On July 8th 1549, only just over two years into the reign of the young Edward VI, a rebellion started in Norfolk, primarily as a response to enclosure of common land, to a large extent a result of the high demand for English wool, the farmers owning the sheep valuable sheep turning arable land into pastures for their sheep, as well as depriving peasant farmers of land where they could graze their own cattle.
The geographical starting point of the rebellion was Wymondham where the rebels went about destroying fences put up by landowners, one of which was the yeoman farmer Robert Kett, a tanner with extensive landholdings who had been prosecuted at the manorial court for putting up enclosure.
The prime target for the rebellion was however Sir John Flowerdew, who had earned the dislike of the population not only through enclosing land but also for having been the overseer of the demolition of Wymondham Abbey during the dissolution.
Flowerdew, however, sent them to another target; Robert Kett, no doubt without having even the slightest idea how that could possibly end.
Robert Kett, or Keet, a tanner with extensive landholdings who had been prosecuted in the manorial court of Wymondham for enclosing lands. It may have been that Robert Kett took the rebels a bit by surprise, but rather than being intimidated by them, he offered to be their leader.
Robert Kett was born in 1492, the son of the butcher and landowner Tom Kett and his wife Margery. In 1515 he had married Alice Appleyard who had born him five sons.
Even though Robert Kett most likely had a comfortable life, he in 1549 all of a sudden found himself heading a rebellion. Disturbances over the previous months – tearing down of fences – had most likely been committed in good faith as Edward Seymour, brother of the late queen and protector of the young king, had issued a proclamation against illegal enclosures.
The rebels, now under the leadership of Kett, marched on Norwich, making the “The oak of Reformation” on Mousehold Heath between Hethersett and Norwich their base and the oak itself a symbol for rebellion.
After movements around Norwich, where they were refused entry, they once again set up camp on Mousehold Heath and stayed there for the coming six and a half weeks.
Setting up headquarters in St. Michael´s Chapel – later, in its ruined form known as Kett´s Castle – Robert Kett formed a council consisting of representatives of the Hundreds of Norfolk* as well as a representative from Suffolk.
As days passed, people streamed to join the rebels, and the camp on Mousehold Heath eventually consisted of more people than the city of Norwich itself which at the time was the second-largest city in England with a population of 12 000 inhabitants, one number which is mentioned is 20 000 rebels, and allegedly even though having been a tanner and landowner, Kett was perfectly suited as a commander of disgruntled peasants.
A list of grievances was put together, signed by Kett himself, representatives of the Hundreds as well as the mayor of Norwich, Thomas Codd, the former mayor Thomas Aldrich and the preacher Robert Watson who all three had – as a part of the negotiations between the rebels and the city of Norwich – had accepted an invitation to be a part of the rebel´s council.
The list was to be presented to the Protector, Somerset.
- 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.
- 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.
- We pray your grace that no lord of no manor shall common upon the common.
- 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.
- 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.
- We pray that reed ground and meadow ground may be at such price as they were in the first year of King Henry VII.
- We pray that all bushels within your realm be of one stice, that is to say, to be in measure VIII gallons.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- We pray your grace to take all liberty of leet your own hands whereby all men may quietly enjoy their commons with all profits.
- 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.
- 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.
- We pray that all bond men may be made free, for God made all free with his precious bloodshedding.
- We pray that Rivers may be free and common to all men for fishing and passage.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- We pray that no manner of person having a manor of his own, shall be no other lord’s bailiff but only his own.
- We pray that no lord, knight, or gentleman shall have or take in form any spiritual promotion.
- 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.
- 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.
In the meantime, the city had sent messengers to London, and on July 21th the truce ended when a messenger from the King´s Council, the York Herald Bartholomew Butler arrived to offer the rebels a pardon. Robert Kett refused the pardon, stating that he, or the rebels, had not committed any crime and therefore needed no pardon.
This put the end to the, in the circumstances, so far amicable relationship between the men who were now officially declared rebels and the city of Norwich which now closed the city gates.
As it doesn´t seem to have been an option to disperse the camp, the rebels now decided to take the city, something which was necessary in order to keep the thousands of men that had gathered at the camp from starvation.
After a night of exchanged fire between the rebel camp and the city of Norwich, the rebels took control of it on July 22nd.
By the time the King sent the Marquess of Northampton (William Parr, brother of Katherine Parr, last Queen of Henry VIII) with his 1 500 men, including Italian mercenaries, Robert Kett had already realised the difficulties of defending the city against the King´s forces and had retreated to higher ground outside the city, preferring to besiege it instead.
In the night between July 31st and August 1st fighting began between the rebels and the King´s army led by Northampton, but fighting in the streets of a city was not to the advantage of a trained army, and after having a senior commander, Lord Sheffield, bludgeoned to death by one of the rebels, Northampton and his troops retreated as far as Cambridge.
By August 24th the Earl of Warwick – John Dudley, who within just a few years would be in deep trouble and executed himself – had arrived with an army consisting of about 14 000 men, among which were mercenaries from Wales, Spain and Germany. It´s impossible to know what went through the heads of the rebels in the face of this increased force, but it´s clear that they weren´t prepared to abandon Kett or their cause, and fighting continued.
In the night between the 24th and the 25th, the rebels who once again had entered Norwich burnt the city.
On the 26th more 1 500 more German mercenaries arrived, and the King´s army could no longer hide in the city. The final, and for the rebels devastating, battle took place on the 27th, seeing thousands of rebels killed and the rest running for their lives.
According to sources 3 000 rebels lay dead after the battle while Warwick had lost around 200 men.
Robert Kett was captured at the village of Swannington and his brother, who had joined the rising was brought to the Tower. After having been found guilty of treason, Robert Kett was hanged from the walls of Norwich Castle in December that same year while his brother was hanged from the west tower of Wymondham Abbey.
“Warwyke was sent thyther wt ye kynges power, who did so handell the matter yt aboute the
begynnynge of September, bartellmewtyd, he ouer came them, & toke ther capitayn, called
Keet ye tanner, whome he sent to London to ye kynge, by whos commaundement ye same Keet was broughte throughe London ye last of September, & wt hym a brother of hys also, wh. were both broughte vnto ye Tower.
ffor ye which offence ye sayd Keet ye tanner was hanged vppon ye toppe of ye castell of Norwytche, and his brother also.”
Kett´s Rebellion, the Norfolk rising of 1549 – S.K Land
Robert Kett and the Norfolk rising – Joseph Clayton
‘A London Chronicle: Edward VI’, in Two London Chronicles From the Collections of John Stow, ed. Charles Lethbridge Kingsford (London, 1910), pp. 17-27. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/camden-misc/vol12/no1/pp17-27 [accessed 9 July 2016].
*Norfolk was from Anglo-Saxon times to the 19th century divided into hundreds for administrative purposes.