The collapse of central authority during the English Civil Wars saw the rise of radical thinkers and reformers who wanted to refashion the state. The Levellers, Diggers, Ranters, Fifth Monarchists, and Muggletonians were all perceived as a threat to what was left of the establishment.
The most dangerous, of course, were the Levellers, with mass support in the army and among the radical pamphleteers. Another group that has resonated down the centuries are the Diggers, and in particular their leader Gerard Winstanley. The historian Christopher Hill depicted the Diggers in the 1960s as a proto-communist movement crushed by a capitalist state. There is even an annual Diggers Festival held in Wigan. Alongside Winstanley, but almost forgotten, as instigator and leader of the Diggers was William Everard (1602 – c1651).
Everard is a central character in The Last Roundhead series, but there is little known about the man himself. Indeed, he is sometimes confused with another agitator called Robert Everard (both in contemporary sources and by historians) and Christopher Hill even proposed that the two were one and the same.
Everard was baptised in St Giles parish Reading on May 9th 1602 to a poor Berkshire family. Whilst the family were not wealthy enough to be assessed for parliamentary subsidies (and thus exist in the historical record) Everard next appears on 14th August 1616 in the Apprentice Binding Book of the Merchant Taylors Company as a new apprentice to one Robert Miller. He is recorded as: William Everad, son of William Everad, yeoman of Reading, Berkshire.
It is possible that it was in the Taylors that Everard first made the acquaintance of Gerrard Winstanley, who was a freeman of the guild at the same time, but Everard did not complete his training and disappears from the historical record during the 1620s and 30s.
As England stumbled towards civil war in the Spring of 1642, Everard took the Protestation Oath in St Lawrence, Reading: “to live and die for the true Protestant religion, the liberties and rights of subjects and the privilege of Parliaments.” The oath was an anti-catholic covenant whipped up by press hysteria reporting dubious atrocities in Ireland.
With the outbreak of the Civil War in the Summer of 1642, Everard joined Samuel Luke’s scouts and was active throughout Berkshire in 1643, but he then again disappears from the record. Some have speculated that he was captured and imprisoned between 1643-46 but nothing concrete is known. (I do provide an explanation for this in my series, but it’s a few books down the line – and entirely fictional.)
By 1647, Everard was in the New Model Army and beginning his career as an agitator. In May, he signed a petition voicing the army’s grievances; he was then implicated in a plot to kill the King and imprisoned in Windsor. In December 1647, whilst awaiting his court martial, he petitioned Thomas Fairfax – the commander of the New Model Army – against his unfair imprisonment. It was to no avail, and he was cashiered out of the army in January 1648.
After his discharge from the army, Everard seems to have suffered an emotional and spiritual crisis. He visited the Baptist Samuel Fisher at some point in 1648 in Kent. Fisher, writing in 1653, claimed Everard had taken the name Chamberlain, claiming to be ‘in the secret chambers of the most high’. Everard also denounced infant baptism and said he was ‘sent from God.’Fisher was unimpressed, calling him ‘strange,’ with ‘uncouth deportment,’ and ‘blasphemous pratings’.
Everard was arrested in Kingston, Surrey and imprisoned accused of holding ‘blasphemous opinions’ denying God, Christ, Scriptures, and prayer. Gerard Winstanley defended him in October 1648 in the pamphlet Truth Lifting up its Head above Scandals declaring Everard‘innocent of these slanders’ but he continued to cause the authorities concern. On 6 March 1649 he was charged with a disturbance of the peace at a church service at Staines, where he threatened the minister with a hedging bill shouting: ‘come down thou sonne of perdition, come down’. A fellow Digger – John Barker – stood bail for him.
In mid-February 1649 at Walton on Thames, Everard is believed to be one of six soldiers who disturbed the end of a church service claiming to have received visions from God, and to deliver their message abolishing the Sabbath, tithes, magistrates, and ministers, and even the Bible – which one soldier then burned a copy of in the churchyard. They really were the Sex Pistols of the English Reformation! Professor Claire Jowitt has done some wonderful research showing clear evidence of mystical Judaism in his ideas and spirituality at this point – and that of many of the other radical groups and individuals bouncing around the republic.
In April 1649, the first Digger commune was established on the common land near St George’s Hill in Weybridge; Winstanley later claiming that he heard the words: ‘Worke together. Eat bread together’ while in a trance. The commune sparked immediate concern amongst local landowners that their enclosures would be pulled down, with one writing “It is feared they have some design in hand.”
Winstanley and Everard and thirteen other Digger leaders released the pamphlet The True Levellers Standard Advanced in response. Thomas Fairfax – who must have already known Everard by this point – interviewed him and Winstanley at the urging of the local landowners on 20th April 1649.
Everard and Winstanley refused point blank to remove their hats in front of Fairfax, and it was Everard who acted as the group’s spokesman with the general, declaring that he: ‘was of the race of Jews; that all the liberties of the people were lost by the coming in of William the Conqueror, and that ever since, the people of God had lived under tyranny and oppression worse than that of our forefathers under the Egyptians.’ He justified the Digger actions by claiming a vision had told him. ‘Arise and dig, and plow the Earth and receive the fruits thereof.’
Despite their obvious sedition, Fairfax decided that the Diggers were essentially harmless rather than revolutionary, and told the local landowners to take it to the courts. By now Everard’s reputation had been shredded in the newsbooks and pamphlets. He was accused of being ‘a madd man’ and claimed that he ‘termeth himself a prophett’
The Diggers abandoned St George’s Hill in August 1649 after being accused of being Ranters – a sexually liberated radical sect proscribed under the republic – and losing an ensuing court case. Everard seems to have already left the movement by this point. There were reports in the national press that he was involved in the army mutiny in Oxfordshire in May 1649, but this is now believed to be a case of mistaken identity with the agitator Robert Everard.
In August 1649 Everard appeared in Bradfield, Berkshire, where John Pordage was the rector. Pordage claimed Everard first appeared to him in the form of ‘a spirit’, but it is likely that the two were already associated through local Berkshire connections. A year later Everard certainly appeared in the flesh, disguised as a harvest worker, sparking havoc in Bradfield. On Sunday, 1 September, a thirteen-year-old boy called William Snelling recited mysterious verses proclaiming ‘the great Jehova’ probably at Everard’s instigation. A week later, Pordage went into a trance during a church service running about and ‘bellowing like a bull.’ It was believed that Everard, Pordage, and a local self-proclaimed prophet called Tawny were all involved, but most people blamed Everard as a ‘man suspected to be a Sorcerer or Witch’, and the ‘malefic presence in the parish’.
Shortly after this, at the end of September 1650, Everard was seen in a ‘frantick posture’ in London and the authorities once again arrested him at the start of October. This time it was decided that his visions were feigned and he was sent to Bridewell Prison as a charlatan on the orders of the Lord Mayor. His wife deperately tried to have him commited to Bedlam, but was unable initially to find the money to have him moved. He was still described as being ‘distracted’, and in the punishment book for Bridewel and Bethlem Hospital in December 1650: ‘many of Ranting Everard’s party are lunatick, and exceedingly distracted; they talk very high against the Parliament, and this present Government; for which some of them have received the lash’
By March 1651, it was realised that his mental breakdown was anything but feigned, and at Bridewell he was a danger to himself and others. He was finally moved to Bedlam on March 19th, but frustratingly yet again disappears from the historical record. He does not seem to have died in the hospital as no burial is recorded, and no release is mentioned. However, a William Everard was buried at St Katherine Cree, London, on 2 March 1659.
Of course, his enigmatic appearances and disappearances from the historic record are fertile ground for someone like me, but the real Everard was one of the most significant of the radicals of the 1640s, and should be remembered alongside Lilburne, Hampden, Winstanley and the rest. Although, I have always had a sneaking suspicion that there is something of the Agent Provocateur about him – I wonder how that will play out!