1549: Kett’s Rebellion

Duration 

June to November 1549

Leadership

Commons rebellion led by Robert Kett, a Norfolk yeoman, but part of a much wider outbreak of disorder across much of England where the leadership was low level and low born

Main causes

Enclosure. Kett’s rebels were heartened by royal commission looking into the problem and thought they were supported by government in acting against enclosures

Subsidiary causes

  • The character and stubbornness of Somerset
  • Poor quality of local government – failed to clamp down on enclosure

Outcomes

  • Disturbances throughout midlands and eastern England
  • Kett raises a large force – 16,000 men. Norwich falls to rebels; rebellion eventually crushed by Warwick in battle outside Norwich at spot – Mousehold Heath – where 1381 rebels had camped
  • Kett and up to 300 rebels executed – sign of how seriously government had been frightened
  • Results in fall of Somerset

Degree of threat

High.

  • Disorder was widespread – Amanda Jones book recovers contemporary label, “Commotion Time.” Trouble in 25 counties from Yorkshire to Cornwall (Kett was an example of a problem, rather than the leader of all these outbreaks of disorder). At least 20 rebel camps where disgruntled commons assembled. At least 16 rebel petitions.
  • There is a sort of regime change – Protector Somerset falls. But this doesn’t happen as a direct consequence of the rebellions and there are no calls to overthrow the king
  • Threat heightened in part because of the incompetence of the local authorities in putting Kett down – allowed rebels time to gather strength

Narrative

The disorders of 1549 were very widespread, and for this reason cannot be ascribed to a single cause. Rumours of disorder in other areas spread widely and must have encouraged disgruntled commons to consider acts of rebellion. One reason why the trouble did not have greater effect, however, was the fact that there was no communication or planning between different groups. The rebels had local grievances and the rebellions were put down one by one, often by local rather than central government forces.

Kett’s rebellion in Norfolk is one of the best known of this serious of outbreaks of trouble because…

  • It lasted a long time – June till November [5 months]
  • It took place in summer, in weather suitable for camping outdoors (Anthony Fletcher: “a dangerously sunny June”)

At the root of the trouble in Norfolk was the issue of enclosure. This had been a concern to the commons for a long time, and the issue had resurfaced the previous year, 1548, when there was a major riot in Hertfordshire over Sir William Cavendish’s success in obtaining a royal warrant allowing him to enclose a large area of common land where he planned to farm rabbits for fur. 2,000 of Cavendish’s rabbits were killed and their burrows blown up with gunpowder.

The Hertfordshire riot caused Protector Somerset to create 3 royal commissions to travel through the midlands investigating cases of illegal enclosure. News of this travelled throughout England and encouraged the commons in many areas to begin tearing down hedges and removing enclosures, on the impression that they had state backing for this. In this sense, Kett’s rebellion can be clearly seen as a loyal rebellion not intended to bring about (as it did) the fall of Somerset himself.

Word of the commissions reached Norfolk and let some commons there to take matters into their own hands. One of the properties attacked belonged to Robert Kett. Kett was not a member of the nobility and was only barely gentry – he worked as a tanner and his brother was a butcher, but they owned a lot of land and had enclosed some common land as well. When his hedges were thrown down, however, Kett transferred his loyalty to the rioters (it’s possible to speculate this was a matter of self-preservation) and agreed to lead them – there are parallels here with the way in which leaders emerged during the Pilgrimage of Grace.

Kett proved a good leader. He decided to assemble as many commons as possible and march on Norwich – then the second largest city in the country after London. He set up camp on Mousehold Heath outside the walls and discontented commons flocked there. At least 3 other rebel camps sprang up in Norfolk soon afterwards.

Disorder was so general that summer that the government was unable to assemble forces to tackle every flashpoint, and this meant that Kett’s numbers continued to rise. The Mousehold camp soon numbered 16,000. A petition containing a set of demands – both economic and religious – was issued there.

By late July the rebels felt strong enough to attack Norwich, and a general assault by men armed with pitchforks and spears took the city. It took a further week for a small government force under the Marquis of Northampton to arrive, and the discovery that this was made up of Italian mercenaries only further enraged Kett’s men. Only 20 accepted an offer of surrender, and when the Italians attacked next day there was an indiscriminate massacre in Norwich, with the rebels emerging victorious – Fletcher says this “turned a vast popular demonstration into a full-scale rebellion”.

It took a further month for a large government army (12,000 English levies and a further 1000 mercenaries) to appear. Kett made the fatal mistake of moving his force to a less well defended position at Dussindale and was overrun by a cavalry charge (end of August). 300 men, including Kett and his brother, were condemned to death.

Reasons for failure

  • Although 25 counties saw disturbances, London remained entirely loyal to the crown; of course there were no agrarian grievances in a city!
  • Kett failed to hold back the rebels. The government was willing to negotiate with protestors but felt it had to treat outright rebels harshly. The attack on Norwich was the point where the rebellion became treason

Key stats, quotes & views  

  • Amanda Jones: all the 1549 rebellions together were “the most extensive outbreak of disorder in the 16th century, and arguably the most serious disturbances since the Peasants’ Revolt.”
    • This means it’s possible to make a strong argument for 1549 as the main turning point in this period – rebellions get less serious afterwards because this is the last great commons rising (compare to Oxfordshire 1596)
  • 7 articles among Kett’s demands relate to religion, so this is an important subsidiary cause
    • Demanded that priests live with their flocks not with local gentry, and teach more
  • 3,000 rebels were killed at Dussindale – so this was a major rebellion
  • “The closest thing to class war in English history” – John Guy
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One thought on “1549: Kett’s Rebellion

  1. Pingback: Interview with Caitlin Phillips | Medieval and Early Modern Student Association

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