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The Digger movement in the English Revolution

This is a full-length modern study of the Diggers or ‘True Levellers’, who were among the most remarkable of the radical groups to emerge during the English Revolution of 1640–60. Acting at a time of unparalleled political change and heightened millenarian expectation, the Diggers believed that the establishment of an egalitarian, property-less society was imminent. This book establishes the local origins of the Digger movement and sets out to examine pre-Civil War social relations and social tensions in the parish of Cobham—from where significant numbers of the Diggers came—and the impact of civil war in the local community. The book provides a detailed account of the Surrey Digger settlements and of local reactions to the Diggers, and it explores the spread of Digger activities beyond Surrey. In chapters on the writings and career of Gerrard Winstanley, the book seeks to offer a reinterpretation of one of the major thinkers of the English Revolution.

This chapter describes the Parish community and social relations in Cobham. The parish of Cobham, where the Digger movement had its origins, was a large, irregularly shaped parish of a little under 5,300 acres, with a population in 1649 of around five hundred. The northern parts of the parish lay principally on Bagshot sands, while London clay predominated in the south. Cobham had a dispersed pattern of settlement, and this was reflected in the administrative division between the three things of Church Cobham, Street Cobham and Downside. The holdings of customary tenants in Cobham typically included scattered parcels of land in the common arable fields and more substantial parcels of old enclosed ground, as well as more recent encroachments from then commons and wastes. Cobham's tenants had experienced prolonged periods of conflict with their manorial lords and uncertainties over the future ownership and control of their manor.

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This chapter describes how the civil war reached Cobham in the autumn of 1642; a fortnight after the armies of king and parliament had met at the battle of Edgehill. Aside from this brief incursion by the King's field army in 1642, Surrey was largely spared the worst excesses of the Civil War because the county's immediacy to London ensured that it was brought rapidly under the control of parliament's forces. The people of Cobham and the surrounding parishes were involved to an unprecedented level of wider political developments, both as active participants and through their experience of taxation, free quarter and political conflict. Responsibility for the maintenance of order in Civil War Surrey fell to the parliamentarian county committee and its divisional sub committees. Cobham's inhabitants were drawn into providing material and ideological support for the parliamentary war effort, and they came to suffer the effects of financial exactions and free quarter.

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This chapter discusses the life of Gerrard Winstanley, who was an active Digger. Gerrard Winstanley was 34 when he arrived in Cobham, and 39 when he led the Diggers on to St George's Hill. Winstanley set up independently as a cloth merchant in the London parish of St Olave Old Jewry. In September 1640 he married Susan King of St Martin Outwich, the daughter of a London barber surgeon. By late 1643, Winstanley was on the verge of bankruptcy, and before the end of the year he had ceased trading and had left London for Surrey. Winstanley's time in Cobham is often presented as one of abject hardship, with him being reduced to the status of a labourer herding cattle for his neighbours. By his own account he suffered from the strains of war after his move from London to Cobham, because of the burthen of taxes and much free-quarter.

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The early writings

This chapter discusses Winstanley's early writings and the development of his religious ideas. Winstanley's four earliest pamphlets were produced in a remarkably short space of time, but each had its own distinct character. In these early writings Winstanley drew on recognisable traditions of religious radicalism to advance arguments of great originality. He did so moreover with a clarity and directness that set these tracts apart from many of the other radical spiritualist and perfectionist writings that were published in the later 1640s. Together these works bore witness to the rapid development of Winstanley's ideas, and to the increasing confidence with which he was able to give expression to them. His early writings challenged conventional understandings of God, the Fall and salvation, but also prefigured the arguments used later to advance the Diggers.

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This chapter describes the start of the Diggers' activities on St George's Hill. The chapter explains how the number of Diggers increased with every passing day. The Diggers invited every one to come and help them, and promised them meate, drinke, and clothes. The Diggers believed that the barren wastes could phenomenally be made fruitful. They made claim to all common land because those lands were called commons, they belonged to any body, not considering that they were the commons only for the inhabitants of such a place. The Diggers' first published manifesto, The True Levellers Standard Advanced sets out to explain and justify the activities of the Diggers on St George's Hill, and to encourage others to follow their example. The chapter recounts the lessons from history that proved how the ‘leveling, popular form’ leads to support for an agrarian law and thence to support for ‘absolute community#x2019;.

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This chapter discusses the attacks on the Diggers and their relations with the local community. The first attack on them was recorded when the ‘divers of the diggers’ were taken to the village of Walton and locked in the church, before being freed by a justice of the peace. On the second occasion more than a hundred people forced the Diggers off the hill and took them first to Walton and then Kingston. A mistaken belief that the Diggers enjoyed the protection of the army saved them from further violence during the first few days. The Diggers returned to the hill in greater numbers after the initial wave of attacks, and were subjected to further assaults in the succeeding weeks and months. The Diggers identified strongly with the profound and unexpected political changes that were taking place around them, and they were inspired to act.

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This chapter discusses the consequences faced by the Diggers and the aftermath of the Digger movement. The story of the Digger movement did not end with the destruction of Digger colonies in April and May 1650. The Diggers renewed their activities at the time of the 1650 harvest, which seemed to have been a co-ordinated, symbolic action. Even when their own crops had been destroyed, the Diggers sought out worthy individuals and offered them help in bringing in the year's crop. Winstanley and several of his companions made their way to Pirton in Hertfordshire, where the prophetess Lady Eleanor Davies, who had declared 1650 to be a year of Jubilee and restitution, held the Rectory manor and impropriation. The Diggers remained at Pirton, threshing wheat and assisting with general estate business.

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