Gerrard Winstanley and the Failed Digger Revolution (Classroom Activity)

Gerrard Winstanley, a farmer from Cobham, published four pamphlets in 1648. These were highly critical of religious leaders who "hold forth God and Christ to be at a distance from men" or think that "God is in the Heavens above the skies". Winstanley argued that God is "the spirit within you". Winstanley then went on to describe God "doth not preserve one creature and destroy another... but he hath a regard to the whole creation; and knits every creature together into oneness; making every creature to be an upholder of his fellow; and so every one is an assistant to preserve the whole."

In October 1648 Winstanley's friend William Everard was arrested. It was reported that he held blasphemous opinions "as to deny God, and Christ, and Scriptures, and prayer". His arrest prompted Winstanley to publish Truth Lifting up the Head above Scandals (1648), in which he asked who has the authority to restrain religious differences? He argued that Scripture, on which traditionally authority rested, was unsafe because there were no undisputed texts, translations, or interpretations.

Winstanley gradually became more radical and he began arguing that all land belonged to the community rather than to separate individuals. In January, 1649, he published the The New Law of Righteousness. In the pamphlet he wrote: "In the beginning of time God made the earth. Not one word was spoken at the beginning that one branch of mankind should rule over another, but selfish imaginations did set up one man to teach and rule over another."

On Sunday 1st April, 1649, Gerald Winstanley, William Everard, and a small group of about 30 or 40 men and women started digging and sowing vegetables on the wasteland of St George's Hill in the parish of Walton. They were mainly labouring men and their families, and they confidently hoped that five thousand others would join them.

The men sowed the ground with parsnips, carrots, and beans. They also stated that they "intended to plough up the ground and sow it with seed corn". Research shows that new people joined the community over the next few months. Most of these were local inhabitants. These men became known as Diggers.

Primary Sources

Gerrard Winstanley
(Source 1) Gerrard Winstanley


(Source 2) Gerrard Winstanley, The True Levellers Standard Advanced (1649)

In the beginning of time God made the earth... Not one word was spoken at the beginning that one branch of mankind should rule over another, but selfish imaginations did set up one man to teach and rule over another... Landowners either got their land by murder or theft... And thereby man was brought into bondage, and became a greater slave than the beasts of the field were to him.

(Source 3) Gerrard Winstanley, The New Law of Righteousness (1649)

And let all men say what they will, so long as such are rulers as call the land theirs, upholding this particular propriety of mine and thine, the common people shall never have their liberty, nor the land be ever freed from troubles, oppressions, and complainings, by reason whereof the Creator of all things is continually provoked.

The man of the flesh judges it a righteous thing that some men who are cloathed with the objects of the earth, and so called rich men, whether it be got by right or wrong, should be magistrates to rule over the poor; and that the poor should be servants, nay, rather slaves, to the rich. But the spiritual man, which is Christ, doth judge according to the light of equity and reason, that all mankind ought to have a quiet subsistence and freedom to live upon earth; and that there should be no bondman nor beggar in all his holy mountain.

No man shall have any more land than he can labor himself or have others to labor with him in love, working together, and eating bread together, as one of the tribes or families of Israel neither giving nor taking hire.

(Source 4) Gerrard Winstanley, statement (April, 1649)

The work we are going about is this, to dig up George's Hill and the waste grounds thereabouts, and sow corn, and to eat our bread together by the sweat of our brows.

And the first reason is this, that we may work in righteousness, and lay the foundation of making the earth a common treasury for all, both rich and poor, that everyone that is born in the land may be fed by the earth his mother that brought him forth, according to the reason that rules in the creation.

Gerrard Winstanley
(Source 5) An oil painted by Gillis van Tilborgh, in 1670, that shows a gathering of people
at the home of Sir Henry Tichborne, who was one of Hampshire's largest landowners.


(Source 6) A. L. Morton, A People's History of England (1938)

The Diggers were a small group who preached and attempted to practise a primitive communism, based on the claim that the land belonged to the whole people of England. This claim was supported by the interesting historical argument that William the Conqueror had "turned the English out of their birthrights; and compelled them for necessity to be servants to him and to his Norman soldiers". The civil war was thus regarded as the reconquest of England by the English people. In the theological language of the time Winstanley urged that this political reconquest needed a social revolution to complete it and that otherwise the essential quality of monarchy remained.

(Source 7) Peter Ackroyd, The Civil War (2014)

In April 1649 some Diggers came to St George's Hill, near Weybridge in Surrey, where they proceeded to dig and sow seed in the common land. One of them, William Everard, proclaimed that he had been commanded in a vision to dig and plough the land. They believed in a form of agrarian communism by which the English were exhorted finally to free themselves from "the Norman yoke" of landlords and owners of estates before "making the earth a common treasury for all".

Gerrard Winstanley
(Source 8) The Diggers (1649)

(Source 9) Gerrard Winstanley, letter to General Thomas Fairfax (June, 1649)

We understand, that our digging upon that Common, is the talk of the whole land; some approving, some disowning. Some are friends, filled with love, and sees the work intends good to the Nation, the peace whereof is that which we seek after. Others are enemies filled with fury, and falsely report of us, that we have intent to fortify ourselves, and afterwards to fight against others, and take away their goods from them, which is a thing we abhor. And many other slanders we rejoice over, because we know ourselves clear, our endeavour being no otherwise, but to improve the Commons, and to cast off that oppression and outward bondage which the Creation groans under, as much as in us lies, and to lift up and preserve the purity thereof.

And the truth is, experience shows us, that in this work of Community in the earth, and in the fruits of the earth, is seen plainly a pitched battle between the Lamb and the Dragon, between the Spirit of love, humility and righteousness ... and the power of envy, pride, and unrighteousness... the latter power striving to hold the Creation under slavery, and to lock and hide the glory thereof from man: the former power labouring to deliver Creation from slavery, to unfold the secrets of it to the sons of man, and so to manifest himself to be the great restorer of all things.

(Source 10) John F. Harrison, The Common People (1984)

In April 1649 a small group of about thirty or forty people, began to dig and plant the common land on St George's Hill in Surrey. They were mainly labouring men and their families, and they confidently hoped that five thousand others would join them. Their leaders were William Everard, a soldier who had been cashiered from the New Model army on account of his radicalism, and Gerrard Winstanley, a small cloth merchant from London who had been ruined by the economic depression of the early 1640s and who was then living at nearby Cobham. The intention was to cultivate the land communally, to make the earth (in Winstanley's favourite phrase) "a common treasury", which God had intended it to be. "The work we are going about is this," declared The True Levellers' Standard Advanced: "to dig up George's Hill and the waste ground thereabouts, and to sow corn, and to eat our bread together by the sweat of our brows." But the local inhabitants were bitterly opposed to the Diggers and set about harassing them. They were repeatedly attacked and beaten; their crops were uprooted, their tools destroyed, and their rough houses were burned. In July they were arrested and taken before the local magistrates. Heavy fines were imposed; and in execution of the sentence bailiffs were sent to take away Winstanley's few cattle. The persecution of the Diggers continued, urged on by the lord of the manor and the local parson; and after struggling on for a year the little colony was broken up. The Diggers planned to extend their colonies throughout the country. The poor, they said, could right their condition only by cultivating the commons and wastes, which were their rightful possession and from which they had been disinherited by "the Norman Bastard" and his followers. Colonies were begun at Cobham (in addition to St, George's Hill) in Surrey, Wellingborough (Northamptonshire), Cox Hall (Kent), Iver (Buckinghamshire), and perhaps in other places too. But none of these seems to have lasted very long, and after 1650 the Digger movement was effectively dead.

Questions for Students

Question 1: Study sources 2 and 3. Why was Gerrard Winstanley considered to hold radical views on land ownership.

Question 2: Describe what is taking place in source 5. What do do you think Gerrard Winstanley might have said about these events?

Question 3: Use sources 6, 7, 9 and 10 to explain what is going on in source 8.

Question 4: Why was the Digger Revolution unsuccessful?

Answer Commentary

A commentary on these questions can be found here.