J.P.SOMMERVILLE

Levellers & Diggers


John Lilburne (1614-57)
 

367 - 7

 

The Leveller movement:

bullet

The New Model Army was created by Parliament in 1645 and was run along more professional and meritocratic lines than earlier armies.

 

"I had rather have a plain, russet-coated Captain, that knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows, than that which you call a gentleman and is nothing else."

(Oliver Cromwell)

 

bullet

The army tended to attract the most religiously radical chaplains and many of the soldiers were also motivated in part by puritan fervor. The New Model soon became a hotbed of heterodox opinions. This thoroughly alarmed the more conservative MPs and in 1647 they tried to disband the army.

 

"His army is a ragged multitude
Of hinds and peasants, rude and merciless:"

(Henry VI ii, 4.4)


 

bullet

Unfortunately, Parliament did not also vote to give the soldiers their (large) arrears of pay and to grant the soldiers civil indemnity for crimes committed while under arms. Instead of disbanding, the soldiers appointed "agitators" (agents, or deputies) to negotiate on their behalf.

 


General Thomas Fairfax

Many of the officers were sympathetic to the soldiers' cause and politically at odds with the majority in Parliament. In August 1647 the army marched on London. In the Fall of 1647, the officers and some Leveller leaders discussed possible constitutional settlements - including the Leveller Agreement of the People - at Putney.

 

bullet

Support for Leveller radicalism both in the army and amongst their London artisan allies diminished rapidly once the Army occupied London and ensured that their material demands were met.

bullet

The remnants of the Leveller movement were crushed by Cromwell in 1649 after an attempted mutiny at Burford. Quite possibly there was never really widespread popular support for Leveller ideas, even in the army. Certainly, Leveller ideas were widely parodied in contemporary pamphlets.
Read two contrasting accounts of the Burford mutiny - Wood (in favor) Denne (against).
 

"Well, I say it was never merry world in England since gentlemen came up"

(Henry VI ii  4.2)

 

More on the Leveller Leaders

 

 

Leveller Principles

 

bullet

Levellers, their enemies asserted, "intend to set all things straight, and raise a parity and community in the kingdom." They were accused of intending to level property and social position - hence their name. Their own pamphlets, in contrast, said they were "falsely called" Levellers, since they had no intention of equalizing or abolishing private property.

bullet

The Levellers shared many of the principles of Parliamentary theorists - the contractual origins of government, the sovereignty of the people and so on; they simply took them further.

bullet

The most important summary of Leveller ideas was An Agreement of the People (which went through a number of versions). But their ideas were expounded at greater length in various pamphlets of Lilburne, Walwyn and Overton.

bullet

Sovereignty of the people.
Whereas many parliamentary theorists believed that Parliament - the people's representative - was sovereign, the Levellers insisted on the accountability of Parliament to the people. They wanted frequent elections to ensure that MPs were answerable to the electorate, and they argued for the exclusion of the king and lords from power. Army propaganda from 1646 had also insisted that Parliament is accountable to the people at large.

bullet

Individual natural rights
The Levellers often employed the rhetoric of "freeborn Englishmen" and appealed to Magna Carta, but for the most part their arguments were universal. They believed that everyone is naturally entitled to freedom from arbitrary arrest, from religious oppression, and from taxation without consent. These rights were not restricted to the English and could not be lost by historical accidents.

bullet

A broader franchise
The Levellers wanted most adult males to be allowed to vote. They did not want to extend the ballot to women, children, servants, or people living on charity, but nonetheless their proposals would have given the right to vote to a much greater proportion of the population. The Levellers also wanted to make representation in any particular region proportional to its population; this proposal was incorporated into the Instrument of Government of 1653, but reversed at the Restoration, and not restored again until 1832.
 

Winstanley and the Diggers


All Saints Church, Wigan

 

bullet

Little is known about the life of Gerard Winstanley. He was probably the son of a prosperous Wigan merchant and was baptized there,10 October 1609. After education at grammar school, he was apprenticed to the widow of a London cloth merchant and became a freeman of the Merchant Taylors' Company.

bullet

An incompetent businessman himself, he distrusted merchants. Initially a supporter of Parliament, he grew to regard its factions as spiritual oppressors. Winstanley thought that learning was irrelevant to religion, and that everyone should be able to preach as the spirit moved them.

bullet

During 1648 Winstanley published three pamphlets expounding his religious ideas, and late in that year decided to put his Christian communism into practice.
[ A Letter to the Lord Fairfax]

bullet

In January 1649, Winstanley advanced a scheme for the poor to occupy and farm common ground. In April, he and a few followers began to dig on common land at St. George's Hill (Surrey). Naturally, the local landowners were far from happy, especially when the Diggers began to damage timber. The Diggers were sued and ordered to pay damages.

bullet

Winstanley simply wrote A Declaration from the poor oppressed people of England (1649) announcing the Diggers' intention "To lay hold upon, and as we stand in need, to cut and fell, and make the best advantage we can of the woods and trees, that grow upon the commons."

 

"Say from whence You owe this strange intelligence? or why Upon this blasted heath you stop our way With such prophetic greeting? Speak, I charge you"

(Macbeth 1.3)


 

bullet

In August 1649, the Diggers moved to Cobham Heath, where Winstanley was arrested and fined for trespass and their crops destroyed by the lands' owners. The Diggers faced hostility from all the locals, and dispersed in April 1650. A few other Digger communes were equally unsuccessful.

bullet

Gerard Winstanley produced one more treatise The law of freedom in a platform (1652) and then disappeared into obscurity (possibly as a minor civil servant).

 

"I prithee, let me bring thee where crabs grow;
And I with my long nails will dig thee pignuts;
Show thee a jay's nest and instruct thee how
To snare the nimble marmoset;"

(Tempest 2.2)

 

[For more links to English Digger tracts, go to The English Diggers site]


Murillo, The young beggar

Winstanley's ideas

bullet

Winstanley held a very optimistic view of human nature, and thought that if it were not for the corrupting influence of the state, people would cooperate happily. He regarded private property as a legacy of the Fall of Adam and Eve, and believed that newly-enlightened Christians should abandon it.

bullet

Winstanley regarded the state and the lawyers who enforced its edicts as cruel exploiters of the poor.

 

"England is a prison: the variety of subtleties in the laws preserved by the sword are bolts, bars and doors of the prison; the lawyers are the jailors, and poor men are the prisoners"

(Gerard Winstanley)

 

bullet

The clergy were also lackeys of the oppressive ruling classes - hired to deceive people into obedience with tales of an afterlife.

bullet

Winstanley believed that the abolition of private property was the first step on the road to reformation. He thought that the poor should refuse to work for gentlemen and instead farm the commons for their own subsistence - lacking laborers, the gentry would voluntarily give away their land.

bullet

Complete religious toleration was another of Winstanley's principles. He wanted everyone to read the Bible and express their own opinions on it, regardless of class or sex.

bullet

The state was left with few functions in Winstanley's thought except the control of foreign trade. He hoped that once monarchy, rank and property were abolished, the state would wither away and free communes thrive
 

"Kingly power is like a great spread tree; if you lop off the head or top bough, and let the other branches and root stand, it will grow again and recover fresher strength".

(Gerard Winstanley)

 

bullet

Winstanley did accept the family and would have allowed private homes, but wanted food to be supplied from a common stock and everyone under forty years old compelled to labor. The state was to be governed by magistrates limited to one year's tenure in office, elected by universal male suffrage.

 

Adriaen van Ostade
Beggar in a large
coat

 

bullet

Gerard Winstanley was influenced by a pantheistic rationalism that had its roots in the Hermetic tradition.

bullet

He was also influenced by the Levellers, although unlike them he saw economic equality as essential to a just society. The Levellers thought that everyone should be free to accumulate wealth and that the laws should protect all men in their possession of it. The Diggers wanted the laws to prevent anyone acquiring property at the expense of someone else. For Winstanley, political power was rooted in land ownership and so must be abolished.

bullet

Winstanley's ideas were not influential and disappeared almost without trace until revived by twentieth-century Marxists (particularly Christopher Hill) searching for evidence of popular radicalism in English history.
 

Previous section Next section