high. Sanders reported that they had invited "all to come in and help them, and promise them meat, drink, and clothes." Their intentions were 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." 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 St George's Hill in August 1649, much to the relief of the local freeholders.
St. George's Hill, Weybridge, Surrey
Some of the evicted Diggers moved a short distance to Little Heath. Eleven acres (45,000 m²) 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. By April 1650, Platt and other local landowners succeeded in driving the Diggers from Little Heath.
Little Heath near Cobham, Surrey
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....".
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, Herfordshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Huntingdonshire and Northamptonshire before being apprehended (see Keith Thomas, 'Another Digger Broadside' Past and Present No.42, (1969) pp.57-68).
On April 15 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 (see Calendar of State Papers, Domestic, 1650 (London, 1876) p.106). 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.
Another colony of Diggers connected to the Surrey and Wellingborough colony was set up in Iver, Buckinghamshire about 14 miles 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 ..." revealed that there were further Digger colonies in Barnet in Hertfordshire, Enfield in Middlesex, Dunstable in Bedfordshire, Bosworth in Gloucestershire and a further colony in 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.
The Digger colonies, consisting in all of only about 100-200 people throughout England, were finished by 1651. Reasons for the fall of the movement may have been due to the efforts of local landowners backed by the Council of State to crush the Digger colonies whenever they arose.
End of the Movement
The Mysterie of God concerning the whole Creation, Mankind Gerrard Winstanley (1648)
The Breaking of the Day of God (May 20, 1648)
The Saints Paradise (Ca. 1648)
Truth Lifting up its Head above Scandals (1649, Dedication dated October 16, 1648)
The New Law Of Righteousness (January 26, 1649)
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 William Everard, John Palmer, John South, John Courton. William Taylor, Christopher Clifford, John Barker. Gerrard Winstanley, Richard Goodgroome, Thomas Starre, William Hoggrill, Robert Sawyer, Thomas Eder, Henry Bickerstaffe, John Taylor, &c. (April 20, 1649)
A DECLARATION FROM THE Poor oppressed People OF ENGLAND, DIRECTED To all that call themselves, or are called Lords of Manors, through this NATION... Gerrard Winstanley, John Coulton, John Palmer, Thomas Star ,Samuel Webb, John Hayman, Thomas Edcer, William Hogrill, Daniel Weeden, Richard Wheeler, Nathaniel Yates, William Clifford, John Harrison, Thomas Hayden, James Hall. James Manley, Thomas Barnard, John South, Robert Sayer, Christopher Clifford, John Beechee, William Coomes, Christopher Boncher, Richard Taylor, Urian Worthington, Nathaniel Holcombe, Giles Childe (senior), John Webb, Thomas Yarwel, William Bonnington. John Ash, Ralph Ayer, John Pra, John Wilkinson, Anthony Spire, Thomas East, Allen Brown, Edward Parret, Richard Gray, John Mordy, John Bachilor, William Childe, William Hatham, Edward Wicher, William Tench.(June 1, 1649).
, A LETTER TO The Lord Fairfax, AND His Councell of War, WITH Divers Questions to the Lawyers, and Ministers: Proving it an undeniable Equity, That the common People ought to dig, plow, plant and dwell upon the Commons, with-out hiring them, or paying Rent to any. On the behalf of those who have begun to dig upon George-Hill in Surrey. Gerrard Winstanly (June 9, 1649)
A Declaration of The bloudie and unchristian acting of William Star and John Taylor of Walton (June 22, 1649)
An Appeal To the House of Commons (July 11, 1649)
A Watch-Word to the City of London, and the Armie (August 26, 1649)
To His Excellency the Lord Fairfax and the Counsell of Warre (December 1649)
To My Lord Generall and his Councell of Warr (December 8, 1649)
The Decleration and Standard Of the Levellers of EnglandWilliam Everard
Several Pieces gathered into one volume (1650, Preface dated December 20, 1649)
A New-yeers Gift FOR THE PARLIAMENT AND ARMIE: SHEWING, What the KINGLY Power is; And that the CAUSE of those They call DIGGERS Gerrard Winstanley (January 1, 1650)
Englands Spirit Unfoulded (Ca. February or March, 1650)
A Vindication of those ... called Diggers (March 4, 1650)
Fire in the Bush (March 19, 1650)
An Appeale to all Englishmen (March 26, 1650)
A Letter taken at Wellingborough (March, 1650)
An Humble Request, to the Ministers of both Universities, and to all Lawyers in every Inns-a-court (April 9, 1650)
Letter to Lady Eleanor Davies (December 4, 1650)
The Law Of Freedom in a Platform, or True Magistracy Restored (1652)
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