In the Tudor England of 1549 Robert Kett was respected and prosperous, active in the church and a pillar of the community at Wymondham in Norfolk where he lived with his family. According to contemporary accounts he was a tanner ‘a trade that could require a significant level of investment‘. Kett was also a major property holder in the area and who in the course of extending his holdings had been fined at the manorial court for enclosing common land. It appears that he and his brother William, a mercer and butcher, were two of the wealthier people in Wymondham.
Robert, born in 1492 at Wymondham the son of Tom and Margery Kett, had married Alice Appleyard of Braconash in 1519 - a marriage that produced five sons.
As his earlier behaviour demonstrated, Kett appears to have had everything to gain from the enclosure of common land, but what happened subsequently turned him into the leader of one of the most significant rebellions against the state prior to the civil war.
The profitability of sheep farming encouraged large landowners to enclose common land to provide additional grazing for their flocks. People who had been used to having free and unfettered access to the common land saw this as an infringement of their rights and began tearing down the fences that had been used to enclose ‘their‘ land. Those who were caught were severely punished.
When on 14th June 1549 it was announced that Edward VI had pardoned those who had torn down hedges enclosing common land it was assumed by many that the king disapproved of enclosures and was effectively condoning the destruction of the newly established enclosures. Subsequent events were to demonstrate that this was a misunderstanding - and a fatal one for some.
The annual two day fair to commemorate St Thomas Becket held at Wymondham on 6th July was well attended and discontent was aired about the recent enclosures. It continued on the following day and culminated in an angry mob pulling down fences at the nearby village of Morley. Moving on to the neighbouring village of Hethersett they attempted to repeat the operation at the property of John Flowerdew, a lawyer who had become rich at the expense of the church and had caused resentment by demolishing part of Wymondham abbey after the reformation.
To deflect their anger Flowerdew reportedly bribed the protestors to visit Robert Kett telling them Kett was guilty of encroachment on common land at Wymondham. There appears to have been bad blood between Flowedew and Kett who had tried to prevent the demolition of the abbey.
Faced with the protestors demands‘ Kett rather surprisingly agreed that he had been wrong to enclose common land and further agreed to help the protesters dissuade other landowners from enclosing public land. He also helped them to uproot the fences surrounding his own land and challenged the justice of the enclosure process saying:
"I am ready to do whatever not only to repress, but to subdue the power of great men, and I hope to bring it to pass ere long as ye repent your painful labour, so shall these the great ones of their pride. Moreover, I promise that the hurt done unto the public weal and the common pasture by the importunate lords thereof shall be righted whatever lands I have enclosed shall again me made common unto ye and all men, my own hand shall first perform it. 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. Not only will I be present at your councils but, if you will have it so, henceforth I will preside at them."
Some days later a crowd met at an oak tree on the common outside Wymondham to be addressed by Kett who urged them to march on Norwich . (There is a tree identified by the sign "Kett‘s Oak 1549" in existence at Wymondham) "I refuse not to sacrifice my substance, yea my very life itself, so highly do I esteem the cause in which we are engaged."
By now the local authorities were alarmed and on 10th July 1549 Edmund Pynchyn was sent to London from Norwich asking for help whilst the Sheriff of Norwich tried without success to disperse the growing army of rebels. By this time Kett had set up camp at Bowthorpe with an estimated 16,000 followers - many of whom were poor people from Norwich itself.
The increasingly alarmed local authorities made further attempts to disperse Kett‘s march. Sir Edmund Wyndham, the Sheriff of Norfolk, approached the camp and warned them they were in danger of being treated as rebels. He was forced to retreat and later Thomas Codd, the Mayor of Norwich asked the marchers to disperse but to no avail. Moving ever closer to Norwich the march made camp in Eaton Wood. Here they were approached by Sir Roger Woodhouse who offered them a bribe of beer and food but was attacked and captured by Ketts men. The march moved on, crossing the River Wensum and setting up camp at Drayton Woods.
Sometime between the 14th and 21st July the rebels moved to Mousehold Heath overlooking the city of Norwich in the process destroying the Dove Cote of John Corbett at Chapel St Mary Magdalen. Kett established his headquarters at Surrey House (formerly at the top of present day Gas Hill) where he held his prisoners, who included Roger Woodhouse, the Appleyard Brothers, Sir David Melloe, Robert Chase and Sir Thomas Gawdy. The marchers were then estimated to number some 12,000.
Whilst this was going on the Norwich authorities made a further appeal for assistance sending Nicholas Southerton to London to highlight the immediate threat to the city. At the same time recognising that, unaided, they were unable to quell the rebellion they maintained an uneasy truce with Kett and for a short period a relative peace was kept.
On 24th July York Herald, an officer of the College of Arms, was sent to Mousehold Heath, where he proclaimed the camp was a rebellion and offered a pardon if they dispersed peacefully. The pardon was rejected and Mayor Codd orders the closing of all city gates. Five days later Kett‘s followers stormed the city walls and took control of the city.
The taking of Norwich by Ketts rebels galvanised the government into action. It was clear they were faced with a major revolt and the Protector, Edward Seymour 1st Duke of Somerset, ordered the Marquess of Northampton to raise an army to retake Norwich.
On 5th August 1549 Northampton‘s army arrived in Norwich gaining entrance after a fierce battle at St Martin at Palace Plain. Kett and his men immediately attacked again, retaking the city after intense fighting in the narrow streets - during the course of which 300 lives, including that of Lord Sheffield, were lost. Following this setback Northampton‘s army retreated to Cambridge.
In an effort to widen support for what is now a full blown rebellion, on 15th August 1549 Kett dispatched 100 men to Yarmouth to enlist support from the town. The attempt was unsuccessful as town closed its gates on the rebels.
Following the mauling suffered by Northampton‘s army Somerset raised an army from London, Essex and Suffolk to suppress the Norfolk rising. Commanded by John Dudley, Earl of Warwick it marched on Norwich with between 8,000 and 14,000 men - arriving at Wymondham on 23rd August where he received local reinforcements.
The following day Warwick‘s army arrived outside Norwich where a pardon was offered to Kett‘s followers but rejected. The army then forced its way into the city fighting running battles in the streets. By nightfall Warwick controlled the city and Kett had been forced to retreat to Mousehold Heath although continuing to launch raids on the city.
Kett and his followers left their Mousehold camp for Dussindale where on the 27th August 1549 they met Warwick‘s army in battle. They were heavily defeated and between 2,000 and 3,000 rebels were killed.
Kett was found and captured at Swannington the day following the battle and bought back to Norwich. Then, along with his brother William, he was taken to London to be tried for treason. Both were found guilty and handed over to the custody of Sir Edmund Windham, Sheriff of Norfolk. On 1st December 1549 Robert Kett arrived back in Norwich to be imprisoned in The Guildhall.
On 07th December 1549 Robert Kett was taken in chains on an open hurdle to Norwich Castle where he was hanged from the walls after being hauled up alive from the ground. His body was left to rot. William Kett was hanged in chains at Wymondham from the west tower of the Abbey Church.
It would appear that some 4,000 died as a result of the rebellion, the bulk of whom were rebels, although 350 were killed on the government side. Whilst Kett‘s Rebellion and its aftermath had a huge impact in Norfolk it was but one of a series of risings in eastern and south-eastern England at the time. But it is Robert Kett who is remembered and until the eighteenth century church bells were rung in Norwich on 27th August each year to commemorate the city‘s salvation from his rebellion. However today Kett is remembered as a part of the city‘s dissenting tradition and commemorated by the plaque on the outside of Norwich Castle put up in 1949 highlighting his role.
Sources and Further Reading