The Diggers in Pirton

Herts Countryside March 1977 

The Diggers in Hertfordshire  By M Tomkins

Disillusioned with Cromwell’s insufficiently radical ideas  after the Civil War, small fanatical groups set up in different parts of the country dedicated to living a  simple life off the land.  Badly received in Surrey, the Diggers made their way to Pirton and found themselves obliged to abandon some of their high ideals.

The Seekers, the Ranters and the Diggers may sound like pop groups – and in a way this is what they were:  popular in the sense of being “of the people”.  They were among the fanatical groups that found Cromwell’s ideas insufficiently radical.  Although another – the Levellers – had been quelled by him in 1647, when a scapegoat was shot near Ware, they only proliferated.The Diggers even had their own song:You noble Diggers all, stand up now……….It was probably composed by their leader, Gerrard Winstanley, – a visionary who heard a voice from God which he interpreted as saying:  “The common people ought to dig, plough, plant and dwell upon the commons, without hiring them or paying rent to any”.  But when a small band of Diggers put these ideas into practice in 1649 by squatting on a common in Surrey and ploughing it up, they were soon unhoused and dispersed.  Travelling mostly in carts, in the spring of 1650 some of their number passed through Buckinghamshire into Middlesex and “from thence to Hartfordshire”, preaching their gospel and appealing for funds as they went.

Gerard Winstanley

Digger communities sprang up in their path:  “they are at work in Barnet,” it was reported in May 1650:  “they intend to sowe roots til July and then follow for winter corne, and then build for the poorest in the Parishes, and if the Rich will not let them alone, the poor will leave them their Children to keep, as they have done in Surrey.”  They had been driven to this by the consideration that they had “better leave them than starve them and themselves too,” as they feared would happen if they took their children with them.  If, therefore, “they will not let them plant and build, they will leave them in Barnet 7 children….”Among other “towns” they visited “to promot the Business” were listed Watford, “Redburn”, “Mine”, (would this be Mimms?), “Wellin”, and Royston:  and on their travels they passed through Pirton.

Now at Pirton there lived another radical visionary – Lady Eleanor Douglas – who, like Winstanley, heard voices from God.  She had published prophecies, seeing herself as a reincarnation of Daniel and signing them with an anagram of her maiden name, “ELEANOR AUDELEY – REVEALE O DANIEL”.  When her first husband threw these in the fire she successfully forecast his death, making an anagram of his name:  “JOHN DAVES, JOVES HAND.”  A second husband, Sir Archibald Douglas , who was foolhardy enough also to burn her book, “was stroken bereft in his sences”.

Lady Eleanor Davies


She foretold the Duke of Buckingham’s death in 1628 and King Charles I’s in 1633.  This landed her in jail;  but after Cromwell came to power she reissued this prophecy, travelling one October night in 1648 from London to St Albans, where he lay with his army, to hand a copy personally to him.  It was “with her own hand superscribed ‘The Armies Commission.  Behold he cometh with ten thousand of his Saints to execute judgement on all’.”

Cromwell is said to have read it, smiled, and said:  “But we are not all Saints”.  It is a not unlikely utterance from one who wished to be painted “warts and all”.  A great admirer of Cromwell, she made him the subject of another of her anagrams – “O CROMWEL – HOWL ROME”.  But better than any of her own was one complied about her – “DAME ELEANOR DAVIES – NEVER SO MAD A LADIE.”

In the August of 1650, it seems, she wanted some work done on her estate at Pirton, where she owned the tithes of grain.  Poverty must by then have weakened the Diggers’ ideals never to work for hire, for Winstanley undertook that four of his band would thresh her wheat.  And if they did not thresh it without intermission “there tyme was not spent in Idlenes”, as he later reminded her: “2 or 3 dayes I sett the threshers to dig the garden and carrie in Dung to prepare agains the Spring for a garden platt…2 or 3 dayes they spent tyme in cutting us wood for fire…” and fourthermore “all 4 threshers were hindred the most parte of a weeke, by waiting ujpon your bussines about the house and helping the Coachman to dress his horses.”

                                          Rectory Manor where Lady Eleanor Davies lived

All this Winstanley set out in a letter of December 4, 1650, because when he had submitted his account for payment Lady Douglas had disputed it.  He argued in his letter that “60 loads of wheat I gave you in my accomptes were threshed in 14 weeks tyme;”  he offered to “stand to the Judgment of all the parish to tell as truly the severall yeeldings of there wheat,” and he maintained that “that sheet of paper which I gave you at Purton is my perfect accompt rightly cast up.”

The tithe barn where the grain was stored after threshing

Then, remembering perhaps that the sort of woman he was dealing with was not likely to be swayed by reason, he changed his line of attack.  “You said in Purton Barne”, he reminded her, “that you were the prophettesse Melchisedecke…Now if you be that divine power,” he argued, “what’s the reason that divers men calle upon you for money, which you truly owe them?”  Why did she “putt them of by long delays?”  This would not happen, he pointed out to her, “if your bussines were ordered by you with Melchisedeck’s spirit …. Looke into the scripture, and you shall find the true prophettes delayd not to keep covenant.”

This piece of casuistry was artfully calculated to appeal to Lady Douglas:  but Winstanley’s independent spirit asserted itself later in his letter.  “Ile neither flatter nor picke thanke with you,” he wrote;  “I came not under your rooffe to earne money like a slave.”  Yet, contradictorily, this is what he now found himself forced to sue for.  “You know I asked you nothing,” he wrote, damning his own claim, “but I came and did your bussines and I was your Saviour in this last Somer’s crop.”

Lady Douglas’ reply “to the Honest Diggers” was unsympathetic.  She endorsed Winstanley’s letter:  “Hee is maktakne, for from the 20 of August unto the 3 of December, being 15 weeks, after his account (comes) to Three-score and fivteen load of Wheat, according to 5 load thresh weekly, but indeed amounts to 15 Load more at lest, after six load weekly.”

Her calculations may well have served to confuse him.  Whether or not he gave up his claim, it seems unlikely it was met.  Two years later Lady Douglas was dead and a disillusioned Winstanley was writing:  “now my health and estate is decayed and I grow in age, I must either beg or work for day wages, which I was never brought up to, for another” – a sad end to all his aspirations.

Winstanley”, a British film made in 1975, directed by Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo and starring Miles Halliwell in the title role with Jerome Willis as Fairfax, has been made of Gerrard Winstanley’s attempt to set up a community of Diggers in Surrey in 1649.

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