Posted by: Democratic Thinker | June 8, 2011

Kett’s Rebellion

Background of the American Revolution

No one can understand the foundations of the American nation without understanding their British ancestors’ long struggle for freedom against the feudal system brought upon them by their European conquerors.

Winning by inches, holding by clinches,
Slow to contention, but slower to quit,
Now and then failing, never once quailing,
Let us thank God for our Saxon grit!

—Robert Collyer, “Saxon Grit,”
Forefathers’ Day, December 22, 1879.

Kett’s Rebellion—headed by Robert Kett, a tanner, and William Kett, a butcher— during the year 1549 in Norfolk, was occasioned by the inclosure of the abbey lands, commons, and other waste grounds, whereby the poor were deprived of their ancient and prescriptive pasturages. Sixteen thousand men flocked around the leaders, and several skirmishes ensued, in which, at first, the rebels were victorious.

The Norfolk Commotion.
[Or, the Furor Norvicensis.]


THE intolerable tyranny of the feudal system, aggravated by the enclosure of common lands by those who obtained grants of ecclesiastical estates, at the suppression of monastries, drove the people of several of the English counties into open, though unconnected insurrection. The most formidable of these risings taking place in the county of Norfolk, local historians and ancient chroniclers have given it the distinctive appellation of ‘the Norfolk Commotion!’ The first outbreak, early in the summer of 1549, was merely a village riot, in which some fences were destroyed; but one Robert Kett, a tanner, an energetic man of rude and ready eloquence, taking the leadership, the number of insurgents increased so rapidly, that, in a few days, lie encamped on Mousehold Heath, about a mile from the city of Norwich, with a following of some twenty thousand men. Kett’s first duty in this position being to feed his forces, he, styling himself the king’s friend and deputy, issued warrants licensing ‘all men to provide and bring into the camp at Mousehold, all manner of cattle and provision of victuals in what place soever they may find the same, so that no violence or injury be done to any honest or poor man.’ Such was the effects of these warrants, that a fat sheep was sold in the camp for fourpence; and bullocks, deer, and other provisions at proportionate prices. Having thus provided for his commissariat, Kett drew up, in form of a petition to the king, a list of the grievances under which the populace laboured, praying for their immediate redress. His petition is remarkably suggestive of its period, when a great part of the agricultural population were in a state of serfdom, one item praying ‘that all bondsmen may be made free, for God made all free, with his precious blood-shedding.’ Strange to say, two of the grievances have been cause of complaint in our own day; namely, the great number of rabbits kept by large landed proprietors, and the differences in the size of the bushel measure in various localities.

While waiting the result of the petition, Kett maintained good order among his followers, daily holding a court and administering justice under the wide-spreading branches of a tree, named in consequence the Oak of Reformation. The reformed liturgy was read at the same place night and morning, by one of the vicars of Norwich, whom the insurgents had pressed into their service as chaplain; and other clergymen were not only invited to address them, but permitted to rebuke their rebellious conduct in the boldest manner.

The 20th of July 1649 was, for good or evil, the turning-point of the rebellion. On that day, the king’s reply to the petition was delivered to Kett, with all due formality, by the York herald. It was to the effect that a parliament would be called in the following October, to consider and redress the petitioners grievances; and that a general pardon would be granted to all, who should at once lay down their arms, and return to their respective homes. When York herald read the proclamation of pardon at the Oak of Reformation, some of the insurgents cried out, ‘God save the king!’ But Kett said, ‘Kings are won’t to pardon wicked persons, not just and innocent men!’ The herald then called Kett a traitor, and ordered his sword-bearer to arrest ‘that captain of mischief;’ but, the crowd beginning a great stir on every side, he was glad to depart in safety. The departure of the herald being considered tantamount to a declaration of war, the people of Norwich attempted to fortify and defend their city. But Kett attacking it with cannon, soon gained possession of it, leading the mayor and some of the principal inhabitants prisoners to the camp at Mousehold. And, with a grim kind of humour, the insurgents issued a mock-proclamation, stating such was their store of provisions, especially of fish, that a cod’s head could be sold, at the Oak of Reformation, for one half-penny—the name of the unfortunate mayor being Codd. But his imprisonment was of the lightest kind, and, indeed, it does not appear that the rebels put any one to death in cold blood. There was one person, however, a lawyer, who had the reputation of being able to raise spirits, with fearful signs and wonders. It is not clear what they would have done to him, on his hiding-place among thorns and briers being made known to them by a woman; but as they were hauling him with all reproach and contumely, he caused a tempest to arise, ‘mighty showers fell mixed with hail,’ and thus he made his escape.

It is uncertain how long this lawless state of affair had lasted, before government made a serious attempt to restore order. The dates given of the events connected with Kett’s rebellion, are exceedingly contradictory and confused. Early in August, the Marquis of Northampton, with Lord Sheffield, many knights, and 1500 men, arrived at Norwich, sent by the council to put down the rebellion. Kett did not dispute the entrance of the royal troops into the city, but attacked them the same night, when the wearied soldiers were reposing after their long march. He again attacked them in the following morning, when Lord Sheffield and a great number being killed, the remainder fled back to London, ‘hiding themselves in caves, groves, and woods by the way.’

The unexpected defeat of Northampton rendered the strongest measures necessary. An army, that had been prepared to march against Scotland, was lent, under the Earl of Warwick, to subdue the rebels in Norfolk. Warwick, entering Norwich, encamped his troops in the market-place; but Kett succeeded in capturing the royal ammunition and artillery. This loss compelled the earl to shut himself up in the city, and act on the defensive, while the rebels played upon him with his own artillery. At this juncture, Warwick’s officers, considering the city to be untenable, urged upon him the immediate necessity of his leaving it. To this the stout earl ‘valiantly answered, by God’a grace not to depart the city, but would deliver it or leave his life. With these words he drew his sword, as did also the rest of the nobles, who were all there gathered together, and commanded after a warlike manner—and, as is usually done in greatest danger—that they should kiss one another’s swords, making the sign of the holy cross, and by an oath, and solemn promise by word of mouth, every man to bind himself to other, not to depart from the city, before they had utterly banished the enemy, or else fighting manfully, had bestowed their lives cheerfully for the king’s majesty.’

A welcome reinforcement of 1400 German mercenaries, determined Warwick to attack the rebels in their strong position on Mousehold Heath. But the infatuated men did not wait for the attack. Relying on an ancient prophecy, which foretold that

‘The country gnoffes, Hob, Dick, and Hick,
With clubs and clouted shoon,
Shall fill the vale,
Of Dussinsdale,
With slaughtered bodies soon;
The heedless men, within the dale,
Shall there be slain both great and small’—

Kett left his vantage-ground upon the hill, and with twenty ensigns of war displayed, marched down into the vale. Warwick at once saw and embraced the opportunity offered by his enemy’s folly. In the battle which ensued, the insurgents were defeated with great slaughter. Two thousand of the insurgents were killed in Dussinsdale, and 1500 more were destroyed by Warwick’s cavalry, in the wild flight that followed. A few, barricading themselves among their carts and wagons, fought desperately; and Warwick, wishing to spare their lives, sent a herald to summon them to surrender. But they, drinking to one another, in sign of good-luck, vowed to spend their lives fighting manfully, rather than trust to fake promises of pardon. The earl, grieved, however, at the thought of so many brave men perishing, went to them himself, and pledged his honour that their lives would be spared. ‘Then every man laid down his weapons, and, as with one mouth cried: “God save King Edward !” ’

A great number were hanged on the Oak of Reformation. Kett was made prisoner, and conveyed to London, but was subsequently sent back to Norwich, and hanged alive in chains on the top of the castle. His brother William, a butcher, who had also taken a leading part in the insurrection, was hanged in the same barbarous manner on the steeple of Wymondham church. Yet the rebellion, thus fiercely trampled out, led to important results, which it is not our province but that of the historian to enumerate and explain.

—Robert Chambers (editor), The Book of Days (1832).

Related posts: