Backwaters of History No.1 – Winstanley and the Diggers

The five men were silhouetted against the bright, grey, morning sky as they walked steadily, in single file, with spades and shovels on their shoulders, up the gentle slope of the hillside. They halted and gathered in the group, talking, gesticulating, looking around and pointing. Then they walked away in a different direction and were lost to sight behind the hill.

It was the first day of April in the year 1649. The five men were quite ordinary humble artisans or labourers, living in the village of Cobham, in Surrey. Only one of them had any reputation outside the locality in which they lived; William Everard had been cashiered from the army—from Oliver Cromwell’s army—and was known for his religious zeal. Stewer and Colten were well known locally but the other two had so little fame that their names have not been handed down to us.

On the lower slopes of St. George’s Hill, on the side by Camp Close, the men spent the day digging, breaking the soil into a fine tilth and sowing parsnips, carrots and beans, When their work was finished they gathered  up their tools and made their way back to their homes. That simple day’s work had far-reaching results and qualified the five men for honourable mention in every worth-while history of the working class.

The following Monday they were back at their digging in the same place, accompanied by nine or ten new recruits. By Friday the group was over thirty strong. On Saturday they went to Kingston-on-Thames to furnish themselves with seed corn and they arranged to have ploughs for their future work.

On the 16th of April, Henry Sanders of Walton-on-Thames, a local landowner, reported these doings to the Council of State. The Council of State instructed the commander-in-chief of the army, General Fairfax, to send a force of horse troops to Cobham to dispel this “Disorderly and tumultuous” assembly whilst it was still a beginning and before more dangerous consequences grew.

The men of Cobham, together with others who had followed their example at near-by Walton-on-Thames, offered no resistance to the soldiers. They were pacifists. They were arrested and the leaders, Gerrard Winstanley and William Everard, were taken before Cromwell and Fairfax at Whitehall. They stood before the Lord General with their hats on, claiming that he was but their fellow man.

They stated that for many years the people had lived under oppression and tyranny. The remedy was to cultivate the wastelands, the common land and the parks, everyone working and living communally. They did not intend to touch any private land or to break any fence or enclosure, only to till the common and untilled land.

Another local landowner, a Mr. Drake, summonsed them and they were tried by a jury of local wealthy freeholders at Kingston Court in August, 1649. They were not allowed to defend themselves and were all fined £10 each. Their cattle were injured by hired ruffians. A Puritan preacher was sent to Cobham to stir the local population against them. The few huts that they had erected were pulled down, their spades and hoes were cut to pieces, the land they had dug and sown was torn and trampled so that no corn could grow, the men themselves were maltreated.

For over a year the settlement at Cobham persisted. Propagandists were sent out to other parts of the country and another settlement was commenced at Wellingborough and some support was found in Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire. But the support was slight and after a year of digging and a year of persecution the movement died out in early 1651.

The members of this movement called themselves the “True Levellers” but because of their experiment at Cobham and elsewhere they became better known as “The Diggers.” The prime motivator of the movement, Gerrard Winstanley, was a cloth manufacturer. He continued his activities after the Digger movement had faded out and during the last years of his life he was a member of ‘The Society of Friends,” better known as “The Quakers,” which had been founded by George Fox in 1652. A number of other members of the Digger movement likewise joined the Quakers, and continued to suffer for their beliefs.

During the 16th century and the early part of the 17th the early merchant capitalists in England had been gaining in numbers, wealth and political power. Their struggle against their feudal class enemies culminated in open hostilities between themselves, entrenched in the Parliament, and the Feudal Aristocracy lined up behind the Monarchy. Both sides resorted to armed force, and the Parliamentary troops under Oliver Cromwell, Thomas Fairfax and Henry Ireton finally triumphed over the Royal forces under King Charles I and Prince Rupert. The king was beheaded without having abdicated, as evidence that it was the monarchy and all it stood for that was defeated and not merely the king.

The wealthy capitalists raised their troops from amongst the small merchants and artisans of the towns and from the ranks of the small working class of those days. To ensure support from these social elements they were fed on propaganda for religious and political freedom. In the Parliamentary army, amongst the small merchant and artisan element, there grew up a movement known as “The Levellers” which demanded a political freedom in excess of what the wealthier capitalists were prepared to admit. An extreme section of the Leveller movement, supported mainly by agricultural workers and calling itself the “True Levellers” demanded a form of utopian communism. The digging experiment was an attempt at propaganda-by-deed by this extreme element.

In an age of pamphleteering, Winstanley and other diggers supplied many pamphlets. Their writings are cloaked in religious phrases for it was a time of religious fervour. Yet they saw clearly that there could be no real freedom whilst there was private property.

    “True freedom lies where a man receives his nourishment and preservation, and that is in the use of the earth  . . . A man had better to have no body than to have no food for it . . . True freedom lies in the free enjoyment of the earth.”

    (Winstanley. The Law of Freedom.)

They recognised the real function of religion as propounded by the church.

    “While men are gazing up to heaven, imagining after a happiness or fearing a hell after they are dead, their eyes are put out, that they see not what is their birthrights, and what is to be done by them here on earth while they are living . . . And indeed the subtle clergy do know that if they can but charm the people . . . to look after riches, heaven and glory when they are dead, that then they shall easily be the inheritors of the earth and have the deceived people to be their servants. This . . . was not the doctrine of Christ.”

    (Winstanley. The Law of Freedom.)

They saw the real cause of war and, vaguely, of class struggles.

    “property and single interest divides the people of a land and the whole world into parties, and is the cause of all wars and bloodshed and contention everywhere.”

    (Winstanley. The True Levellers’ Standard Advanced).

    “. . . Rich men receive all they have from the labourer’s hand and what they give, they give away other men’s labours, not their own”

    (Winstanley. The Law of Freedom.)

There are many writings to show the kind of society the Diggers aimed to establish. Just one quotation will suffice.

    “Shall we have lawyers?

    “There is no need for them, for there is to be no buying and selling; neither any need to expound laws; for the bare letter of the law shall be both judge and lawyer, trying every man’s actions. And seeing we shall have successive Parliaments every year, there will be rules made for every action a man can do.”

    (Winstanley. The Law of Freedom.)

Four of the Diggers’ foremost persecutors were Members of Parliament who had been expelled by Cromwell for their Royalist sympathies. But they were still secure in their land ownership and were back in Parliament. Cromwell and those he represented were showing that, as far as they were concerned, the revolution had gone far enough. They held political power and they were prepared to use it to suppress their erstwhile supporters more ruthlessly than they had suppressed their former class enemies. In fact, they were prepared to compromise and ally with their former enemies to subdue the aspirations of their extremist followers.

Winstanley expresses the situation well:

    “While this kingly power reigned in one man called Charles, all sorts of people complained of oppression . . . Thereupon you that were the gentry, when you were assembled in Parliament, you called upon the poor common people to come and help you . . . That top bough is lopped off the tree of Tyranny, and the kingly power in that one particular is cast out. But alas, oppression is a great tree still, and keeps off the sun of freedom from the poor commons still.”

    (Winstanley. A New Year’s Gift for the Parliament and Army.)

Winstanley, in his writings, as in the few writings of other Diggers, realises the need to propagate his ideas and to gain support for them from a majority of the people. But none of them challenged the political supremacy of the wealthy capitalists. Instead they appealed for a change of heart. The more wily of the capitalists recognised at the outset the need to capture and hold political power to ensure the domination of their class over society. With the political machine in their hands their opponents on all sides were powerless.

The capitalist class still recognises that, and clings to political power tenaciously. It will continue to impose its will on society until the working class deprives it of that power and proceeds to remodel society in keeping with working class interests.

W. Waters

Recommended books for students: –

M. Beer. A History of British Socialism. Part I Section 5.

C. Hill and E. Dell. The Good Old Cause. Part 12.

M. James. Materialist Interpretations. Essay in “The English Revolution,” Edited by C. Hill.

H. Holorenshaw. The Levellers and the English Revolution.

E. Dell. Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers. Essay in “The Modern Quarterly,” Spring 1949.

E. Bernstein. Cromwell and Communism.

Berens. The Digger Movement in the Days of Commonwealth.

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