The Diggers - Lewis H. Berens

Chapter IV from The Digger Movement In The Days Of The Commonwealth, by Lewis H. Berens.

Submitted by Nemo on September 1, 2006


"The way to cast out Kingly Power is not to cast it out by the Sword; for this doth but set him in more power, and removes him from a weaker to a stronger hand. The only way to cast him out is for the people to leave him to himself, to forsake fighting and all oppression, and to live in love one towards another. The Power of Love is the True Saviour."--Winstanley, A New Year's Gift for the Parliament and Army.

The Council of State which, on February 13th, 1649, within a month of the execution of the King, had been appointed to administer the public affairs of England, had scarcely settled down to their work when they received the following information of the mysterious doings of "a disorderly and tumultuous sort of people" very near to their doors:

"Information Of Henry Sanders Of Walton Upon Thames.

"Informeth, that on Sunday was sennight last, there was one Everard, once of the army but was cashiered, who termeth himself a prophet, one Stewer and Colten, and two more, all living at Cobham, came to St. George's Hill in Surrey, and began to dig on that side the hill next to Campe Close, and sowed the ground with parsnips, carrots, and beans. On Monday following they were there again, being increased in their number, and on the next day, being Tuesday, they fired the heath, and burned at least forty rood of heath, which is a very great prejudice to the town. On Friday last they came again, between twenty and thirty, and wrought all day at digging. They did then intend to have two or three ploughs at work, but they had not furnished themselves with seed-corn, which they did on Saturday at Kingston. They invite all to come in and help them, and promise them meat, drink, and clothes. They do threaten to pull down and level all park pales, and lay open, and intend to plant there very shortly. They give out they will be four or five thousand within ten days, and threaten the neighbouring people there, that they will make them all come up to the hills and work: and forewarn them suffering their cattle to come near the plantation; if they do, they will cut their legs off. It is feared they have some design in hand.

"Henry Sanders.

"16 April 1649."

The Council of State were sufficiently impressed by this letter to forward it the same day to Lord Fairfax, the Lord General of the armed forces of the Commonwealth, with the following despatch:

"The Council Of State To Lord Fairfax.

"My Lord,--By the narrative enclosed your Lordship will be informed of what relation hath been made to this Council of a disorderly and tumultuous sort of people assembling themselves together not far from Oatlands, at a place called St. George's Hill; and although the pretence of their being there by them avowed may seem very ridiculous, yet that conflux of people may be a beginning whence things of a greater and more dangerous consequence may grow, to the disturbance of the peace and quiet of the Commonwealth. We therefore recommend it to your Lordship's care that some force of horse may be sent to Cobham in Surrey and thereabouts, with orders to disperse the people so met, and to prevent the like for the future, that a malignant and disaffected party may not under colour of such ridiculous people have any opportunity to rendezvous themselves in order to do a greater mischief.

"Signed in the name and by order of the Council of State appointed by authority of Parliament,

"John Bradshaw, President.

"Derby House, 16th April 1649.

"For the Right Honourable
Thomas Lord Fairfax, Lord General."

Acting on his instructions, within a few days Lord Fairfax was in possession of the following soldier-like letter from the active republican officer to whom he had entrusted the business, and who evidently was not so easily frightened as the Council of State:

"Captain John Gladman To Lord Fairfax.
(Slightly Abridged.)

"Sir,--According to your order I marched towards St. Georges Hill and sent four men before to bring certain intelligence to me; as they went they met with Mr. Winstanlie and Mr. Everard (which are the chief men that have persuaded these people to do what they have done). And when I had enquired of them and of the officers that lie at Kingston, I saw there was no need to march any further. I cannot hear that there have been above twenty of them together since they first undertook the business. Mr. Winstanlie and Mr. Everard have engaged both to be with you this day: I believe you will be glad to be rid of them again, especially Everard, who is no other than a mad man. Sir, I intend to go with two or three men to St. Georges Hill this day, and persuade these people to leave this employment if I can, and if then I see no more danger than now I do I shall march back again to London tomorrow.... Indeed the business is not worth the writing nor yet taking notice of: I wonder the Council of State should be so abused with informations....

"Jo. Gladman.

"Kingston, April 19th, 1649."

As they had undertaken, Winstanley and Everard duly appeared before Lord Fairfax at Whitehall, and under date April 20th the following account of their interview appears in the ponderous pages of Bulstrode Whitelocke's Memorial of English Affairs:

"Everard and Winstanley, the chief of those that digged at St. George's Hill in Surrey, came to the General and made a large declaration to justify their proceedings.

"Everard said he was of the race of the Jews, that all the liberties of the people were lost by the coming in of William the Conqueror, and that ever since the people of God had lived under tyranny and oppression worse than that of our forefathers under the Egyptians.

"But now the time of deliverance was at hand, and God would bring his people out of this slavery, and restore them to their freedom in enjoying the fruits and benefits of the Earth.

"And that there had lately appeared to him a vision, which bad him arise and dig and plough the earth, and receive the fruits thereof.

"That their intent is to restore the Creation to its former condition. That as God had promised to make the barren land fruitful, so now what they did was to restore the ancient community of enjoying the fruits of the Earth, and to distribute the benefits thereof to the poor and needy, and to feed the hungry and to clothe the naked.

"That they intend not to meddle with any man's property nor to break down any pales or enclosures, but only to meddle with what was common and untilled, and to make it fruitful for the use of man. That the time will suddenly be, when all men shall willingly come in and give up their lands and estates, and submit to this community.

"And for all those that will come in and work they should have meat, drink, and clothes, which is all that is necessary to the life of man; and that for money, there was not any need of it, nor of clothes more than to cover nakedness.

"That they will not defend themselves by arms, but will submit unto authority, and wait till the promised opportunity be offered, which they conceive to be at hand. And that as their forefathers lived in tents, so it would be suitable to their condition now to live in the same: and more to the like effect.

"While they were before the General, they stood with their hats on; and being demanded the reason thereof, they said, 'Because he was but their fellow-creature.' Being asked the meaning of that place, 'Give honour to whom honour is due'; they said that their mouths should be stopped that gave them that offence."

Whitelocke continues, "I have set down this the more largely because it was the beginning of the appearance of this opinion; and that we might the better understand and avoid these weak persuasions."

"The germ of Quakerism and much else is curiously visible here," is Carlyle's shrewd comment on the above incident. But as to how far this account of the views of the Diggers is correct, we shall leave to the judgement of those who read the pages that are to follow. Though we may now believe that, save that he placed Norman in the place of the Saxon Lords, William the Conqueror introduced but few innovations into the laws and institutions of the country, the very opposite was the accepted opinion in the days of Winstanley and his associates. It may also be well to mention here that, though Everard's name appears, and first in order, amongst those who signed the pamphlet, The True Levellers Standard Advanced: or, The State of Community opened and presented to the Sons of Men, which bears date April 26th, 1649, and to which we shall presently refer, it does not appear in any of the later publications of the Diggers. Whether he died about this time or merely dropped out of the movement, we have not been able to ascertain.

However this may be, Lord Fairfax appears to have been somewhat impressed by his interview, to which the Diggers themselves always referred in most cordial terms; for on his way from Guildford to London the following month, he visited them at their work, of which visit we take the following account from the pages of a contemporary and evidently friendly news-sheet, dated May 31st, 1649:

"The Speeches of Lord General Fairfax and the Officers of the Army to the Diggers at St. George's Hill in Surrey, and the Diggers' several answers and replies thereunto.

"As his Excellency the Lord General came from Gilford to London, he went to view the Diggers at St. George's Hill in Surrey, with his Officers and Attendants. They found about twelve of them hard at work, and amongst them one Winstanley was the chief speaker. Several questions were propounded by the Officers, and the Lord General made a short speech by way of admonition to them, and this Winstanley returned sober answers, though they gave little satisfaction (if any at all) in regard of the strangeness of their action. It was urged that the Commons were as justly due to the Lords as any other lands. They answered that these were Crown Lands where they digged, and the King who possessed them by the Norman Conquest being dead, they were returned again to the Common People of England, who might improve them if they would take the pains; that for those who would come dig with them, they should have the benefit equal with them, and eat of their bread; but they would not force any, applying to all the golden rule, to do to others as we would be done unto. Some Officers wished they had no further plot in what they did, and that no more was intended than what they did pretend.

"As to the barrenness of the ground, which was objected as a discouragement, the Diggers answered they would use their endeavours, and leave the success to God, who had promised to make the barren ground fruitful. They carry themselves civilly and fairly in the country, and have the report of sober, honest men. Some barley is already come up, and other fruits formerly; but was pulled up by some of the envious inhabitants thereabouts, who are not so far convinced as to promise not to injure them for the future. The ground will probably in a short time yield them some fruit of their labour, how contemptible soever they do yet appear to be."

Before following the further adventures of the Diggers, as revealed in the numerous pamphlets they left us, from which alone they can now be gathered, we deem it best to lay before our readers what we have been able to ascertain of Gerrard Winstanley's previous life's history and writings. Behind every movement that has ever influenced the thoughts of mankind, there is always some master-mind, a Lautze, a Gautama, a Jesus of Nazareth, a Wiclif, a John Wesley, a Darwin, a Tolstoy, or a Henry George; and it is in the comparatively unknown Gerrard Winstanley that we shall find the master-mind, the inspirer and director, of the Digger Movement. As Gardiner well says, "It is not only by the immediate accomplishment of its aim that the value of honest endeavour is to be tested." And the reader's interest in our work may be quickened if we so far forestall the pages that are to follow as to indicate that not only were Winstanley's earlier theological writings the source whence the early Quakers, or the Children of Light, as they at first called themselves, drew many of their most characteristic tenets and doctrines, but that the fundamental principles which inspired and animated his political writings were in all respects identical with those that during the past quarter of a century have been so honourably associated with the name of Henry George. We are not here called upon to pronounce judgement on these principles; but in passing we shall endeavour to point out how far the demands and doctrines of the Land Reformers of the Seventeenth Century, as revealed in Winstanley's writings, coincide with those of their successors in the Twentieth Century. In all cases we shall, as far as possible, let Gerrard Winstanley speak for himself.

Taken from the Project Gutenberg text.