Ignoring the populace has always been a dubious practice and in 1549 a series of small protests began, two of which erupted into major rebellions. The first began in Cornwall, where the people, who preferred Catholic Latin or Cornish to the enforced English they could not understand in church, invaded Devon and held Catholic services in Exeter Cathedral. This rebellion was brutally crushed in the village of Sampford Courtenay in Devon by the Duke of Somerset himself. The second uprising began at a summer fayre in Wymondham near Norwich and exploded into what has become known as ‘Kett’s Rebellion’.
The fuse for the rebellion was lit on 6 July 1549, when the annual summer fayre to celebrate the translation of St Thomas à Becket, whose chapel is in Wymondham, began. Two nights of merriment and festivities were planned and the revels were soon in full flow. Entertainment was put on, together with plays and pageants, there was food and drink in abundance and as the alcohol flowed among the locals, so did the talk. The conversation centred on their lot, the majority of which was decidedly bad. After two days of indulgence, groups formed among those people most aggrieved, and probably most addled, and they set off to destroy the enclosures and regain their common lands. One landowner whose enclosures were attacked was named John Flowerdew. To divert this mob away from his fields and those he had taken, Flowerdew paid the gang to go and pull down the enclosures that Robert Kett of Wymondham had erected. Little did he know that this 40 pence (a significant sum in those days) he paid to the mob was going to end up providing them with an inspired leader. As the crowd approached Kett’s house they were met by the tanner, and when they started to tear down his fences, to their amazement he joined in. Once the task was completed, Kett found a vantage point on his property and spoke to the crowd assembled before him. It is not clear exactly what Kett said to them, but what is certain is that he was offering up himself as their leader. The words must have been both influential and charismatic, because the offer was one that the disorganised mob were happy to accept. With Kett now duly instated as the official leader, the mob returned to Flowerdew’s lands and pulled the rest of his enclosures down.
The next day, 9 July 1549, Kett addressed a crowd that had assembled under an oak tree on Wymondham Common, close to the main road from Thetford to Norwich. Here Kett is reputed to have made another rousing speech, which apparently included the lines, ‘I refuse not to sacrifice my substance, yea my very life itself, so highly do I esteem the cause in which we are engaged.’ Whatever the other contents of the speech were, they clearly inspired the crowd, which now rose to a man and followed Kett on the road to Norwich. It seems, given the ease with which he was able to lead the peasants, that from the outset Kett had a clear vision of what he wanted to achieve; this was nothing more revolutionary than a fair system of government for all, where the people were able to farm their lands without the constant threat of the landowners disrupting or ruining their lives. Maybe Kett was preaching to the converted and he just happened to be the man in the right place at the right time and that is why the commoners followed him. Yet the way in which he continued to lead this growing army of people suggests that he was a fair-minded man, with great charisma and tenacity. As Kett marched on Norwich to deal with the corrupt hierarchy of Norfolk society, his ranks swelled with folk from every walk of life: not just country folk, but urban people from Lynn and Yarmouth. They ranged from stonemasons to rat-catchers and from tailors to butchers, clearly showing that it was not just agriculturally based people who were concerned with the unjust power that the gentry and nobility now wielded. On 12 July this peasant army reached Mousehold Heath. This was an area of land that Kett already had knowledge of, for upon it stood a building called Mount Surrey, which was taken and made into Kett’s headquarters.
Mousehold Heath lies today, as it did in 1549, north-east of the city of Norwich and outside the city walls. This was the perfect place to encamp an army: Kett had a glorious view over the city below him, with the city walls, the cathedral and, most importantly, some of the gates and bridges clearly visible to him and his observers. From the records that remain, Kett was clearly a shrewd and capable man. He organised supplies for his army of followers, which by the end of July was estimated at being 20,000 strong. Kett first chose 2 in every 100 men to be administrators to assist in the organisation of the camp. Secondly he sent out commissioners with his official warrant, which he issued in the King’s name, to every country house to provide cattle, corn and all the necessary victuals to support his men. In addition to these ‘requested’ goods, many smaller farmers sent in additional goods in the forms of arms, ammunition and even money. In Norfolk, the gentry feared that their days of bounty had come to an end forever.
Once Kett had established his position on Mousehold Heath, it was clear that it would need something special to draw him down from such an advantageous position. Accordingly, messages were exchanged between the Mayor and his aldermen in Norwich with the regency in London and this resulted in the arrival of a royal herald on 21 July. The herald promised that all who went quietly home would receive a king’s pardon. The people, on hearing this, responded with cries of ‘God save the King’s majesty’, but Kett knew that this talk of pardon was for the rich and famous and those who had done ill. He responded that he and his men had done nothing amiss, other than the duties of a true subject. At this point the herald called upon the aldermen and the sword-bearer of Norwich to arrest Kett, but eight men and most of those elderly members of the town council against Kett’s 20,000 was not even worth considering and the aldermen retreated into Norwich.
Up to this point there had been civility in the proceedings, and the gates of Norwich had been kept open for all men, including Kett’s, to come and go as they pleased. The Mayor, by the name of Cow, now closed all of the gates and brought the city’s guns into the meadows by the river, aiming their barrels at Mousehold Heath. This was the opening move to a protracted siege that developed over the next five weeks into one of the most incredible periods of military activity ever seen in an English city.
Kett also had a number of cannon and he had already positioned these to cover the city walls and gates below the heath. Throughout the night there were constant exchanges of gunfire between the two batteries of cannon, but there was little damage caused to either side. The next morning some of the peasants attacked the city by swimming the river, while others scaled the walls and other groups attacked the closest gates. It was at Bishop’s Gate where the fighting was most fierce, but eventually the peasants broke in and within a short while were masters of the city. Seeing the situation, the royal herald again tried to intercede, but being ignored once more took his leave of the city. The Mayor and the aldermen were captured and taken to Mount Surrey, technically removing all lawfully constituted authority from Norwich, before being released unharmed and returned to the city.
The news that the royal herald carried back to London brought a swift response from the regency. The Marquess of Northampton, William Parr (brother to Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s last queen), was sent to Norwich with a small advance force of at least 1,400 men that included mounted gentry and some bill-armed levies, but the majority were Italian mercenaries. Northampton arrived in Norwich unopposed on 30 July, but within twenty-four hours his small expeditionary force was under attack. Northampton’s men managed to drive off the first peasant assault, and rested that night after a day’s hard fighting. But on 2 August a second assault by the peasants led to a vicious struggle on ‘Palace Plain’ north of the cathedral and west of the Bishop’s House. This bloody battle lasted for some hours, but eventually Kett’s men won the fight and, their morale shattered, Northampton and the remnants of his army fled the city. Norwich was once more under peasant control. When Somerset learned of Northampton’s rout, he was furious and by the second week of August, commissions were in place in all the shires around Norfolk for the raising of the levy. Meanwhile, Somerset, who had planned to lead the relief army to Norwich himself, stepped down and allowed the Earl of Warwick to take command. There appears to be no reason available for Somerset’s decision to step aside. One can speculate that at heart he may have had sympathy with the peasants’ cause or, more likely given his role as protector, that he feared to be away from the young king, considering the mood within the country.
Somerset arrived at Norwich on 23 August at the head of an army between 12,000 and 14,000 in number, but his cannon were some hours behind and the 1,200 Landsknechts were a further three days away. Warwick marched into the city and once more a herald was sent to offer pardon to the peasants. They reacted as before with cries of ‘God save King Edward’, but the matter was soured when a young boy, making offensive gestures at the herald, was shot dead by an archer from the herald’s escort. Cries of ‘treason’ rang from the crowd and they urged Kett not to negotiate further and not to desert them now. Kett told the herald that there could be no parley, and that he was retiring to Mousehold Heath to prepare for battle. On hearing the news, Warwick seized sixty men and had them hanged in the market place below the castle, ‘without hearing their cause’, and he sent forth a proclamation that there was a curfew, and any found out of doors would be dealt with in similar fashion. Warwick then discovered something that must have infuriated him even more: Kett’s men had captured all his cannon. In a case of unbelievable stupidity, the drivers of the artillery train had entered the city at Bennett’s Gate in the west, and travelled straight through the city, exiting by Bishop’s Gate in the east and directly into the waiting arms of Kett’s men.
Kett was now vastly superior in cannon to Warwick and set up the new cannon alongside his existing ordnance, trained upon the city below. Although Warwick cleared the city of rebels during the day of 24 August, they returned the same night, setting fire to Conisford Street, which burned for a whole day and would have spread to the entire city if heavy rains had not helped to put the flames out. Sunday 25 August was a black day for Norwich: some of the walls were beaten down, some of the gates were broken, fires raged throughout the city, troops were mustering in the open spaces and all the time the rebels prowled outside the shattered city walls. Monday 26 August brought hope to the city: the German mercenary Landsknechts arrived and on Mousehold Heath a great fire was burning. The rebels had fired their camp and were preparing for battle. The peasants had revived an old traditional song as they sat round their campfires on the heath, and some of its words were these:
The country gnoffees, Hob, Dick and Rick, with clubs and clouted shoon, Shall fill the vale, of Dussindale, with slaughtered bodies soon.
Believing these words as an omen of their certain victory, the peasant army repositioned themselves on the western end of Mousehold Heath ready to attack. Dussindale was at that time a small area of land between Mousehold Heath and Norwich, and is not to be confused with the modern Dussindale Drive, a further 2 miles or so east of the city.
Warwick feared that the English shire levies might find the fight against their kin too bitter to swallow and might even end up rebelling themselves, so he left his English troops in the city with orders to prevent the rebels from entering. He then left Norwich by the north gate of St Martin’s at Oak and marched east around its walls until he arrived at the foot of the heath, where he deployed his force. Before hostilities began, Warwick again offered a pardon to all who would disperse. This was the fourth time that a pardon had been offered, and once more it was rejected; the hangings in the city on Warwick’s first day in Norwich gave the peasants no confidence in the nobleman’s words.
From the army of 15,000 that Warwick now had at his disposal, he took all of his 1,200 Landsknecht foot; with these he would probably have had a further 500 Welsh bowmen and 500 Irish swordsmen to protect their flanks, giving him a total of 2,200 infantry. In addition, he took all of his cavalry with him, which in total, given the size of his army, would have been no less than another 1,500 men. These would have been a mixture of Reiters (heavy cavalry armed with sword and pistols), heavily armed gendarmes with lance and mace, and light cavalry armed with an assortment of spears, javelins and cross-bows. Against this highly trained and disciplined force, Kett had around 20,000 peasants armed with a variety of weapons, many of which would have been gained as a result of their earlier victories. But these peasants were not highly trained; it is unlikely that they were formed into cohesive units all armed with the same weapon. They were brave, fit men who knew how to fight in a guerrilla or ambush style, but not how to tackle a disciplined army in a prepared battle formation.
Kett had two advantages: first he had a vast superiority in numbers, and second he had overwhelming ordnance. Unfortunately, he did not bombard Warwick’s army for long enough before the headlong massed charge of his army began; the peasants were convinced that the song was right and this was their day of destiny. This may have been because the first cannon shot from the rebels is reported to have brought down the royal standard, indicating that it must have come perilously close to killing Warwick himself. Whether the peasants saw this as a sign that the day was to be theirs is pure conjecture, but from a morale point of view it must have made their spirits rise. Warwick, however, had chosen his position well. This area of gentle land was one of the few places where cavalry could manoeuvre. Ignoring the fact that the peasants had chained gentlemen prisoners to act as a human shield in front of them, the Landsknechts absorbed the peasants’ charge and then began to push them back. Warwick then unleashed his cavalry, which would have attacked from their usual positions on both flanks of the infantry. The Landsknechts began their steady advance but, despite losing 3,000 men, the peasants who had survived the initial mêlée regrouped on the slopes of Mousehold Heath to fight again. Cavalry could not charge uphill and Warwick was still heavily outnumbered. Apparently, at this position, Warwick offered a king’s pardon to the rebels for a fifth time, and this time it was accepted, thus preventing any further slaughter. Robert Kett fled the field but was soon captured at the village of Swannington, some eight miles to the north of Norwich, and was hanged from Norwich Castle on 7 December 1549.
There were countless small disturbances in the late 1540s and, to begin with, the Duke of Somerset supported the principles and views of those protesting, including Bishop Latimer. In May 1549 Somerset himself set forth a proclamation denouncing all enclosures, and as late as 14 June 1549 he issued a general pardon to those who had taken the law into their own hands in removing or destroying them. But Kett’s Rebellion was something different: it came only two weeks after a riot at Attleborough, and only four weeks after the start of the Cornish rising, and if word spread of these rebellions, who knew how long it would be before the whole of England was up in arms? Significantly, Kett’s Rebellion had resulted in his gaining power of the then second city in the kingdom in order to administer his own equitable justice, blatantly flaunting his ‘fair’ courts in the faces of the appointed officers of the Crown. Kett was to Edward VI, and the stability of the regency, a very real threat and a danger that could not be tolerated. Somerset therefore had no political choice but to do a complete U-turn in his policy and go against his own convictions for the sake of his position and his future. It is also most likely that he feared putting down the rebellion with just an English army: what if this army were to be as inspired by Kett as the other commoners had been? The risk was too great and the rebellion had to be swiftly crushed. It was surely for this reason that Somerset called for the Landsknechts to be the mainstay of his army for the battle to regain Norwich, and the destruction of Kett’s peasant army. Given Somerset’s actions, Kett’s Rebellion must go down in history as the most successful and the most dangerous peasant uprising the nobility of England ever faced.
Edward VI inherited a prosperous country, but one which had seen years of unchecked exploitation of the poor man by the landowning gentry. Vast areas of common lands had been enclosed and many arable fields had been turned into pasture for cattle and sheep. The well-known orator Hugh Latimer (former Bishop of Worcester) had openly spoken out against these increasing enclosures in his famous ‘Sermon of the Plough’. This sermon was delivered before the court of Edward VI, and in it he denounced the nobles and gentry of England and Wales as ‘enclosers, graziers and rent-raisers’. Enclosures still carried on unchecked and as the price of wool continued to rise, wool was the oil of the Middle Ages, more and more common land and arable fields were turned into sheep pasture. However, even the courts of law backed the gentry in cases throughout the Tudor, Elizabethan and even into the early Stuart periods, as the Stixwold case in 1603 testifies.
To be fair to Edward VI’s father, Henry VIII had ordered direct action to stop the spread of the enclosures: he limited the amount of sheep to 2,000 per farm; and after one landowner had flattened people’s houses, Henry VIII ordered him to rebuild them and to rehouse the people. But these ‘punishments’ against the nobles and gentry of England and Wales were few and far between. The result of these enclosures was to take away from the common man the ability to support himself. As small communities and farms disappeared, so did the infrastructure that surrounded them; the blacksmith, the tanner and the weaver all lost their livelihoods as the hamlets died. People began to starve and to migrate either to places where common land was still available, or to towns in search of work and a home. In all people there is a willingness to put up with a certain amount of injustice, but all of us also have a breaking point beyond which we are not prepared to go. The peasants only needed the right kind of charismatic leader who spoke the words they understood, and they would follow them so long as they believed things would improve, hence the number of spontaneous rebellions that erupted at times of particular hardship or injustice. All too often, though, after the rebellion had failed, the peasants were back where they started from, though fewer in number than when they began; as for the landowners, they simply kept on putting up enclosures and they continued to prosper.