Leveller and Digger activity in Northamptonshire

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May 1 2006 19:00
Leveller and Digger activity in Northamptonshire

Got sent this in an email from one of our local comrades, I found it very interesting:-

LEVELLERS AND DIGGERS IN NORTHAMPTONSHIRE

Many thanks to John for a very interesting and informative introduction to the screening of ‘Winstanley’ at the Blackcurrent Centre on 30th March. John discussed the political background to the rise of the Levellers and ‘True Levellers’, or ‘Diggers’, in the period at the end of the civil war. Of particular interest to some of us was his description of the 1649 occupation of Northampton by Leveller troops, who were being hunted down by Cromwell loyalists in the aftermath of the ‘Banbury Mutiny’ and the suppression of the Levellers at Burford. Captain William Thompson and his comrades passed through Northampton in May 1649, releasing prisoners from the jail and dispensing money to the citizenry. Shortly afterwards Thompson was killed in a skirmish with Cromwell’s troops in a spinney near to Wellingborough. It has been suggested that gun shot damage to the tower of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Sheep Street was the result of a Leveller ‘shoot-out’ but this is unlikely and more probable that the damage occurred in 1642 when Royalists attempting to enter the town at the nearby North Gate were repulsed.

For more info on Captain William Thompson and the Banbury Mutiny see:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banbury_mutiny

Below is an article by David Saint that appeared in the Chronic in February

- coincidentally a couple of weeks after we had been circulating flyers and posters promoting the Winstanley film! In the same edition of the Chronic there was a letter discussing Bradlaugh and land reform – I took this as an opportunity to write to the paper myself, drawing parallels between the issue of land ownership during the English Revolution, in Bradlaugh’s time, and today.

- Bradlaugh has already been mentioned on this Forum – we should develop this discussion.

COMMUNISM DIES IN ENGLAND

By David Saint Chronicle & Echo February 13th

In 1650 Northamptonshire saw the death of English communism. The English Civil War had been finally resolved in 1648. It had been a class struggle against the King and the landowning gentry by those who sought equality.

But by 1649, when Charles 1 was executed, people were impatient for results of their long struggle. Poverty was rife, food prices were astronomic. Wheat prices in Northampton had reached ten shillings a bushel – equal to a tradesman’s wages for a fortnight. A section of the poor claimed that land should be made available for them to cultivate. But there were still landowners, of course, who were having none of the claims made by these troublemakers.

The troublemakers began their activities in April 1649. Under the leadership of Gerard Winstanley, 20 unemployed peasant labourers gathered on St Georges Hill in Cobham, Surrey, and began digging the common land and planting vegetables, corn and other seed.

After the initial fascination by the authorities, the mood turned and ‘The Diggers’, as they became known, were imprisoned in the Church at Walton-on-Thames.

You noble Diggers all, stand up now,

The waste land to maintain, seeing Cavaliers by name,

Your digging does maintain, and persons all defame.

Stand up now.

The Diggers were determined. Their song sounded militant, but they were entirely peaceful. It was in every sense communism and is regarded as it’s earliest formal manifestation in this country.

General Fairfax intervened but after initial favour he grew impatient and had Winstanley heavily fined. By November 1649 the Diggers were evicted.

The ground was frozen and it was hardly the time to think of setting seed! For three months they wandered from Surrey to Middlesex and Huntingdonshire where they spent a month in St Neots, enduring one of the worst winters on record.

Since the locals were poor and starving too The Diggers were, once again ejected. By now it was March and the desperate band staggered into Northamptonshire and settled in Wellingborough.

Here the welcome was warm, although it was a hard time for all. Twelve hundred locals were already depending on parish relief, but the diggers brought them a message of hope.

If everyone joined forces to work, all would benefit. It worked.

They issued a manifesto in the name of all the out-of-work people of Wellingborough.

It was a forceful document claiming to have God, the Scriptures, Acts of Parliament and common reason on its side.

All would have been well had Winstanley not issued his own paper supporting the Wellingborough Diggers. His name brought Wellingborough to the attention of the Council of State, which instructed Northamptonshire magistrates ‘to proceed against these men at the next Sessions.’

Communism had its brief existence. By April 1650 The Digger Movement ended here in Northamptonshire. But the principle lives on, and although digging and communism were not Winstanley’s main concerns thereafter, his religious writings were taken up by George Fox. Cue ‘The Quakers’.

Read The Wellingborough Declaration:

http://www.rogerlovejoy.co.uk/philosophy/diggers/diggers3.htm

I suspect David’s research for this included a look at an old Northants County Magazine article on ‘The Wellingborough Diggers’ (available in N’pton reference library) which claims that after their dispersal from St Georges Hill in the summer of 1650 the remaining Diggers, including Winstanley, wandered northward, eventually to Wellingborough. I’m not aware of any other evidence or references to Winstanley’s presence -according to Wikipedia a small group of Digger emissaries left St Georges Hill in March to raise funds and spread the word:

This colony [Wellingborough] 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 see Keith Thomas, 'Another Digger Broadside' Past and Present No.42, (1969) pp.57-6.

The County Magazine article locates the site of the colony, a peice of land called ‘Bareshankes’ on the Sywell Road – the Northampton Anarchist Collective of the mid-1980’s did consider organising a festival/event in the field, but alas, the site has since become a housing development!

So what became of Winstanley? We know that he was not completely dissillusioned after the crushing of the Diggers because in 1652 he published ‘The Law of Freedom on a Platform’ proposing the introduction of the ‘commonwealth’ by state action – a significant break with his previoius direct-action based anarchist position. Hereafter he dissappears into obscurity.

See also: http://www.british-civil-wars.co.uk/glossary/diggers.htm

If you did not see the film at Blackcurrent please consider borrowing it. The BC library has a very old tatty copy of ‘Comrade Jacob’ by David Caute- long out of print – upon which the film was based. The novel focuses on Winstanley’s relationship with Digger- convert Elizabeth - the wife of his nemisis, Reverend Platt of Cobham –what historical basis this has I don’t know.

Finally, a couple of my favourite quotes from the great man! Sorry, these will be inprecise as they are from memory – I think they might be from the ‘The New Law of Righteousness’ (see previous link) – I’m too tired to check them out! I feel they sum up his religious/political ideas – I cant think of any other figure from English history so eloquent and profound - with the exception of William Blake!

‘The second coming of Christ is the rising of the spirit of equity in sons and daughters’

‘The outward heaven is a fancy which your false leaders put into your head whilst they prick your purses.’