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Kett's Rebellion was a revolt in Norfolk, England during the reign of Edward VI, largely in response to the enclosure of land. It began at Wymondham on 8 July 1549 with a group of rebels destroying fences that had been put up by wealthy landowners. One of their targets was yeoman farmer Robert Kett who, instead of resisting the rebels, agreed to their demands and offered to lead them. Kett and his forces, joined by recruits from Norwich and the surrounding countryside and numbering some 16,000, set up camp on Mousehold Heath to the north-east of the city on 12 July. The rebels stormed Norwich on 21 July and on 1 August defeated a force led by the Marquess of Northampton that had been sent by the government to suppress the uprising. Kett's rebellion ended on 27 August when the rebels were defeated by an army under the leadership of the Earl of Warwick at the Battle of Dussindale. Kett was captured, held in the Tower of London, tried for treason, and hanged from Norwich Castle on 7 December 1549.
The 1540s saw a crisis in agriculture in England. With the majority of the population depending on the land, this led to outbreaks of unrest across the country. Kett's rebellion in Norfolk was the most serious of these. The main grievance of the rioters was enclosure, the fencing-off of common land by landlords for their own use. Enclosure left peasants with nowhere to graze their animals. Some landowners were forcing tenants off their farms so that they could engross their holdings and convert arable land into pasture for sheep, which had become more profitable as demand for wool increased. Inflation, unemployment, rising rents and declining wages added to the hardships faced by the common people. As one historian put it, they "could scarcely doubt that the state had been taken over by a breed of men whose policy was to rob the poor for the benefit of the rich".
Kett's rebellion, or "the commotion time" as it was also called in Norfolk, began in July 1549 in the small market town of Wymondham, nearly ten miles south-west of Norwich. The previous month there had been a minor disturbance at the nearby town of Attleborough where fences, built by the lord of the manor to enclose common lands, were torn down. The rioters thought they were acting legally, since the king had issued a proclamation against illegal enclosures. Wymondham held its annual feast on the weekend of 6 July 1549 and a play in honour of St Thomas Becket, the co-patron of Wymondham Abbey, was performed. This celebration was illegal, as Henry VIII had decreed in 1538 that the name of Thomas Becket should be removed from the church calendar. On the Monday, when the feast was over, a group of people set off to the villages of Morley St. Botolph and Hethersett to tear down hedges and fences. One of their first targets was Sir John Flowerdew, a lawyer and landowner at Hethersett who was unpopular for his role as overseer of the demolition of Wymondham Abbey (part of which was the parish church) during the dissolution of the monasteries and for enclosing land. Flowerdew bribed the rioters to leave his enclosures alone and instead attack those of Robert Kett at Wymondham.
Kett was about 57 years old and was one of the wealthier farmers in Wymondham. The Ketts (also spelt Ket, Cat, Chat, or Knight) had been farming in Norfolk since the twelfth century. Kett was the son of Tom and Margery Kett and had several brothers, and clergyman Francis Kett was his nephew. Two or possibly three of Kett's brothers were dead by 1549, but his eldest brother William joined him in the rebellion. Kett's wife, Alice, and several sons are not recorded as having been involved in the rebellion. Kett had been prominent among the parishioners in saving their parish church when Wymondham Abbey was demolished and this had led to conflict with Flowerdew. Having listened to the rioters' grievances, Kett decided to join their cause and helped them tear down his own fences before taking them back to Hethersett where they destroyed Flowerdew's enclosures.
The following day, Tuesday 9 July, the protesters set off for Norwich. By now Kett was their leader and they were being joined by people from nearby towns and villages. A meeting point for the rebels was an oak tree on the road from Hethersett to Norwich. Known as Kett's Oak, it has been preserved by Norfolk County Council, and a new plaque was unveiled in 2006. The oak became a symbol of the rebellion when an oak tree on Mousehold Heath was made the centre of the rebel camp, but this "Oak of Reformation" no longer stands.
Kett and his followers camped for the night of 9 July at Bowthorpe, just west of Norwich. Here they were approached by the sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk, Sir Edmund Wyndham, who ordered them to disperse. The response was negative, and the sheriff retreated back to Norwich. Next the rebels were visited by the mayor of Norwich, Thomas Codd, who met a similar response. The following night the rebels camped at nearby Eaton Wood and then, having been refused permission to march through Norwich to reach Mousehold Heath north-east of the city, crossed the River Wensum at Hellesdon and spent the night at Drayton. On Friday 12 July the rebels reached Mousehold, where they had a vantage point overlooking Norwich, and set up the camp that was their base for the next six and a half weeks. The camp was the largest of several rebel camps that had appeared in East Anglia that summer. The rebels were known at the time as the "camp men" and the rebellion as the "camping tyme" or "commotion tyme".
Kett set up his headquarters in St Michael's Chapel, the ruins of which have since been known as Kett's Castle. Mount Surrey, a house built by the Earl of Surrey on the site of the despoiled St Leonard's Priory, had lain empty since the Earl's execution in 1547 and was used to hold Kett's prisoners. Kett's council, which consisted of representatives from the Hundreds of Norfolk and one representative from Suffolk met under the Oak of Reformation to administer the camp, issuing warrants to obtain provisions and arms and arrest members of the gentry. According to one source the Oak of Reformation was cut down by Norwich City Council in the 1960s to make way for a car park, although Reg Groves wrote in the 1940s that had already been destroyed. The camp was joined by workers and artisans from Norwich, and by people from the surrounding towns and villages, until it was larger than Norwich, at that time the second-largest city in England with a population of about 12,000. The city authorities, having sent messengers to London, remained in negotiation with the rebels and Mayor Thomas Codd, former Mayor Thomas Aldrich and preacher Robert Watson accepted the rebels' invitation to take part in their council.
Once the camp was established at Mousehold the rebels drew up a list of 29 grievances, signed by Kett, Codd, Aldrich and the representatives of the Hundreds, and sent it to Protector Somerset. The grievances have been described by one historian as a shopping-list of demands but which nevertheless have a strong logic underlying them, articulating "a desire to limit the power of the gentry, exclude them from the world of the village, constrain rapid economic change, prevent the overexploitation of communal resources, and remodel the values of the clergy". Although the rebels were all the while tearing down hedges and filling in ditches, only one of the 29 articles mentioned enclosure: "We pray your grace that where it is enacted for inclosyng that it be not hurtfull to suche as have enclosed saffren grounds for they be gretly chargeablye to them, and that from hensforth noman shall enclose any more". The exemption for saffron grounds has puzzled historians; one has suggested that it may have been a scribal error for "sovereign grounds", grounds that were the exclusive freehold property of their owners, while others have commented on the importance of saffron to local industry. The rebels also "pray[ed] that all bonde men may be made ffre for god made all ffre with his precious blode sheddyng." The rebels may have been articulating a grievance against the 1547 Act for the Punishment of Vagabonds, which made it legal to enslave a discharged servant who did not find a new master within three days, though they may also have been calling for the manumission of the thousands of Englishmen and women who were serfs. (In 1549, an Act Touching on the Punishment of Vagabonds and Other Idle Persons avoided the word "slave" but retained many of the harshest provisions of the 1547 Act.)
The truce between the city and the camp was ended on 21 July by a messenger from the King's Council, York Herald Bartholomew Butler, who arrived at Norwich from London, went with city officials to Mousehold, proclaimed the gathering a rebellion, and offered pardon. Kett rejected the offer, saying he had no need of a pardon because he had committed no treason. York Herald lacked the forces to arrest the rebels and retreated into Norwich with the Mayor. Kett and his followers were now officially rebels; the authorities therefore shut the city gates and set about preparing the city defences.
Kett was now left with a decision. He would not, probably could not, disperse the camp, but without access to the markets of Norwich, his people would starve. It was therefore decided to attack Norwich.
In the late evening of 21 July 1549, rebel artillery positioned on and beneath Mount Surrey, the heights opposite the Bishopsgate bridge, at the top of which now stands a memorial to the rebellion, opened fire. The bombardment and the response from the city's artillery entrenched next to the bridge and around the Cow Tower lasted through the night.
At first light on 22 July, Kett withdrew his artillery. The city defenders had repositioned six artillery pieces in the meadow behind the hospital (now the cricket ground of Norwich school) and were laying down such an accurate fire that the rebels feared the loss of all their guns. Under a flag of truce the rebels demanded access to the city, which the city authorities refused.
Kett's artillery, now on the slopes of Mousehold Heath, opened fire on the city. The guns in the hospital meadow could not reach far enough uphill to return the fire. At this point an assault began, ordered by Kett or perhaps by other rebel leaders. Thousands of rebels charged down from Mousehold and began swimming the Wensum between the Cow Tower and Bishops Gate. The city defenders fired volleys of arrows into the rebels as they crossed, but could not stop the attack. A running battle ensued. In the market square the York Herald tried to address the rebels, but as threats were made against him he fled in fear of his life. England's second city was in the hands of a rebel army.
The King sent the Marquess of Northampton with 1,500 men, including Italian mercenaries, to quash the rebellion. As he drew near to the city he sent forward his herald to demand the surrender of the city. The Deputy Mayor, Augustine Steward, responded. It was conveyed that the rebels had retreated back to the safety of the high ground overlooking the city. Kett had already seen how difficult it was to defend miles of walls and gates and had instead chosen to withdraw. It was much more prudent to allow Northampton's tiny army to defend the city while he again laid siege to it.
On the night of 31 July the Royal army made its defensive preparations and started patrolling the city's narrow streets. Around midnight alarms rang out, waking Northampton. It appeared hundreds of rebels were using the cover of darkness and their knowledge of the maze of small streets and alleys around Tombland to launch hit-and-run attacks on Royal troops. Lord Sheffield suggested constructing ramparts along the eastern side of the city, which was open to attack, and warned that the rebels were crossing the river around Bishopsgate with ease.
By 8 am the following morning, 1 August, the ramparts were strengthened between the Cow Tower and Bishopsgate, so Sheffield retired to The Maid's Head inn for breakfast. A little after this, Northampton received information that the rebels wished to discuss surrender and were gathering around the Pockthorpe gate. Sheffield went with the Herald to discuss this apparent good turn of events with the rebels. On arrival, Sheffield found no rebels at all. It appears to have been either a false rumour or a diversion, as at that point thousands of rebels again began crossing the River Wensum around Bishopsgate.
Northampton's main force was in the market place. As the attack developed, he fed men through the streets into a growing and vicious street battle across the whole eastern area of the city. Seeing things going the rebels' way, Sheffield took command of a body of cavalry and charged the rebels across the cathedral precinct, past St Martin at Place Church and into Bishopsgate Street. Outside the Great Hospital in Bishopsgate Street, Sheffield fell from his horse into a ditch. Expecting then to be captured and ransomed, as was the custom, he removed his helmet, only to be killed by a blow from a rebel, reputedly a butcher named Fulke.
With the loss of a senior commander and his army being broken up in street fighting, Northampton ordered a retreat. The retreat did not stop until the remnants of the Royal Army reached Cambridge. Somerset himself had judged the Norfolk "commotion" a minor affair, to be dealt with a small contingent of troops. Now, he blamed Northampton for tactical errors and poor leadership, while remaining undecided on how to proceed further.
The Earl of Warwick was then sent with a stronger army of around 14,000 men including mercenaries from Wales, Germany and Spain. Warwick had previously fought in France, was a former member of the House of Commons and subsequently the Privy Council, making him a strong leader. Despite the increased threat, the rebels were loyal to Kett throughout and continued to fight Warwick's men.
Northampton served as Warwick’s second-in-command in the second attempt to deal with the rebel host, this time with a much larger force. Northampton’s renewed appointment "gave Warwick the benefit of the former’s knowledge of conditions at Norwich and reaffirmed his judgment that the earlier debacle had not been entirely the result of Northampton’s mismanagement."
Warwick managed to enter the city on 24 August by attacking the St Stephen's and Brazen gates. The rebels retreated through the city, setting fire to houses as they went in an attempt to slow the Royal army's advance. About 3 pm Warwick's baggage train entered the city. It managed to get lost and rather than halting in the market place it continued through Tombland and straight down Bishopsgate Street towards the rebel army. A group of rebels saw the train from Mousehold and ran down into the city to capture it. Captain Drury led his men in an attempt to recapture the train, which included all the artillery. He managed to salvage some of the guns in yet another fierce fight around Bishopsgate.
At 10 pm that same night shouts of "fire" started. The rebels had entered the city and were burning it. Warwick was in the same trap as Northampton had been, surrounded inside a city in danger of being burnt to the ground.
At first light on 25 August the rebels changed tactics. Their artillery broke down the walls around the northern area of the city near the Magdalen and Pockthorpe gates. With the north of the city again in rebel hands, Warwick launched an attack. Bitter street fighting eventually cleared the city once again. The rebels bombarded the city throughout the day and night.
On 26 August, 1,500 foreign mercenaries arrived in the city. These were German "landsknechts", a mix of handgunners and pikemen. With these reinforcements and the townsfolk, Warwick now had an army so formidable it could no longer hide within the city. Kett and his people were aware of this, and that night they left their camp at Mousehold for lower ground in preparation for battle.
During the morning of 27 August, the armies faced each other outside the city. The final battle took place at Dussindale, and was a disaster for the rebels. In the open, against well-armed and trained troops, thousands were killed and the rest ran for their lives.
The location of Dussindale has never been established. The most popular theory is that the dale began in the vicinity of the Plumstead Road East allotments that swept into Valley Drive and into the present remnant of Mousehold, into the Long Valley and out into what is now Gertrude Road and the allotments. In Victorian times this area was known as 'Ketts Meadow'. The name Dussindale has been given to a recent housing development in nearby Thorpe St Andrew.
About 3,000 rebels are thought to have been killed at Dussindale, with Warwick's army losing some 250 men. The morning after the battle, 28 August, rebels were hanged at the Oak of Reformation and outside the Magdalen Gate. Estimates of the number vary from 30 to 300. Warwick had already executed 49 rebels when he had entered Norwich a few days before. There is only one attested incident in which the rebels had killed in cold blood: one of Northampton's Italian mercenaries had been hanged following his capture.
Kett was captured at the village of Swannington the night after the battle and taken, together with his brother William, to the Tower of London to await trial for treason. Found guilty, the brothers were returned to Norwich at the beginning of December. Kett was hanged from the walls of Norwich Castle on 7 December 1549; on the same day William was hanged from the west tower of Wymondham Abbey.
In 1550 the Norwich authorities decreed that in future 27 August should be a holiday to commemorate "the deliverance of the city" from Kett's Rebellion, and paid for lectures in the cathedral and parish churches on the sins of rebellion. This tradition continued for over a century.
The only known surviving eye-witness account of the rebellion, a manuscript by Nicholas Sotherton, son of a Norwich mayor, is hostile towards the rebels. So too is Alexander Neville's 1575 Latin history of the rebellion, De furoribus Norfolciensium. Neville was secretary to Matthew Parker, who had preached to Kett's followers under the Oak of Reformation on Mousehold, unsuccessfully appealing to them to disperse. In 1615 Neville's work was translated into English by Norfolk clergyman Richard Woods under the title Norfolke Furies and was reprinted throughout the following century. Kett's name was thus kept alive as a "reviled symbol of rustic violence". It was only in the 19th century that more sympathetic portrayals of the rebellion appeared in print and started the process that saw Kett transformed from traitor to folk hero. An anonymous work of 1843 was critical of Neville's account of the rebellion, and in 1859 clergyman Frederic Russell, who had unearthed new material in archives for his account of the rebellion, concluded that "though Kett is commonly considered a rebel, yet the cause he advocated is so just, that one cannot but feel he deserved a better name and a better fate".
In 1948 Alderman Fred Henderson, a former mayor of Norwich who had been imprisoned in the Castle for his part in the food riots of 1885, proposed a memorial to Kett. Originally hoping for a statue, he settled for a plaque on the walls of Norwich Castle engraved with his words and unveiled in 1949, 400 years after the rebellion. In the 21st century the death of Kett is still remembered by the people of Norwich. On 7 December 2011, the anniversary of his death, a memorial march by members of Norwich Occupy and Norwich Green Party took place and a wreath was laid by the gates of Norwich Castle.
After the rebellion the lands of Kett and his brother William were forfeited, although some of them were later restored to one of his sons. In the longer term the Kett family do not seem to have suffered from their association with the rebellion, but to have prospered in various parts of Norfolk. George Kett, a descendant of Kett's younger brother Thomas, moved to Cambridge and co-founded the architectural masonry company of Rattee & Kett. George Kett's son, also George, was mayor of Cambridge on three occasions and compiled a genealogy of the Kett family.
The rebellion is remembered in the names of schools, streets, pubs and a walking route in the Norwich and Wymondham area, including the Robert Kett Junior School in Wymondham, Dussindale Primary School in Norwich, the Robert Kett pub in Wymondham and Kett's Tavern in Norwich, and in a folk band, Lewis Garland and Kett's Rebellion, and a beer, Kett's Rebellion, by Woodforde's Brewery in Norwich.
Kett's rebellion has featured in novels, including Frederick H. Moore's Mistress Haselwode: A tale of the Reformation Oak (1876)), F.C. Tansley's For Kett and Countryside (1910), Jack Lindsay's The Great Oak (1949), Sylvia Haymon's children's story The Loyal Traitor (1965), and Margaret Callow's A Rebellious Oak (2012); plays, including George Colman Green's Kett the tanner (1909); and poetry, including Keith Chandler's collection Kett's Rebellion and Other Poems (1982). In 1988 British composer Malcolm Arnold produced the Robert Kett Overture (Opus 141), inspired by the rebellion.
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