Robert Kett, the fourth son of Tom and Margery Kett, was born in Wymondham, near Norwich in 1492. His father was a butcher and landowner. Little is known of Kett's early life. He lived in the village as a tanner: According to his biographer, John Walter: "Tanning was a trade that could require a significant level of investment; Tudor chroniclers suggested that his moveable property was worth 1000 marks (about £670). Kett also had extensive landholdings, including manorial interests, at Wymondham, in whose manorial court he was prosecuted for enclosing lands, which were said to be worth £50 a year." Kett married Alice Appleyard in about 1515 and she had up to five sons. (1)
During the early part of the 16th century large numbers of farmers changed from growing crops to raising sheep. This involved enclosing arable land and turning it into pasture for sheep. Sheep farming became so profitable that large landowners began to enclose common land. For hundreds of years this land had been used by all the people who lived in the village. Many people became very angry about this and villagers began tearing down the hedges that had been used to enclose the common land. (2)
Thomas Cromwell attempted to deal with the problem by attempting to limit the number of sheep which owners were allowed to keep, but this had little impact on the situation. In March 1549 the House of Commons passed a Bill which imposed a poll tax upon sheep, on the assumption that farmers would hardly convert their land from arable to pasture if, by so doing, they made themselves liable to heavy taxation." (3)
Popular rebellions and riots began to take place all over the country. Some of those involved demonstrated against the religious reforms brought in by the government of Edward VI. However, Edward was only eleven years old and it was Edward Seymour, the Duke of Somerset, who mainly got the blame for these changes: "The new vernacular liturgy contained in the Book of Common Prayer was the most evident grievance of the Cornish rebels, but the other religious changes of recent years and opposition to enclosures were also important. Revolt began in Cornwall in April 1548 when the clergy and commoners resisted the removal of religious images from parish churches and killed a government official, while in Somerset weavers and other commoners pulled down hedges and fences." (4)
On 11th April 1549, the Duke of Somerset, he proclaimed that landlords would be forced to take down hedges and fences enclosing the land. (5) On 14th June, he persuaded the young king to pardoned all those people who had torn down hedges enclosing common land. Many landless people thought that this meant that their king disapproved of enclosures. All over the country people began to destroy hedges that landowners had used to enclose common land. As Roger Lockyer, the author of Tudor and Stuart Britain (1985), pointed out: "Somerset's championship of the common people won him their acclaim. It also promoted them to demonstrations which were designed to show their support for him, but which quickly developed into massive protest movements that no government could have tolerated or ignored." (6)
In July 1549 rebellion broke out in Norfolk. The rising began with an attack on recent local enclosers. This included those put up by Robert Kett. (7) However, he admitted that he had been wrong to enclose the common land. Kett also agreed to help the protesters persuade other landowners from enclosing public land. As Kett was a well-educated man, the crowd asked him to become their leader. (8)
The Kett Rebellion grew rapidly and a gathering of about 16,000 camped at Mousehold Heath just outside the walls of Norwich. It has been suggested that the people had rebelled for a variety of reasons and that as well as enclosures they were "also aggrieved by rack-renting, by the rise in food prices, by a steady erosion of tenant rights". (9)
Kett drew up a list of demands that included the no lord of the manor should be able to exploit common land and that private jurisdictions should be abolished. "Their demands in general are clear evidence of a belief in the ancient and traditional ways of the countryside; the rebels were not innovators but conservators, protesting against the encroachments of a free market, the rapacity of newly rich landlords, and the steady depreciation in the value of money." (10)
It has been argued that the rebellion was the closest thing Tudor England saw to a class war. (11) Kett formed a governing council made up of representatives from the villages that had joined the revolt. It was a remarkable demonstration of self-government. He was said to have dispensed justice beneath a tree, which came to be called the "oak of reformation", on both disorderly followers and unpopular local landowners who were charged with robbing the poor and imprisoned. (12)
The elected council then sent details of their demands to Edward VI and his government. Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, responded by calling for the rebels to abandon their protests and to return peacefully to their homes. He offered them a free pardon if they did so but warned them he would use force if they refused. Dale Hoak has described it as the "sixteenth-century England's greatest crisis". (13)
The government at first responded in a conciliatory manner, offering a pardon to all who would disperse peacefully. This was rejected on 21st July and the rebels decided to enter Norwich. The mayor refused to allowed them to enter and so Kett's army, armed with spears, swords and pitchforks, successfully stormed the city walls. The English government were shocked when they heard that Kett and his rebels controlled the second largest city in England. It has been claimed that Kett was convinced that his actions were not only morally justified but also lawful. (14)
A force of about 1,400 men under the command of William Parr, 1st Marquess of Northampton, was sent to restore order but was defeated and had to abandon the city. (15) In August 1549, the Duke of Somerset sent John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, and an army of 12,000 English troops and 1,200 German mercenaries. Norwich was surrounded and Kett was ordered to surrender. One of the rebels lowered his hose and tauntingly bared his backside. An archer, with "commendable accuracy, shot an arrow into his rump." (16)
Warwick eventually seized Norwich after several days of fierce street fighting. He then encircled Kett's camp at Mousehold Heath. Kett gave the order to move out rather than face starvation. Warwick now sent in his cavalry in among the rebels and turned their retreat into a rout in which an estimated 3,000 men were slaughtered. (17) Kett was captured the day after the battle. By early September he and his brother William Kett were prisoners in the Tower of London. (18)
Seymour wrote to a friend in Italy: "Kett fled, and the rest of the rebels, casting away their weapons and armour and asking pardon on their knees... were sent home without injury and pardoned... Kett, with three other chief captains, all vile persons... are still held to receive that which they have deserved... We trust, truly, that these rebellions are now at an end." (19)
A special commission was set up to deal with the prisoners, of whom forty-nine were executed. The Norfolk gentry who had been terrified by the class character of the rising called for a wholesale slaughter and not even Warwick's brutality could satisfy them. John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, pointed out that the rebels were the source of all their wealth, asking, "Will ye be ploughmen and harrow your own land?" (20)
Robert Kett, twice refused a pardon on the grounds that he had done nothing that needed pardoning. (21) Kett was sent to London and was found guilty of treason and was hanged at Norwich Castle. (22) "Whatever sympathy Somerset might have felt for the Norfolk peasants, he behaved like any other Tudor ruler when it came to dealing with rebels." (23)
Afterwards it was claimed that the Kett Rebellion might have been a Catholic Plot linked to Princess Mary. It has also been suggested that the Earl of Warwick might have been involved in a conspiracy with Kett in an attempt to bring down Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset. "Kett had been Dudley's tenant, and rumours have survived of an intrigue between the men to bring down the protector. The treasurer of the army, in particular, had been sending money to Kett.... But the principal participants, if such they were, have successfully covered any tracks they might have made. All is dark and uncertain. We may chronicle the larger movements of the time but the private deeds remain invisible. We may see dark shapes and outlines - the smiler with the knife under the cloak, the intriguer with the open purse - but we can conclude nothing." (24)
A. L. Morton, the author of A People's History of England (1938) argues that though the Kett Rebellion was suppressed, it did have an impact on the future of England: "It helped to stay the progress of the enclosures and to give East Anglia the predominantly peasant character which it long preserved and which made it a stronghold for parliament and the most advanced section of the New Model Army in the Civil War." (25)
Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, was criticised by the way he had dealt with the rebellion. William Paget wrote to Somerset about the way he had dealt with the crisis. He admitted that "there was never man that had the hearts of the poor as you have!" However, the way he had dealt with the uprising had given both occasion and boldness to strike. In doing so he had betrayed the governing class. He told him that he should concentrate his efforts on the "conservation and state of the realm." Paget then suggests that Somerset should bring an end to his programme of religious reform. Although the "old religion is forbidden by a law... the new religion is not yet printed in the stomachs of the eleven of twelve parts of the realm". (26)
Peter Ackroyd agues that the Kett Rebellion helped to bring about the fall of the Duke of Somerset: "The rebellions may have been crushed, but their ubiquity demoralized the government of the protector. He had acted in an inconsistent manner, at one moment trying to ease their discontents while at another relying upon naked force to suppress them; he had attempted both conciliation and violence, so gaining a reputation for both weakness and brutality." (27)
In 1949 a plaque was placed at the scene of the executions in Norwich: "In reparation and honour to a notable and courageous leader in the long struggle of the common people of England to escape from a servile life into the freedom of just conditions." In 1999 a memorial was established in Wymondham that recognised Kett's attempt to create a "fairer society".
The greatest test of Somerset's capacity for leadership came from a series of popular rebellions and riots that began in Cornwall in 1548 and spread through more than half the counties of England the next year. Somerset was faced by nothing less than the most extensive English risings of the sixteenth century. The western rising affected Cornwall, Devon, and Somerset, where conservative Henrician clergy with support from the gentry and commons resisted Somerset's religious programme. The new vernacular liturgy contained in the Book of Common Prayer was the most evident grievance of the Cornish rebels, but the other religious changes of recent years and opposition to enclosures were also important. Revolt began in Cornwall in April 1548 when the clergy and commoners resisted the removal of religious images from parish churches and killed a government official, while in Somerset weavers and other commoners pulled down hedges and fences. When the mayor and leaders of Exeter refused to ally with the rebels of Devon in June 1549 that city was besieged. Pacification required a substantial military force, but Somerset responded only after delays that frustrated other councillors, especially John, Baron Russell, who assumed command of the army sent to relieve Exeter in July. But not until the middle of August was the western rising crushed.
The Norfolk insurgents had assembled first at Wymondham, where they called on Robert Kett, a local landowner, to be their head. They then advanced on Norwich, throwing down fences as they went, and set up their camp to the north of the city, on Mousehold Heath. By the end of July they had made themselves masters of Norwich, but the bulk of the rebel forces remained in the camp, where Kett, with the help of an elected council, kept good order and discipline. It was a remarkable demonstration of self-government, and it showed the quality of the rebels. They were not a motiveless rabble but a company of small farmers, peasant cultivators, gathered together in defence of what they regarded as their traditional rights.
The main grievance of the rebels, as shown in the articles they drew up, was the excessive number of sheep being pastured by the landowners. Much of the country was well suited to sheep-farming, and the peasants, who had little land of their own, were dependent upon their right of common pasture. A few sheep could make a big difference to a man's income, and when a lord increased the number of animals he turned out to graze he threatened the peasants' livelihood - hence the demand `that no lord of no manor shall common [i.e. put his sheep to pasture] upon the commons'. Inflated rents were another grievance, as was shown in the request `that copyhold land that is unreasonably rented may go as it did in the first year of King Henry VII, and that at the death of a tenant or sale the same lands... be charged with an easy fine, [such] as a capon or a reasonable sum of money'.
Significantly absent from the list of grievances was any demand for a return to the old ways in religion. The rebels used the new Prayer Book for public services, and among those who were summoned to preach to the thousands assembled on Mousehold Heath was Matthew Parker, the future Archbishop. Moreover, one of the articles in the Norfolk list pointed in a very radical direction by suggesting that any priest who was `not able to preach and set forth the word of God to his parishioners may be thereby put from his benefice, and the parishioners there to choose another, or else the patron or lord of the town'.
Kett and his followers were convinced - much as Robert Aske and the "Pilgrims" had been twelve years earlier - that their action was not only morally justified but also lawful, and that they would therefore win the approval of the government. But Somerset was alarmed at the evidence of a widespread breakdown of public order throughout the kingdom and called on the Norfolk men to abandon their violent protest and return peacefully to their homes. He offered them a free pardon if they did so, but warned them that if they did not accept his offer he would use force. Somerset had already sent a detachment of mercenaries to William Parr, Marquess of Northampton, with instructions that he should use them as he thought fit, but Northampton's half-hearted attempt to capture Norwich was easily beaten off. By this time, however, John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, had returned from the west country, and he raised an army of some twelve thousand men - a mixture of mercenaries and local levies. In late August he seized Norwich, after several days of fierce street fighting. He then turned on the encampment at Mousehold Heath and encircled it. Kett gave the order to move out rather than face starvation, but this merely provided Warwick with the opportunity he was looking for. He sent his cavalry in among the rebels and turned their retreat into a rout in which many hundreds of them were slaughtered.
The rebellion was now all but over. A special commission was set up to deal with the prisoners, of whom forty-nine were executed. Kett and his brother William were sent up to London to be tried on a charge of treason. They were then returned to Norfolk to be executed. Kett was hanged at Norwich castle. His brother was strung up from the steeple of Wymondham church. Whatever sympathy Somerset might have felt for the Norfolk peasants, he behaved like any other Tudor.
1. We pray your grace that where it is enacted for enclosing that it be not hurtful to such as have enclosed saffron grounds for they be greatly chargeable to them, and that from henceforth no man shall enclose any more.
2. We certify your grace that whereas the lords of the manors have been charged with certain free rent, the same lords have sought means to charge the freeholders to pay the same rent, contrary to right.
3. We pray your grace that no lord of no manor shall common upon the common.
4. We pray that priests from henceforth shall purchase no lands neither free nor bond, and the lands that they have in possession may be letten to temporal men, as they were in the first year of the reign of King Henry VII.
5. We pray that all the marshes that are held of the king’s majesty by free rent or of any other, may be at such price as they were in the first year of King Henry VII.
6. We pray that reed ground and meadow ground may be at such price as they were in the first year of King Henry VII.
7. We pray that all bushels within your realm be of one stice, that is to say, to be in measure VIII gallons.
8. We pray that priests or vicars that be not able to preach and set forth the word of God to his parishioners may be thereby put from his benefice, and the parishioners there to choose another or else patron or lord of the town.
9. We pray that the payments of castle ward rent, blanch farm, and office lands, which hath been accustomed to be gathered of the tenements, whereas we suppose the lords ought to pay the same to their bailiffs for their rents gathering, and not the tenants.
10. We pray that no man under the degree of a knight or esquire keep a dove house, except it hath been of an old ancient custom.
11. We pray that all freeholders and copyholders may take the profits of all commons, and there to common, and the lords not to common nor take profits of the same.
12. We pray that no feodary within your shores shall be a counselor to any man in his office making, whereby the king may be truly served, so that a man being of good conscience may be yearly chosen to the same office by the commons of the same shire.
13. We pray your grace to take all liberty of leet your own hands whereby all men may quietly enjoy their commons with all profits.
14. We pray that copyhold land that is unreasonable rented may go as it did in the first year of King Henry VII. And that at the death of a tenant, or of a sale the same lands to be charged with an easy fine as a capon or a reasonable sum of money for a remembrance.
15. We pray that no priest shall hold no other office to any man of honour or worship, but only to be resident upon their benefices, whereby their parishioners may be instructed within the laws of God.
16. We pray that all bond men may be made free, for God made all free with his precious bloodshedding.
17. We pray that Rivers may be free and common to all men for fishing and passage.
18. We pray that no man shall be put by your Feudatory to find any office, unless he holdeth of your grace in chief, or capite above 10 by year.
19. We pray that the poor mariners or fishermen may have the whole profits of their fishings such as porpoises, grampuses, whales, or any great fish so it be not prejudicial to your grace.
20. We pray that every proprietary parson or vicar having a benefice of 10 or more by year, shall either by themselves, or by some other person teach poor men’s children of their parish the book called the catechism and the primer.
21. We pray that it be not lawful to the lords of any manor to purchase lands freely, (i.e. that are freehold), and to let them out again by copy or court roll to their great advancement, and to the undoing of your poor subjects.
22. We pray that no proprietary parson or vicar, in consideration of avoiding trouble and lawsuit between them and their poor parishioners, which they daily do proceed and attempt, shall from henceforth take for the full contents of all the tenths which now they do receive, but 8.
23. We pray that no lord, knight, esquire, nor gentlemen do graze nor feed any bullocks or sheep if he may spend forty pounds a year by his lands but only for the provision of his house.
24. We pray that no man under the degree of [word missing] shall keep any conies [= rabbits] upon any freehold or copyhold unless he pale them in so that it shall not be to the commons’ annoyance.
25. We pray that no person of what estate degree or condition he be shall from henceforth sell the awardship of any child, but that the same child if he live to his full age shall be at his own choosing concerning his marriage the King’s wards only except.
26. We pray that no manner of person having a manor of his own, shall be no other lord’s bailiff but only his own.
27. We pray that no lord, knight, or gentleman shall have or take in form any spiritual promotion.
28. We pray your grace to give license and authority by your gracious commission under your great seal to such commissioners as your poor commons have chosen, or to as many of them as your majesty and your counsel shall appoint and think meet, for to redress and reform all such good laws, statues, proclamations and all other your proceedings; which hath been hidden by your Justices of your peace, Sheriff, Feudatories, and other your officers, from your poor commons, since the first year of the reign of your noble grandfather King Henry VII.
29. We pray that those your officers, which have offended your grace and your commons, and [are] so proved by the complaint of your poor commons, do give unto these poor men so assembled 4d. every day so long as they have remained there.
Kett fled, and the rest of the rebels, casting away their weapons and armour and asking pardon on their knees... were sent home without injury and pardoned... Kett, with three other chief captains, all vile persons... are still held to receive that which they have deserved... We trust, truly, that these rebellions are now at an end.
There were perhaps 3000 peasant casualties in the battle of Dussindale, and many were taken prisoner. Forty-nine were hanged at Norwich, and others were perhaps executed elsewhere. Robert Ket, who had twice refused a pardon on the grounds that he had done nothing that needed pardoning, was captured after the battle and subsequently convicted of treason. His body was hung in chains outside Norwich city gates, and his brother William was hanged from Wymondham steeple...
A list of forty-seven rebels includes seventeen husbandmen, two labourers, and an assortment of tradesmen and artisans. The general impression is that the rising was a protest by the Norfolk peasantry, supported by townsmen from Norwich and Yarmouth. It was conducted by the insurgents (until the final bloody suppression) without savagery.
On 22 July Norwich was taken and shortly after a force of 1,200 men under the Marquis of Northampton was routed. The government prepared a great army of 12,000, under the Earl of Warwick, known later as the Duke of Northumberland, a capable general and perhaps the greatest scoundrel who ever governed England. After a battle lasting two days Warwick's German cavalry broke the peasants and Kett and his brother rode out of the battle, leaving his followers to shift for themselves. The remnant of the rebels drew together behind a barricade of waggons and held out so stoutly that they secured a personal undertaking of safety from Warwick before laying down their arms.
The Ketts were pursued, taken and hanged, as were hundreds of others. The Norfolk gentry who had been terrified at the openly class character of the rising clamoured for a wholesale slaughter and not even Warwick's brutality could satisfy them. The chronicle which tells the story of the revolt says that he was forced to remind them that the rebels were the source of all their wealth, asking pointedly, "Will ye be ploughmen and harrow your own land?"
Though suppressed, the rising had some striking results. It helped to stay the progress of the enclosures and to give East Anglia the predominantly peasant character which it long preserved and which made it a stronghold for parliament and the most advanced section of the New Model Army in the Civil War. Its immediate effect was to bring about the fall of the government of the Protector Somerset, an aristocratic demagogue who had shown himself inclined to treat with the rebels rather than to suppress them, and whom the nobles suspected of wishing to halt the enclosures.
Kett had taken refuge in a barn some 8 miles away, but here he was found and taken prisoner. He was returned under armed guard on the following day to Norwich, where 300 of the recalcitrant rebels were hanged. Kett himself, after a trial in London, was eventually hanged in chains from the wall of Norwich Castle....
At the time, however, the verdict upon him was more ambiguous. Kett had been Dudley's tenant, and rumours have survived of an intrigue between the men to bring down the protector. The treasurer of the army, in particular, had been sending money to Kett. It has been rumoured that Lady Mary had also been party to the plot. But the principal participants, if such they were, have successfully covered any tracks they might have made. All is dark and uncertain. We may chronicle the larger movements of the time but the private deeds remain invisible. We may see dark shapes and outlines - the smiler with the knife under the cloak, the intriguer with the open purse - but we can conclude nothing.
The rebellions may have been crushed, but their ubiquity demoralized the government of the protector. He had acted in an inconsistent manner, at one moment trying to ease their discontents while at another relying upon naked force to suppress them; he had attempted both conciliation and violence, so gaining a reputation for both weakness and brutality. But if it was clear that the response of Somerset and his colleagues was confused, it is also evident that the local administrations of both Devon and Norfolk were weak and uncertain. It did not help that the great magnate of East Anglia, the duke of Norfolk, had been confined in the Tower since 1546 on the charge of high treason. It is perhaps significant that Lady Mary, the largest landowner in Norfolk, seems to have done nothing to arrest the disorder.
In reparation and honour to a notable and courageous leader in the long struggle of the common people of England to escape from a servile life into the freedom of just conditions.