Historical background

The year 1649 was a time of great social unrest in England. The Parliamentarians had won the First English Civil War but failed to negotiate a constitutional settlement with the defeated King Charles I. When members of Parliament and the Grandees in the New Model Army were faced with Charles' perceived duplicity, they tried and executed him.

Government through the King's Privy Council was replaced with a new body called the 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. Royalists wished to place King Charles II on the throne; men like Oliver Cromwell wished to govern with a plutocratic Parliament voted in by an electorate based on property, similar to that which was enfranchised before the civil war; agitators called Levellers, influenced by the writings of John Lilburne, wanted parliamentary government based on an electorate of every male head of a household; Fifth Monarchy Men advocated a theocracy; and the Diggers, led by Winstanley, advocated a more radical solution.

Gerrard Winstanley and 14 others published a pamphlet in which they called themselves the True Levellers to distinguish their ideas from those of 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 the Winstanley's writings which envisioned an ecological interrelationship between humans and nature, acknowledging the inherent connections between people and their surroundings. Winstanley declared that "true freedom lies where a man receives his nourishment and preservation, and that is in the use of the earth".

An undercurrent of political thought which has run through English society for many generations and resurfaced from time to time (for example, the Peasants' Revolt in 1381) was present in some of the political factions of the 17th century, 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.

St. George's Hill, Weybridge, Surrey

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." They intended 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".

At the behest of the local landowners, 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 suspected that the Diggers were in serious trouble and soon left the group. Fairfax, meanwhile, having concluded that Diggers were doing no harm, advised the local landowners to use the courts.

Winstanley remained and continued to write about the treatment they received. The harassment from the Lord of the Manor, Francis Drake (not the famous Francis Drake, who had died more than 50 years before), was both deliberate and systematic: he organised gangs in an attack on the Diggers, including 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, a radical sect associated with liberal sexuality (though in fact Winstanley had reprimanded Ranter Laurence Clarkson for his sexual practices). 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. 11 acres (4.5 ha) 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.

Wellingborough, Northamptonshire

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, Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Huntingdonshire and Northamptonshire before being apprehended.

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.[10] 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.

Iver, Buckinghamshire

Another colony of Diggers connected to the Surrey and Wellingborough colony was set up in Iver, Buckinghamshire about 14 miles (23 km) 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 ..."[11] 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.

End of the movement

The Digger colonies, consisting in all of only about 100–200 people throughout England, were finished by 1651. The collapse of the movement was due to the efforts of local landowners backed by the Council of State to crush the Digger colonies whenever they arose.