King Charles I was beheaded in January 1649, as England reeled from seven years of civil war: “One third part of England lies waste and barren, and her children starve for want,” wrote Gerrard Winstanley (1609–1676).
But Winstanley, a failed cloth merchant turned utopian visionary, had a proposal: “If the lands of England were cooperatively manured by her children it could become, in a few years, the richest, the strongest, and the most flourishing land in the world.” Acting on this vision, Winstanley led the “Diggers,” a group of men frustrated by taxation, eviction, and hunger, to reclaim common lands on St. George’s Hill, in Surrey, where they established a makeshift community.
Before the English Civil War, Winstanley had been comfortably established in London’s cloth trade. But the war destroyed the industry, throwing Winstanley into financial ruin and spiritual crisis. He lost faith in the established church: “The subtle clergy know that if they can but charm the people by their divining doctrine to wait for riches, heaven, and glory when they are dead, then they shall easily be the inheritors of the earth, and have the deceived commoners to be their slaves.”
“In the beginning of time, all men were equal. It was when self-love arose that man began to fall.” Gerrard Winstanley
What was true faith, then? Winstanley heard the answer while in a trance: “Work together; eat bread together. Declare this all abroad.” He began to envision a classless, propertyless society: “The great Creator (whom some call God) made the earth to be a common treasury. Man was to govern this creation.… But thanks to covetousness, man was brought into bondage. He became a greater slave to others of his own kind than the beasts of the field were to him. When once the earth becomes a common treasury again, as it must, then strife in all lands will cease.”
But local landlords, threatened by the actions and radical beliefs of these Diggers or “Levelers,” attacked the group. Brought to trial for trespass, Winstanley was found guilty and fined. Despite such setbacks, the movement grew. Soon there were at least ten Digger communities throughout the south Midlands. When some became violent, Winstanley distanced himself from them, insisting that “true Levelers” eschewed all violence.
By the end of 1650, however, all the Digger communities had been destroyed, and their followers dispersed. Winstanley went on to join the Quakers, who shared many of his ideals.
His movement may have failed, but Winstanley’s vision has inspired many in the four centuries since his death. Today, in a time of growing inequality, his words remain a call to action: “If thou wouldst know what true freedom is, thou shalt see that it lies in the community of spirit and community in the earthly treasury.”