Diggers (True Levellers)
Their original name came from their belief in Christian communism 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.
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1649 was a year of great social unrest in England. The Parliamentary victors of the First English Civil War failed to negotiate a constitutional settlement with the defeated King Charles I. Members of Parliament and the Grandees in the New Model Army when faced with Charles's perceived duplicity, reluctantly tried and executed him.
Government throughout the King's Privy Council was replaced with a new body called Council of State, which due to fundamental disagreements within a weakened Parliament, was dominated by the Army. Many people were active in politics, suggesting alternative forms of government to replace the old order. These ranged from Royalists who wished to place King Charles II on the throne; Men like Oliver Cromwell who wished to govern with a Parliament voted in by an electorate based on property, similar to that which was enfranchised before the civil war; Agitators called Levellers, who were influnced by the writings of "Freeborn John" Lilburne, who wanted parliamentary government based on an electorate of every male head of a household; Fifth Monarchy Men who advocated a theocracy; and True Levellers called Diggers led by Winstanley who advocated a more radical solution.
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, and acknowledged the inherent connections between people and their surroundings.
An undercurrent of political thought which ran through English society for many generations and re-surfaced from time to time, for example during the Peasants' Revolt in 1381 and was present in some of the political factions of the 1600s, including those who formed the Diggers, held a common belief that England had become subjugated by the "Norman Yoke". This legend offered an explanation that at one time a golden Era had once existed in England before the Norman Conquest in 1066. From the conquest on, the Diggers argued, the "common people of English" had been been robbed of their birthrights and exploited by a foreign ruling class. The Diggers believed 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.
St. George's Hill near Cobham, Surrey
The Council of State received a letter in April 1649 reporting that several individuals had begun to plant vegetables in common land on St. George's Hill near Cobham, Surrey, at a time when food prices reached an all-time high. Sanders reported they had invited "all to come in and help them, and promise them meat, drink, and clothes." Their intentions were to pull down all inclosures 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".
At the behest of the local land owners, 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 was astute enough to see which way the wind was blowing and soon left the group. Having concluded that they were doing no harm, Fairfax advised the local land owners to use the courts.
Winstanley, however, true to his convictions remained and complained about the treatment which they received. The harassment from the lord of the manor, Francis Drake, was both deliberate and systematic, he organised gangs to attack the Diggers which included numerous beatings and an arsonous 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 who were sexual revolutionaries. 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.
Little Heath near Cobham, 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 were 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 land owners succeeded in driving the Diggers from Little Heath.
There was another community of Diggers close to Wellingborough in Northamptonshire. Captain William Thompson the leader of the "Banbury mutineers" was killed in a skirmish, close to the community by soldiers loyal to Cromwell in May 1649. In 1650 the community published a declaration which started:
- "A Declaration by the Diggers of Wellingborough – 1650. 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....".
Revival of the name Diggers
- 1900s – ANZAC troops in World War I were known as Diggers, probably due to nature of trench warfare.
- 1960s – Diggers was revived in Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco by a radical guerilla theater group, offering street theater, information and free food during the hippie movement in 1965–68. They deliberately took their name after consulting unspecified history books relating to the original Diggers of the mid-1600s in England.
- 1974 – Digger was used as the platform name by a candidate for Cambridge in the British General Election.
Diggers influence on literature and popular culture
- The World Turned Upside-Down, by Rosselson, Leon. – 1975. (A song about the Diggers and their activities on St. George's Hill in 1649.)
- The World Turned Upside-Down (by Rosselon), performed by Bragg, Billy. Back To Basics album. 1985.
- Winstanley, a fictionalized movie portrait of the Diggers directed by Brownlow, Kevin. 1975. (Based upon the novel Comrade Jacob, by Caute, David.)
- Rev Hammer's Freeborn John (The Story of John Lilburne – The Leader of the Levellers), by Rev Hammer (and company). – Cooking Vinyl CD. London. 1997. (This productiion is a recent example of the confusion that has been created between the Levellers and True Levellers.)
- Ringolevio (A life played for keeps), by Grogan, Emmett. – Little Brown & Company, 1972. Library of Congress No.78–186970. (The story of the revival of the Diggers in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, California and New York during the mid-1960s. Grogan was one of the leaders of this revival. He sang back-up with Ramblin' Jack Elliot on Mr. Tambourine Man written by Bob Dylan.)
- See Wikipedia:Footnote3