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The Diggers

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The following 3 articles are from a museum exhibition on the Diggers.

In 1649 a group called the Diggers led by Gerrard Winstanley set up a commune on St. George’s Hill in Weybridge. They believed that everyone should be equal and were against the private ownership of property. Today many people regard the Diggers as England’s first socialists.

England in 1649 was in turmoil. A long Civil War had just ended with the execution of King Charles I. Having executed the King, Oliver Cromwell and the other Parliamentarian leaders had to decide how to run the country. Many radicals put forward their views, and it was in this atmosphere that the Diggers came to life.

The English Civil War was fought over the issue of who had the right to rule the country. King Charles I believed that he had a God-given right to rule the country, and to rule as he saw fit. He was opposed by the Parliamentarians who thought that men of property should have a say in the running of the country. After a long dispute the matter came to war, in which the Roundheads defeated the Cavaliers and King Charles was taken prisoner.

Having won the war the victorious Parliamentarians had to decide how to govern the country in the absence of a King. Being men of property they were anxious to ensure that they retained their positions of power and influence. They found themselves under a great deal of pressure from radicals known as Levellers. The Levellers agitated for a democratic society, with power distributed among the poor or common people of England. The common people, they pointed out, had both won the war and paid for it with their taxes. Furthermore, they pointed to the desperate state of a great deal of the population. The agricultural economy of the country had been unable to deal with a century and a half of population growth. Poverty, hunger and homelessness were rife.

The Levellers issued a series of pamphlets setting out their views. They also engaged the Parliamentarian leaders in a series of public debates. In the early part of 1649 the matter came to a head when some regiments of the Roundhead army mutinied in support of the Levellers. They were ruthlessly put down and ceased to be an important political force. It was precisely at this time that Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers appeared on the scene, proclaiming themselves the 'True Levellers' and putting forward an even more radical platform.

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