Below is a greatly truncated term paper I just finished (with grammar quirks due to pasting from Word). I’m not sure how good it is (remember I’m an undergrad!), but I had fun with it. Some readers of the blog might find it interesting and are welcome to correct my mistakes, but don’t tell the Professor. Needless to say, I have a growing appreciation of the subject and in a different world might dedicate myself to studying nothing but the beheading of kings and the New Model Army, earnest Digger communes, randy Ranters circles and armed Leveller mutinies, some refusing to go to Ireland. Alas, more term papers await.
When the Digger colony began to till the commons on St. George’s Hill, Surrey on April 1, 1649 they were participating in a centuries old claim on the commons and the traditions of peasant rebellions long past, responding to the political upheavals and changes of the English Civil War and Revolution and, finally, by insisting that the popular classes themselves take direction of the country with the aim of social production and distribution they prophetically announced the, as yet unformed, coming class struggles of the modern era.
The Diggers did not appeal to kings, clergy and barons to redress their grievances as did the peasants of 1381; their appeal was primarily to the people themselves. They demanded a world without kings or barons as a precondition to the redress of their grievances. The masses: laborers, peasants, the property-less, urban artisans all were entering history in their own name and in their own interests. However divided and contradictory those interests might be the gentry squires, barons, clergy and monarchy would no longer be alone in asserting their rights. The actions of the Restoration notwithstanding, even now the nature and limits of democracy in a society divided by class have yet to be solved.
While the social weight of those called to the Digger banner, or broadly influenced by similar trends, could not be united, articulated and brought to bear, making their dreams remain dreams, it is because they acted in the direction of those dreams that that their historic failure would also be their historic triumph. Deeply rooted in their past and their present, framing their arguments in the religious discourse of the day, their words and deeds have found echo in nearly every social upheaval since. In some ways their claims sound utterly modern; in others their words belong to the bygone days of feudalism and the European wars of religion and succession. However, to understand the Diggers it is also necessary to understand what came after, for the Diggers were the product, not just of feudalism and absolutism, but of the capitalist transformation of land and labor that 17th century England was beginning to experience.
In some ways the Diggers are a link between the feudal past and the capitalist present, in others they are a reflection of that transition and in still others, a harbinger of the future. Marginal as they were in the heady events of 1640 to 1660, the episode of the Diggers continues to capture the imagination of successive generations. At the same time they receive continued derision or dismissal from those defending now what the Diggers struggled against then. Perhaps more so, after all, our society is ever more free, ever more based on property, than could be imagined in the time of Gerrard Winstanley, and yet, quoting Winstanley:
“All men have stood for freedom and now the common enemy has gone you are all like men in a mist, seeking for freedom and know not where nor what it is, and those of the rich among you are ashamed and afraid to own it, because it comes clothed in a clownish garment. Freedom is the man that will turn the world upside down, therefore no wonder he hath enemies” (Morton ed. 249)
The years before the English Civil War burst open in 1642 were years of profound economic, political and religious and social change change. Those changes would find both realization and impetus under the conditions of Civil War. While scholars are divided over the role of class struggle in the period, it undoubtedly occurred. While some historians have tended to see the Civil War as a falling out among the ruling elite, others have analyzed the period as a Revolution in which the rising capitalist classes contended with the old feudal classes for supremacy. The confusion of the Civil War is reflected in the differences over how to interpret the war’s causes and outcomes, for both a conflict between the ruling classes and among classes occurred. This conflict, given the realities of the day, had elements of a religious war as well. Taken together, it is not surprising that historians still disagree. However, to deny the responsibility of the struggle between old and rising classes is to miss the trends, some in their infancy others more developed, that would come to dominate English social conflict to the present day.
In some ways, feudalism’s hold on land hadn’t recovered from the trauma of the plague years of the 14th century. How and who worked and managed land was a question whose answer evolved in the years since the Black Death. Property began to be bought and sold, rather than simply inherited. The deaths of so many peasants, yeoman and gentry made a redistribution of land necessary, as well as a new system of labor to work the land. The enclosure of common whereby land owned by a landlord was open to all for the pasture of animals, reaping fodder, collecting of firewood, etc had a fairly long history. The ancient right allowed peasants access to land for purposes essential to their survival, but not available to them through their small holdings or meager leased lots. Such enclosures began in earnest under the Tudors and were defended in a 1654 Council of Privy debate as being an” advantage to husbandry and tillage to which all commons are destructive.” (Hill 43).
Destructive to the market interests of the landowners, perhaps, but essential to the peasant renters and small holders. The lord claimed right over the commons and, over the years, the enclosures could began to be sold or deeded away, forever denying peasant’s access to which they considered a birthright as a member of the community. While previously the animals, reared primarily to sustain domestic consumption of peasant families, freely grazed on the land. Wealthier peasants and yeoman enriched themselves in this process creating an even stronger, non-noble, land owning class. Many peasants, increasingly replaced by sheep, became itinerants, hiring out their labor, occasionally being drawn to the towns and small cities to find work as artisans, only finding themselves joining the ranks of the vagabonds and urban poor, the deprivation of which was often far more extreme than even the worst years as peasants. Many more left for England’s growing colonies.
Those domestic animals began to be replaced by flocks of sheep, whose wool was produced for the market, powering England’s first industrial revolution. At the same time England’s reach was expanding across the globe. The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, as well as technological advancements (largely stolen from the Portuguese) gave England confidence and increasing power on the seas. Soon English traders, already becoming more and more prominent in the domestic English market, could be found in nearly every corner of the globe. Mercantilism and merchants were becoming a force in English society, creating fraternities like the for it was through them rather than through the king’s armies that an Empire was being born. Financing those trade expeditions were joint stock companies, and emerging financial institutions not connected to the kingly purgatives. Merchants, commercial landowners, wage laborers and technicians were still greatly outnumbered by agricultural laborers and, whatever the social power they were beginning to wield, that power was not reflected in the governing of the Realm. There the monarchy, barons, gentry and Anglican clergy still retained all of the levers of state, indeed it was there economy that still predominated England. They were in power, in part, because they had real power, despite the upstarts, dissenters and “new men”.
Ever since Parliament began as an institution under the reign of Edward I and, even more so, with the establishment of the Commons as a separate body under Edward III the monarchy and Parliament acted, with great tension, as a single body politic. The king’s authority existed through the assent of Parliament, who largely controlled the monarchy’s purse strings. The Parliament itself was beholden to the monarch for it was the monarch that called and dismissed the Parliament, often selling or influencing membership to its bodies. Parliament acted as the voice of the barons and landlords, of which the king was only the largest and most powerful. While their differences were real, they were both vitally interested in the preservation of the system to which their power rested. They were beholden to one another. That dynamic began to shift, especially during the reign of James I who was eager to reassert his Divine Rights, including that of monopoly which was hurting the burgeoning merchants. The failure of the Great Contract boded poorly for future relations.
Charles II tried to circumvent Parliament recalcitrant in paying taxes by raising funds through assertion of his historic rights of custom duties, tonnage and poundage. After 1629, Charles had had enough from Parliament and decided to rule on his own with the help of a Privy Council. By making peace with France, governing frugally and asserting his ancient prerogatives forcefully; selling knighthoods and lands, collecting customs and duties and greatly expanding “ship money”. All of this made Charles incredibly unpopular, including with his natural allies among the aristocrats and barons. When Presbyterian Scotland rebelled in response to Charles’ attempt to impose the Anglican Church in 1640, the king was forced to go to Parliament to raise funds to fend of the attack. After eleven years Parliament chose to use Parliament as it was first intended, to air grievances. Charles duly abolished alienating his natural allies, the landed gentry, whose voice was Parliaments.
In religion also there were dramatic, often violent convulsions. When Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church in 1531, Europe had already been in a state of violent religious upheaval for a century. Indeed, England herself was no stranger to this upheaval. Lollardism had been a persistent religious opposition since the 14th century, and was one of many. Far too complicated to give a thorough account here, with the advent of printing and the translation of the Bible out of Latin religious discussion became available to far wider populations than ever before. Central to this new reality was how Christians should relate to God and who, on Earth, has the right to speak for God. And beyond that, was God’s heaven a gift of piety, and of obedience, or a duty, an imperative of the Scriptures, to create by our own hands? Religion and politics were intimately entwined, not just in practice, but also at the level of ideas. For most people in 17th century England the Bible was the prism in which the world was viewed through. This, in combination with the emerging social and class conflicts developing in Stuart England, meant that “…the culture common to both upper and lower classes was biblical culture, which could be interpreted in two ways—to defend the existing order or to attack the existing order.” (Manning 142) The assaults by James I and Charles I on Dissenters would only add to the level of anger and militancy rising in the discourse.
The social and political landscape created was Christopher Hill called “masterless men” (Hill 16). Vagabonds and beggars wandered the countryside. The rural poor who were no longer dependent on a single lord or tied to the land by service, their future was bleak indeed. Wealthy yeoman, then purchasing the hundreds of thousands of acres sold by the Crown to finance itself, while under the thumb of the barons were not obliged to answer to them. Urban artisans, while tied to guilds and craft were no longer just in the employ of the nobility, other employers had emerged. Traders and merchants, who while working in the constraints imposed by anachronistic forms, were in the end answerable to anonymous profit, and a great deal of profit was being made, even in the financial difficulties of the mid 17th century. When the Civil War began in 1642, these forces found themselves watching the debate in Parliament largely as outsiders, the war would make them, at least briefly, participants in deciding the course of England. In some ways the Civil War, and the Revolution, would begin to make England their country for the first time.
When, on 6 January, 1645 Parliament established a new military force, The New Model Army, after being unhappy with the efforts in the war and the limits to the way in which soldiers were organized and brought to the field. The Self-Denying Ordinance of the following April, stated that no sitting member of Parliament could command in the army or the navy. The first years of the war had seen a great deal of localism, the armies being raised in the old way from the estates and coffers of the big landowners. Many of these gentry were half-hearted in their persecution of the war, some holding out for compromise with Charles’ cavaliers. A new, professional army was created. Many of those “masterless men” were impressed into service. Though pay was to be meager, this army operated differently. Some officers came to be elected, soldiers were encouraged to read and understand what they were to fight for. As Cromwell said; “I had rather have a plain, russet-coated Captain, that knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows, than what you call a Gentleman and is nothing else” (Sabine 265).A “Soldiers Catechism” was introduced outlining the new regime. Unlike many previous armies, this professional was well supplied, often by those made rich through the expropriation of Royalist lands that occurred during the conflict.
This new army proved its effectiveness at the Battle of Nasbey on 16 June, 1645 where the Royalist forces were routed. By May of 1647 the Parliamentarians had won the first English Civil War, but that victory would expose the difference developing in the Parliamentary camp. Nowhere were those difference more pronounced than in the New Model Army itself. Regiments of the army elected agitators met with other representatives to discuss a future constitution governing the country. One wing of those gathered, known to us as the Levellers, issued and pamphlet The Agreement of the People putting forward relatively modest demands. The Grandees of the Army were opposed and in October of that year Cromwell proposed the more limited Heads of Proposals, more ore less putting of further discussion. The Army, and Cromwell, would attempt to balance the different forces; those who sought a modified return to the monarchy and those, like the Levellers, who increasingly looked to Parliament as the instrument of the government with sovereignty resting with the people (or at least some of the people). Leveller agitation was increasing and finding echo in the aspirations of many outside of the Army.
In 1649, after the defeat of the Royalists and capture of Charles II in the Second Civil War, the Levellers, another Agreement was introduced. Also a compromise, this new agreement included: The right to vote for all men over the age of 21 barring servants, beggars and Royalists. No army officer, treasurer or lawyer could be an MP, annual elections were to be held for Parliament with members allowed only one term. Equality before the law, trials by jury chosen from the community, the abolishment of the death penalty in all cases but murder, abolition of prison for debt, abolition of tithes, military conscription, monopolies and excise taxes (Sabine 445-6). Charles was executed only days after; the Agreement would not be considered. The Rump Parliament would declare a Council of State and, having defeated the Royalists, Cromwell now went after the opposition to his left. The monarchy was gone, as was the House of Lords and the power of the Bishops (all of which we live with today). The war was won. When some Army regiments mutinied over lack of pay or service in Ireland or the continued power of the big gentry in the land, Cromwell responded with great force. Leveller militants died heroically on the scaffolds or with gun in hand, their freedom’s proclamations adorning their hats in battle.
The collapse of the age old monarchy, divinely protected and sanctified by history ancient, opened minds to new possibilities. The religious revolts of the last century found worldly expression; the world might be made new again. Religious ideas had cast those possibilities into millennial providence. Religious sects proselytized, but by and large what they were demanding was of this world. Some wanted to bring those ideas down to earth as well. Gerrard Winstanely, born in Wigan, Lancashire in 1609, viewed God as the “reason” within us (Hill 213) and wrote in Law and Freedom (1652):
“this doctrine [religion] is made a cloak of policy by the subtle elder brother to cheat his simple younger brother of the freedoms of the earth….The younger brother, being weak in spirit and having not a grounded knowledge of creation nor of himself is terrified and lets go his hold in the earth and submits himself to be a slave to his brother for fear of damnation in hell after death and in hopes to get heaven thereby—so his eyes are put out and his reason is blinded… for while men are gazing up to heaven, imagining after a happiness or fearing a hell after they are dead, their eyes are put out that they see not what is their birthright and what is to be done by them here on earth while they are living.” (Sabine 507)
For many of the Levellers freedom and private property were inseparable. If you had property you had, at least a modicum of, independence and the possibility to win more. If you had no property, than too your independence was determined by access to property. Freedom to own property and freedom of conscience became intertwined in a world where property had been the sole domain of the most powerful social and religious forces in the country. The Levellers, or the left wing of the Levellers, were anticipating both the French and American revolutions and found adherents among yeoman farmers, artisans, and even some peasants, still the bulk of England’s population in the 17th century. Still, in the England of the 17th century, and for many years after, these forces were to inchoate and marginal, the landed gentry still entrenched and manufacture still largely at the service of the narrowest classes of society. Even without repression, the social conditions were not yet in the favor of marginal, yet rising, classes to whom the Levellers appealed.
A different vision, one that expanded on the Levellers calls for political equality to include social equality emerged. Many of these radicals had no connections with the New Model Army. However, the tumult of ideas exploding in the years after 1645 brought many people into discussions of a breadth and level impossible in times of social peace. Literacy, expanding since Tudor times, allowed those previously outside of public discourse to follow and comment more than ever before. For some, like Winstanley and George Everard, political equality was impossible without social equality. While supporting many of the Leveller demands, the core of the Leveller argument (liberty tied to property), would perpetuate the problem rather than resolve it. Winstanley looked not just to the landless peasants, but with great prescience, he also recognized the growing role of wage labor in the society was divided and exploited. What also separated this vision with those of the Levellers is that, while the Levellers largely appealed to the powerful classes for redress, the ‘True Levellers” appealed to the disenfranchised and landless to help themselves, for “action is the life of all and if thou dost not act thou dost nothing” (Bradstock 16).
Winstanley was born into a family of clothiers in northern England and won an apprenticeship in London, ruined by the outbreak of the Civil War he moved to Surrey where is wife, Sarah, hailed from. There he got work herding other men’s cattle and scrapped by as a laborer. He has lived the vagaries of existence that those without privilege must. For the Diggers, as they came to be known, liberty and property were an anathema. The enclosures were not just depriving poor people of sustenance; they were depriving them of a natural right to the earth itself. Echoing the myth that the Norman Conquest in which a foreign power robbed a free people of their land, Winstanely wrote in the Levellers True Standard (1649):
“The power of enclosing land and owning property was brought into the creation by your ancestors by the sword; which first did murder their fellow creatures, men, and after plunder or steal away their land, and left this land successively to you, their children. And therefore, though you did not kill or thieve, yet you hold that cursed thing in … See Moreyour hand by the power of the sword; and so you justify the wicked deeds of your fathers, and that sin of your fathers shall be visited upon the head of you and your children to the third and fourth generation, and longer too, till your bloody and thieving power be rooted out of the land.” (Sabine 163)
Winstanley understood the earth in terms that most agriculturalist societies do: as the giver and sustainer of life. To be separated from the land you worked was to be deprived your true relationship with the earth. For Winstanley, private ownership of land, “the common treasury”, was the Curse, the Fall of man. The earth, like man, was a universal, indivisible body, whose artificial and competing divisions were an abomination, a crime against nature and man. Worse still was to be separated from the land all together by becoming a hired laborer. Winstanley’s abhorrence of wage labor was not just because he, in a sort of feudal response, viewed it as unnatural to a land-based peasant society, He also had a rudimentary understanding of what, by the time of Marx, Smith and Ricardo, would become known as the :labor theory of value.”:
No man can be rich, but … by his own labors or the labors of others helping him. If a man have no help from his neighbors, he shall never gather an estate of hundreds and thousands a year. If other men help him … then those riches are his neighbors as well as his, for they be the fruit of other mens’ labors as well as his own. (Sabine 246)
This Declares likewise to all Laborers, or such as are called Poor people, that they shall not dare to work for Hire, for any Landlord, or for any that is lifted up above others; for by their labours, they have lifted up Tyrants and Tyranny; and by denying to labor for Hire, they shall pull them down again. He that works for another, either for Wages, or to pay him Rent, works unrighteously, and still lifts up the Curse; but they that are resolved to work and eat together, making the Earth a Common Treasury, doth joyn hands with Christ, to lift up the Creation from Bondage, and restores all things from the Curse. (Sabine 242)
If private property were inimical to democracy, than on what basis should society organize? In previous years the call by peasants might have been to strengthen feudal rights which, at least, gave many access to land and work guaranteed by the obligations of birth. They did not just issue appeals, but as was their call, they acted. In the spring of, after publishing The New Law of Righteousness in 1649 a small band occupied the common lands of St. George’s Hill on the Surrey property of Frances Drake. They declared the land their common birthright and cleared the scrub and attempted sewed crops, though the commons were long used for wood, grazing and fallow. Not more than thirty cottages grew up in the commune, though other communes would be established around the country. Always a small and isolated trend, their radical ideas could not have aroused the suspicion of the local gentry, and powers further afield. Winstanley was calling for something like a general strike in which peasants and workers would keep the fruits of their own labors, without paying alms to the masters. In some ways it makes sense, while wage workers would not be able to act on such advice (without joining a Digger commune), agricultural workers and peasants, with access to food bearing land, might just be able to…had they been ideologically cohesive, organized and prepared. All of which were obvious impossibilities given the age.
However, materially, Winstanley was no utopian. His ideas sprang from the world around him. He proposed in the Laws of Freedom (1652):
“The earth is to be planted and the fruits reaped and carried into barns and storehouses by the assistance of every family. And if any man or family want corn or other provision, they may go to the storehouses and fetch without money. If they want a horse to ride, go into the fields in summer, or to the common stables in winter, and receive one from the keepers, and when your journey is performed, bring him where you had him, without money.”
Aside from the obvious references to money, what he proposes is, more or less, the same kind of production and activities that are already performed. Winstanley and the Diggers were not just primitive agriculturalist communards. He profoundly believed in creating abundance, opening the possibility of education to all those previously denied, and therefore unleashing the great untapped potential of so many, now enslaved by ignorance and want. In this remarkable passage (written 350 years ago) in the Laws of Freedom Winstanley writes:
In every trade, art and science, whereby they may find out the secrets of the creation, and that they may know how to govern the earth in right order…there is traditional knowledge, which is attained by reading or by the instruction of others, and not practical but leads to an idle life; and this is not good…Therefore to prevent idleness and the danger of Machiavellian cheats, it is profitable for the commonwealth that children be trained lip in trades and some bodily employment,-as well as in learning languages or the histories of former ages. And if this course were taken, there would be no idle person nor beggars in the land, and much work would be done by that now lazy generation for the enlarging of the common treasuries. And in the managing of any trade, let no young wit be crushed in his invention; for if any man desire to make a new trial of his skill in any trade or science, the overseers shall not hinder him, but encourage him therein: that so the spirit of knowledge may have his full growth in man, to find out the secret in every art. And let everyone who finds out a new invention have a deserved honour given him; and certainly, when men are sure of food and raiment, their reason will be ripe and ready to dive into the secrets of the creation, that they may learn to see and know God (the spirit of the whole creation) in all his works; for fear of want, and care to pay rent to taskmasters, hath hindered many rare inventions. (Sabine 521-3)
The Diggers were not to last. The local landlords called in the Army and Lord Fairfax arrived, but found they were doing no harm and urged the landlords to use the court to evict the commons. Gangs were set on the communes; houses burnt, members assaulted and equipment destroyed. The court would find that, after the peace of the commune was assaulted, that the communards were disrupting the peace and ordered them removed. Some set up again at nearby Little Heath, but everywhere radicals, Ranters and Diggers were being repressed.
The revolutionary waves of 1647-49 were receding and power was passing to the Protectorate. Winstanley would change course, after the failure of the Digger communes he appealed to Cromwell, who as victor against the old regime Winstanley was deeply respectful, to force the issue through the power of the Army. Winstanley, failing to win against the local landlords by winning enough peasants by persuasion and deed, now tried to persuade Cromwell and the Army. No longer a pacifist, Winstanley realized, perhaps through the injustice offered by the courts, that force would would be necessary. His address to Cromwell was open and, in some ways rhetorical, though he gives us here his clearest vision of the future society. The Laws of Freedom remain to this a powerful revolutionary screed to this day. Winstanley is many things, one of them is a marvelous, logical and ironic writer steeped in Biblical verse. A joy to read and still startling in its conclusions.
Winstanley himself would later (seem) to come to terms with the new regime and even the return of the monarchy in Charles II in 1660, finding himself occupying minor borough positions in the very area where a decade and half before he led Europe’s first communist movement of the modern era. Winstanley belongs with others of that crucial period, like Shakespeare and Milton, who lived and defined the change of eras. Hardly an agrarian mystic, Winstanley presaged The Age of Reason and the horrors of the Industrial Revolution.
While the Diggers remain a footnote and their ideas, even now, translated into the realties of today seem marginal; they retain a kind of prophetic potency. It is for this reason that, since they were rediscovered in the 1890s, the Diggers have become an inspiration for those still looking beyond the impasse of class division and the alienations of lives without access to power, even over themselves. Karl Marx never read Winstanley and even his knowledge of the radical movement of 17th century was clouded by time and the official histories. In Volume III of Capital, Marx wrote:
“The realm of freedom…can only consist in socialized man, the associated producers rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind force of Nature, and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favorable to, and worthy of, their human nature…” (Marx 820)
While Winstanley was no proto-Marxist, nor would he be recognized today as a socialist as we understand the term, he was most certainly a communist. Who can not be see the same vision, embraced with the same élan born of men eager to “turn the world upside down” in both men? Those notions of social solidarity, feeding our needs; physical, intellectual and emotional; healing the “metabolic rift” with the earth, inaugurated by private property and augmented by wage labor; the common ownership, not just of land and produce, but of ourselves and our future.
“I am assured that if it be rightly searched into, the inward bondages of the minde, as covetousness, pride, hypocrisie, envy, sorrow, fears, desperation, and madness are all occasioned by the outward bondage that one sort of people lay upon another.” Winstanely wrote in 1649. That we should break those ties of bondage, internal and external, these are hopes of the ages. Hopes which Winstanley, the Diggers and those like them, lit a flame in their day snuffed out, only to be rekindled by generations since, still living in dark oppression. The dim flickers of old fires are often all the warmth a wearied people seeking freedom have. The Diggers, who planted their green flag on St. George’s Hill in 1649, will continue to be such a candle in the dark.