From Traitor to Folk Hero

Robert Kett sitting under the oak of reformation, painting by Samuel Wale

Robert Kett sitting under the oak of reformation, by Samuel Wale (c. 1746)

Kett’s Rebellion was a revolt by thousands of peasants in Norfolk in response to the enclosures of the common land by the local landowners. Robert Kett who was himself a farmer of means became the leader of an army of about 20,000 farm workers which camped for 6 weeks outside Norfolk. In fact the “camp men” as they were called outnumbered the population of Norwich, the second largest city in England at that time. The rebellion was the most serious of a number of uprisings in Cornwall, Norfolk, Kent, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire that threatened the status quo in the 1540s during the reign of Henry VI.

The immediate issue that sparked the rebellion in Norfolk was the fencing of the common land that smallholders depended on to graze their animals, by the unpopular large landowners. Wealthy already, they were making themselves even richer by turning the stolen arable land into pasture for sheep which had become ever more profitable as the demand for wool increased. Rising rents and taxes, inflation, unemployment and declining wages all added to the hardships faced by the common people. The state, as they saw it, had been taken over by a breed of men whose policy was to rob the poor for the benefit of the rich.

On July 7 of 1549, after drinking plentifully at the annual fair in Wymondham, many of the locals pulled down the fences which had been put up to enclose the common land at nearby Morley. The following day they set off to do the same at another local village called Hethersett, their target being the fences put up by landowner John Flowerdew. Flowerdew pointed out that Kett had also fenced off land in Wymondham and offered cash to the crowd to pull down Kett’s fences instead.

Kett, a tanner by trade, surprised everyone by offering to help them to pull down his own fences and lead their protest. In a speech at his house, below the church in a meadow near the tan pits, he promised to subdue the power of great men and right the hurts done by “the importunate lords” to the common pastures.

“Whatever lands I have enclosed shall again be made common unto ye and all men and my own hand shall first perform it”, he declared. “Never shall I be wanting where your good is concerned. You shall have me if you will, not only as a companion, but as a captain, and in the doing of so great a work before us, not only as a fellow, but for a general standard bearer and chief”.

A server in the local abbey church, he had bought some land in 1540 which had belonged to the abbey after it had been dissolved in the previous year. His religious convictions meant he was outraged by the callous disregard of many large landowners for the plight of the poor commoners.

After pulling down his own fences, he and the crowd returned to uproot Flowerdew’s fences in Hethersett, where Kett urged his followers “to be of good comfort” and to follow him “in defence of their common liberty”.

Two days later, the crowd assembled again under an oak tree on the common outside Wymondham, where Kett roused them with the words, “I refuse not to sacrifice my substance, yea my very life itself, so highly do I esteem the cause in which we are engaged”.

Kett rallying the rebels on pub sign

Robert Kett is depicted rallying the rebels on this pub sign at Wymondham, Norfolk.

Their numbers swelled when the cry for freedom went up with the demand “that all bonde men may be ffre for God made all ffre with his precious blode sheddying”, echoing the sentiments of John Ball’s sermon back in the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt.

They then marched towards Norwich and set up camp on the outskirts of the city at Mousehold Heath.

The rebels were known at the time as the “camp men” and the rebellion as the “camping tyme” or “commotion tyme”. Corresponding but smaller rebellions broke out in a number of neighbouring counties.

The numbers of camp men outside Norwich swelled steadily to between 15-20,000.

The rebels tried to negotiate with the mayor and authorities of Norwich to be allowed into the city as they needed food and provisions, but they were refused. They finally forced their way into the city and held the mayor captive, but although there was some violence, Kett was not interested in mob violence or in plundering the city, but in righting a wrong and in creating a more just society. There was little unprovoked violence from the raiding parties that entered the city to seize food and provisions.

Each village that had joined the revolt had its own patch on the heath and sent a representative to the council that Kett had formed. The rebels effectively set up a new form of local government with representation from each of the villages and with a court to hear cases brought by commoners. The court sat in the open, under an oak tree, the so-called “tree of reformation”.

Kett's Oak

Kett’s Oak, still standing just South of Hethersett on the B1172, is said to be where the rebels held their meetings.

Many of the accused were local gentry hauled up for committing wrongs against the commoners. Most were found guilty and imprisoned in a local manor-house that had been taken over by the rebels. The court also tried those rebels who had committed misdemeanours and crimes within the camp. The huge encampment was a remarkable example of self-government.

It became the job of the council to draw up their demands in a petition to the Lord Protector, the Duke of Somerset (the king was a minor still). The petition had 29 clauses including one that no lord of the manor should be able to exploit common land. In general the petition reflected the concerns of the peasants, demanding an end to the rapacity of the landowners, rising rents, the encroachments of the free market and the steady depreciation of the value of money.

“We pray your grace”, the first clause read, “that where it is enacted for enclosing that it shall be not hurtful….and that henceforth no man shall enclose any more”. And another read: “We pray your lord that no lord of no manor shall common upon the common”.

Clause 13 read: “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”.

Clause 16 read: “We pray that all bond men may be made free, for God made all free with his precious blood shedding”. And Clause 17: “We pray that Rivers may be free and common to all men for fishing and passage”.

The petition asked that the comissioners overseeing the land and the commons be chosen by the commoners, and that rents be returned to the levels they were under King Henry VII. The full petition may be found at <a href=””></a>.

The petition reflected a desire to return to the old ways and to restrain rapid economic change and the free market. The demands were couched in what seems to be rather diplomatic, even servile, language, but the regent was known to be open to some of the ideas of the rebels and it would have made sense not to antagonise him with too much plain speaking to get their grievances considered.

There is a further document, The Rebels Complaint, which speaks much more plainly but is now thought to have been drawn up later: “The pride of great men is now intolerable”, the complaint reads, “but our condition miserable…. But ourselves, almost killed with labour and watching, do nothing all our life long but sweat, mourn, hunger, and thirst…. The common pastures left by our predecessors for our relief and our children are taken away. The lands which in the memory of our fathers were common, those are ditched and hedged in and made several; the pastures are enclosed, and we shut out.”

All the while the council was meeting, the rebels continued tearing down hedges and fences, and filling in ditches in the neighbourhood. News of the rebellion spread quickly throughout East Anglia, sparking copycat actions. The government was facing a dangerous insurrection, and needed to act fast to confine it.

The de facto truce between the Norwich City authorities and the rebels was ended when a messenger from the king’s council arrived from London to proclaim the gathering a rebellion, therefore opening up the likelihood of charges of treason against the leaders. He offered pardon, but Kett rejected the offer saying he had no need of a pardon as he had committed no wrong. In any case none of the demands of the rebels had been met.

The gates of Norwich were now closed as preparations got underway to defend the city. Without access to the markets and food, the rebels faced starvation, so Kett was forced to mount an attack to get inside the city. Artillery fire was exchanged on both sides through the night of 21 July 1549. Finally the rebels swarmed down the heath, crossed the Wensum River and captured the second largest city in England.

An army of 1,500 men plus Italian merceneries was despatched from London, commanded by the Marquis of Northampton. The rebels had, by the time it arrived, left the city and returned to Mousehold Heath as they felt unable to defend the long walls and ramparts, so the royal army entered the city without incident. But they were unable to hold it when thousands of Kett’s men again stormed the defences, fought running battles with the soldiers, killed Lord Sheffield, one of the commanders, and forced the army to retreat all the way to Cambridge.

A second, much larger army of 14,000 including mercenaries from all over Europe, under the Earl of Warwick, was now sent to Norwich. They had to fight their way into the city, but once inside many of the soldiers were picked off by the rebels who had an intimate knowledge of the maze of small streets. And late at night fires all over the city were set and Warwick faced a similar trap to that of Northampton—surrounded and in danger of being burned alive, and without their baggage train which had been captured by the rebels.

With further reinforcements of German mercenaries arriving, Warwick could no longer hide away in the city and prepared for battle outside it. The two armies faced each other in the open on the morning of 27 August 1549. The battle of Dussindale was a disaster for the rebels. Against a well-armed, trained army in a set-piece battle they had little chance, and about 3,000 were killed with the rest running for their lives.

Warwick set about executing between 70 and 300 of the captured rebels. By contrast there was only one attested incident in which the rebels had killed in cold blood. One of Northampton’s Italian mercenaries was captured and hanged.

Kett himself was captured at the village of Swannington and taken with his brother to the Tower of London to be tried for treason. Found guilty, the brothers were returned to Norwich. Robert Kett was hanged on the walls of the castle on December 7, while his brother was hanged at Wymondham Abbey.

There have been many peasant uprisings in many countries through history, but none has succeeded in forcing much change. The Kett rebellion took place only 15 years after the great Peasant War in Germany which was a civil war that raged throughout most of the country for 2 years, but ended in defeat. The peasantry as a class were never able to unite with the other classes in society, at least until the French Revolution. Although the towns at the time of the rebellion were becoming more influential, there was still no working class as such and the feudal system still prevailed. Although they had the numbers, the peasants lacked military knowledge, and were no match for trained armies in open warfare. Also they tended to observe treaties and promises unlike the princes and the nobility, who constantly broke them if it was in their interests.

Ketts rebellion was however a very serious challenge to the rule of the king and the nobility. The great danger from their point of view was that it would spread beyond East Anglia. The demands of the petition and the democratic way in which the camp men organised themselves not only echoed the Peasants Revolt of 1381, but provided examples and inspiration for future revolts such as the Civil War of the 1640s and Chartist movement of the 1830s.

Over the years Robert Kett became a symbol of the struggle for basic human rights. In 1949, on the 400th anniversary of his rebellion, the city of Norwich put up a plaque on the wall of Norwich Castle, near the main entrance. The plaque reads:

In 1549 AD Robert Kett, yeoman farmer of Wymondham, was executed by hanging in this castle after the defeat of the Norfolk rebellion of which he was the leader. In 1949 AD, four hundred years later, this memorial was placed here by the citizens of Norwich in reparation and honour to a notable and courageous leader in the long struggle of the commmn peeople of England to escape from a servile life into the freedom of just conditions.

The rebellion is remembered in the names of schools, streets and pubs in the area.

Kett under the Tree of Reformation on pub sign

Close-up of Robert Kett under the Tree of Reformation features on this pub sign in Norwich.

In 2011 Norwich Occupy and the Green Party held a memorial march through the town and laid a wreath at the gates of the castle.

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. (13)

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