The Diggers (True Levellers)
The Diggers called themselves "True Levellers". They were the most radical of the sects that arose in the aftermath of the civil wars. Whereas other groups sought political reform or religious freedom, the True Levellers called for a fundamental re-structuring of land ownership. The overthrow of the monarchy and the declaration of a free Commonwealth in 1649 was seen as a first step towards the abolition of private property rights in favour of the communal ownership of land.
Regarding the earth as a "common treasury", the True Levellers took direct action to put their ideals into practice. Communities were established in various parts of southern and central England to cultivate waste and common land, in the hope that this would begin the process of restoring the land to its rightful owners, the common people, rather than the king, nobility and gentry who had usurped it.
Levellers and True Levellers
During the late 1640s, the privations of the civil wars were exacerbated by a series of bad harvests, which led to widespread unemployment and hunger. Disorder was reported around the country as poor people seized corn, tore down enclosures and threatened landowners. Discontent spread in the Army, culminating in the Leveller mutinies of 1649. It was against this volatile background that the True Leveller movement emerged.
Although the movement was associated with the political or constitutional Levellers, John Lilburne and other spokesmen vehemently denied any connection. The Leveller leaders were attempting to negotiate political reform within the existing social order and firmly rejected True Leveller notions of equality of wealth or the abolition of property rights. They disliked the name "Leveller" itself, which was coined by their opponents to discredit them. However, more radical voices within the movement spoke up for the poor, whom Lilburne and the constitutional Levellers would have disenfranchised.
In December 1648, a pamphlet called Light Shining in Buckinghamshire was issued by a group of Levellers who were active in anti-enclosure riots in the county from 1647-8. Citing scriptural authority, they called for the overthrow of the nobility and the equalisation of wealth. A sequel, More Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (March 1649) appealed to the New Model Army for support. Similar ideas were arising spontaneously around the country. During 1649-50, a number of Digger communities occupied waste and common land, which they attempted to cultivate on a communal basis.
The best known Digger communities are the St George's Hill and Cobham Heath settlements established in Surrey by Gerrard Winstanley and William Everard. The Diggers began cultivating St George's Hill in April 1649. Refusing to recognise the saints of the established church, they renamed it George Hill. The soil was poor, but the Diggers believed that it could be made fertile both through divine favour and by practical agricultural techniques. The first crops to be planted were those that could survive in dry, sandy soil supplemented by manuring. It was hoped that these crops could sustain animals to produce more manure and eventually to rotate the pasturing of animals with arable cultivation as the soil quality improved. Around fifty men and their families joined the Surrey settlement. Local hostility forced the Diggers to relocate to Cobham Heath in August 1649.
Fifteen miles away at Iver in Buckinghamshire, a Digger community may have had a hand in producing the two Light Shining in Buckinghamshire pamphlets, the first of which appeared before the Surrey settlements were established. There was also a Digger settlement at Wellingborough in Northamptonshire, where there was a long-standing tradition of radicalism and which later became a centre of Quakerism. The Wellingborough Diggers dug, manured and sowed corn on waste land known as Bareshank. (The Wellingborough Declaration.)
During the spring of 1650, emissaries were sent from Winstanley's settlement on Cobham Heath to make contact with other Digger communities and groups of sympathisers in the Home Counties and Midlands. Thirty-four places were named across the counties of Buckinghamshire, Surrey, Middlesex (Enfield), Hertfordshire (Barnet), Bedfordshire (Dunstable), Berkshire, Huntingdonshire and Northamptonshire. Other communities have been identified at Cox Hall in Kent, Bosworth in Leicestershire and at unknown places in Gloucestershire and Nottinghamshire.
The rapid spread of the movement provoked a fierce reaction. The Surrey Diggers were persecuted by local gentry with legal action, economic boycott and violence. In April 1650, just one year after the original settlement was founded, the Diggers' shelters were burned down and their crops destroyed. Other communities met a similar fate to the Surrey group and the movement was effectively suppressed by the end of 1650.
In 1652, Winstanley published The Law of Freedom in which he proposed the introduction of his utopian commonwealth by state action. Though dedicated to Cromwell, Winstanley's championing of the rights of the common man over the rights of landowners had little influence during the Commonwealth and Protectorate.
Andrew Bradstock, Radical Religion in Cromwell's England (London 2011)
J. C. Davis and J. D. Alsop, Gerrard Winstanley, Oxford DNB, 2009
Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down (London 1975)
English Dissenters: Diggers www.exlibris.org