ROBERT KET AND THE NORFOLK RISING. 1549
The Norfolk Rising of the sixteenth century was a land war, caused directly by the enclosing of the common fields of the peasants, and the break up of the accustomed rural life.
The landowners finding greater profit in breeding sheep and cattle than in the small holdings of peasants, began, about 1470, to seize the fields which from time immemorial had been cultivated by the country people in common, and to evict whole parishes by pulling down all the dwelling places. For eighty years these clearances were going on. Acts of Parliament were passed in 1489 and 1515 to prohibit the “pulling down of towns” and to order the rebuilding of such towns, and the restoration of pasture lands to tillage, but both acts were quite inoperative. In 1517, Cardinal Wolsey’s Royal Commission on Enclosures reported on the defiance of the law in seven Midland counties, where more than 36,000 acres had been enclosed; but legal proceedings against the landowners were stayed on the latter promising to make restitution.
Thomas More, in the first part of his Utopia, in 1516, described for all time what the enclosures he witnessed meant for England.
“For look in what parts of the realm doth grow the finest and therefore dearest wool, there noblemen and gentlemen, yea, and certain abbots, holy men no doubt, not contenting themselves with the yearly revenues and profits that were wont to grow to their forefathers and predecessors of their lands, nor being content that they live in rest and pleasure—nothing profiting, yea, much annoying the public weal—leave no ground for tillage, they inclose all into pastures; they throw down houses; they pluck down towns and leave nothing standing but only the church to be made into a sheep fold. . . . They turn all dwelling-places and all glebe land into desolation and wilderness. Therefore, that one covetous and insatiable cormorant may compass about and inclose many thousand acres of ground together within one pale or hedge, the husbandmen be thrust out of their own, or else either by cunning and fraud, or by violent oppression, or by wrongs and injuries they be so wearied, that they be compelled to sell all. By one means therefore or another, either by hook or by crook they must needs depart away, men, women, husbands, wives, fatherless children, widows, mother with their your babies, and their whole household small in substance and large in number, as husbandry requireth many hands. Away they trudge, I say, out of their known and accustomed houses, finding no place to rest in. . . . And when they have wandered abroad till the little they have be spent, what can they then else do but steal, and then justly be hanged, or else go about a begging. And yet then also they be cast in prison as vagabonds, because they go about and work not: whom no man will set a work, though they never so willingly proffer themselves thereto. For one shepherd or herdsman is enough to eat up that ground with cattle, to the occupying whereof about husbandry many hands were requisite.”
This was social England in the early years of Henry VIII., and every year saw things grow worse for the rural folk, in spite of further royal proclamations against enclosures in 1526. A series of bad harvests drove a starving population to riot in Norfolk in 1527 and 1529. In 1536 came the suppression of 376 lesser monasteries, followed two years later by the dissolution of all remaining monasteries and priories, and in 1547 by the royal confiscation of the property of the religious guilds and brotherhoods.
The landowners having established a starving unemployed class by the simple process of depriving people of access to the land, and the crown having removed the only source of relief to the unemployed by destroying the monasteries, it remained for parliament to deal with the “social problem” thus created by declaring poverty a crime, and the unemployed person a felon. The lash and the gallows were to solve the problem.
In 1531, an act of parliament granted licences to the impotent beggar, and ordered a whipping for all other mendicants.. Five years later stronger measures were adopted, and whipping was only permitted to first offenders: mutilation and hanging were the subsequent penalties on conviction, and thousands of unemployed men and women suffered under this act. But still the unemployed existed, for the enclosures had not been stopped; and so the first year of Edward VI. saw an act passed declaring the convicted unemployed “a slave.” (As it seemed to many that parliament had got rid of papal authority only to bring back slavery in England, this act was repealed in two years, and the act of 1531 revived.)
The bitterness of the agrarian misery, the violent destruction of all the old religious customs and habits of the people, the confiscation of the funds of the guilds, the open despoiling of the parish churches of the people (1)—all these things plunged the county into confusion and despair. The general rising in Lincolnshire and the north in 1536 (known as the “Pilgrimage of Grace”) against the suppressions of the monasteries, and the rising in Cornwall and Devon in 1549 against Edward’s VI.’s new Book of Common Prayer were strong manifestations of the popular dislike of the changes made in religion by Henry VIII. and the ministers of Edward VI.
In Norfolk, in 1537, the people made an insurrection against the suppression of the monasteries; but the later risings of 1540 (at Griston, when one John Walker “exhorted the people to destroy the gentry”), and in 1549, under Ket, were not concerned with the religious trouble of the times, but were frankly agrarian,. The Norfolk rising, which Ket led, was no more connected with Protestantism than the Peasant Revolt of 1381 was with Lollardy. Agrarian disturbances took place in a number of counties in 1549. In May the peasants of Somerset and Lincoln were in revolt, and in July there were tumults in Essex, Kent, Wiltshire, Buckinghamshire, and Oxfordshire. A rude Cambridge ballad of the time extols the pulling down of enclosures:
Cast hedge and ditch in the lake
Fixed with many a stake;
Though they be never so fast,
Yet asunder they are wrest.
Sir, I think that this work
Is as good as to build a kirk.
In 1548 Protector Somerset had followed Wolsey’s footsteps in issuing a proclamation for a royal commission to inquire and report concerning enclosures, and to give the names of all who kept more than two thousand sheep or who had “taken from any other their commons.”(2) The commissioners were also “to reform” any cases of the enclosing of commons and highways, “without due recompense,” which they might find; “and to the intent your doing may proceed without all suspicion, and the people conceive some good hope of reformation at your hands, we would that as many of you as be in any of the cases to be reformed, do first, for example’s sake, begin to the reformation of your selves.”
Somerset’s ingenuous suggestion was naturally disregarded by the commissioners, and beyond making inquiries and publishing a report—to the effect that in the counties of Suffolk, Essex, Hertford, Kent, and Worcester nearly all the common lands(3) had been enclosed, while in Norfolk and Northampton large enclosures had been made—the commission of 1548 was as fruitless as its predecessors. Somerset, however, got some reputation by it as an enemy to the enclosures, and certainly incurred the dislike of the landowners. but where Wolsey, kin the hey-day of power, had failed, there was small chance of success for Somerset, with the country in a state of anarchy, and the nation rent and distracted by a violent revolution in the church.
The only strong movement to prevent the utter downfall of the country-people was the Norfolk Rising, which Robert Ket directed in the summer of 1549. It failed in the end, but for more than six weeks the power of the landlords was broken round Norwich, their enclosures were stopped, and the hope of better things filled the hearts of the peasants. The rising began at Attleborough on 20th June when Squire Green, of Wylby, set up fences and hedges round the common lands at Harpham and Attleborough, and the people, excited by news that in Kent similar fences had been destroyed, proceeded to pull them down. For the next fortnight the revolt had neither leaders nor organization. “There were secret meetings of men running hither and thither, and then withdrawing themselves for secret conferences, but at length they all began to deal tumultuously and to rage openly.” On July 7th the annual feast at Wymondham, in honor of the translation of St. Thomas of Canterbury, brought the country folk together from miles round; and at the close of the fair they all set off to break down the fences set up round the common lands at Hetherset by one Sergeant Flowerdew.(4)
Flowerdew, unable to save his fences, proposed a diversion. The Kets at Wymondham had made enclosures, why shouldn’t the rioters deal with them in similar fashion? Flowerdew actually paid over 40d. to encourage an attack on the Kets.
Robert Ket and his brother were well-known men. Both were craftsmen, Robert, a tanner, and William a butcher. They were landowners besides, and men of substance and of old family, for it was said the Kets had been in the land since the Norman Conquest. Robert Ket held three manors from the Earl of Warwick; his yearly income was put down at £50, and his property valued at 1,000 marks. Like other landowners, the Kets had made enclosures, but on the arrival of the people from Hetherset they at once declared themselves willing to stand by the movement for freeing the land. Robert Ket felt the misery of his neighbours. He say that if the revolt was to be anything more than a local riot it must have necessary guidance, and his sympathies were entirely on the democratic side. And so from that time forward he gave up the quiet of a county gentleman’s life at Wymondham for the strenuous movement of an insurgent camp.
To the appeal of the people for help, Ket answered passionately, “I am ready, and will be ready at all times, to do whatever, no t only to repress, but to subdue the power of great men. Whatsoever lands I have enclosed shall again be made common unto ye and all men, and my own hands shall first perform it.”
Then Robert Ket went on to commit himself body and soul to the movement, resolved that the peasants should not be left unaided in the struggle they had begun and willing to take upon himself the burden an responsibility of leadership.
“You shall have me, if you will, not only as a companion, but as a captain; and in the doing of the so great a work before us, not only as a fellow, but for a leader, author and principal.”
If the ambition which clutches at sovereignty and rule is despicable, even more despicable is the weakness which refuses to take command at times of peril.
To Robert Ket and his brother there was no promise of the world’s honour and glory should the rising be successful. At the best would be the satisfaction of a battle fought and won for the deliverance of long-suffering peasants At the worst the laying down of life in a good cause, as Geoffrey Lister and many a Norfolk man had done in by gone days.
Robert Ket’s leadership was acclaimed with enthusiasm, nor was it ever disputed throughout the rising. In this, the last of the great popular risings in England, the Norfolk men were as loyal to their leader as the men of Kent were to Wat Tyler the Jack Cade. And in each case that loyalty had ample justification.
There were but a thousand men involved when the rising began, but under Ket’s command the movement passed rapidly from the fluid “running hither and thither” condition of the first fortnight, and became the march or an organised army.
On July 10th, two days after Ket took command, this army was on the road to Norwich, and after crossing the river at Cringleford, lay encamped at Eaton Wood.
It is plain from Ket’s speeches to his men, and from “The Rebels’ Complaint,” which he published at this time, that to Robert Ket the rising was not only to put down enclosures, its aim was rather to strike at the root of the evil and to put an end to the ascendancy of the landlord class, and make England a free common wealth. Either the people must put down landlords, or very soon the landlords would have the whole land in their possession, and the people would be in hopeless and helpless subjection. Had ho an act of parliament been actually passed making “slaves” of the landless men, dispossessed by enclosures? When parliament was establishing slavery it was time for honest men to be up and doing, rousing the people to action.
Ket’s speech at Eaton Wood is a fierce attack on the landlords, and a reminder that having ventured so f ar, the peasants must advance yet further:
“Now are ye overtopped and trodden down by gentlemen, and put out of possibility ever to recover foot. Rivers of riches ran into the coffers of your landlords, while you are pair’d to the quick, and fed upon pease and oats like beasts. You are fleeced by these landlords for their private benefit, and as well kept under by the public burdens of State wherein while the richer sort favour themselves, ye are gnawn to the very bones. You tyrannous masters often implead, arrest, and cast you into prison, so that they may the more terrify and torture you in your minds, and wind our necks more surely under their arms. And then they palliate these pillories with the fair pretence of law and authority! Fine workmen, I warrant you, are this law and authority, who can do their dealings so closely that men can only discover them for your undoing. Harmless counsels are fit for tame fools; for you who have already stirred there is no hope but in adventuring boldly.”
In “The Revels’ Complaint,” the same note is struck. Only by taking up arms, and mixing Heaven and earth together, can the intolerable oppression of the landlords be ended. The pride of great men is now intolerable, but our condition miserable.
These abound in delights; and compassed with the fullness of all things, and consumed with vain pleasures, thirst only after gain, inflamed with the burning delights of their desires.
But ourselves, almost killed with labour and watching, do nothing all our life long but sweat, mourn, hunger, and thirst. Which things, though they seem miserable and base (as they are indeed most miserable), yet might be borne howsoever, if they which are drowned in the boiling seas of evil delights did not pursue the calamities and miseries of other men with too much insolent hatred. But now both we and our miserable condition is a laughing stock to these most proud and insolent men—who are consumed with ease and idleness. Which thing (as it may) grieveth us so sore and inflicteth such a stain of evil report, so that nothing is more grievous for us to remember, nor more unjust to suffer.
The present condition of possessing land seemeth miserable and slavish—holding it all at the pleasure of great men; not freely, but by prescription, add, as it were, at the will and pleasure of the lord. For as soon as any man offend any of these gorgeous gentlemen, he is put our, deprived, and thrust from all his goods.
How long shall we suffer so great oppression to go unrevenged? For so far as they, the gentlemen, now gone in cruelty and covetousness, that they rare not content only to take all by violence away from us, and to consume in riot and effeminate delights what they get by force and villainy, but they must also suck in a manner our blood and marrow out of our veins and bones.
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. Whatsoever fowls of the air or fishes of the water, and increase of the earth—all these do they devour, consume, and swallow up; yea, nature doth not suffice to satisfy their lusts, but they seek out new devices, and, as it were, forms of pleasures to embalm and perfume themselves, to abound in pleasant smells, to pour in sweet things to sweet things. Finally, they seek from all places all things for their desire and the provocation of lust. While we in the meantime eat herbs and roots, and languish with continual labour, and yet are envied that we live, breathe, and enjoy common air!
Shall they, as they have brought hedges about common pastures, enclose with their intolerable lusts also all the commodities and pleasures of this life, which Nature, the parent of us all, would have common, and bringeth forth every day, for us, as well as for them?
We can no longer bear so much, so great, and so cruel injury; neither can we with quiet minds behold so great covetousness, excess, and pride of the nobility. We will rather take arms, and mix Heaven and earth together, than endure so great cruelty.
Nature hath provided for us, as well as for them; hath given us a body and a soul, and hath not envied us other things. While we have the same form, and the same condition of birth together with them, why should they have a life so unlike unto ours, and differ so far from us in calling?
We see that things have now come to extremities, and we will prove the extremity. We will rend down hedges, fill up ditches, and make a way for every man into the common pasture. Finally, we will lay all even with the ground, which they, no less wickedly than cruelly and covetously, have enclosed. Neither will we suffer ourselves any more to be pressed with such burdens against our wills, nor endure so great shame, since living out our days under such inconveniences we should leave the commonwealth unto our posterity—mourning, and miserable, and much worse than we received it of our fathers.
Wherefore we will try all means; neither will we ever rest until we have brought things to our own liking.
We desire liberty and an indifferent (or equal) use of all things. This will we have. Otherwise these tumults and our lives shall only be ended together. Revolutionary as this manifesto is, Robert Ket is seen all through the rising exerting his authority on behalf of law and good order, curbing anarchy and checking ferocity in the rebel camp.
Only one day was spent at Eaton Wood. Let’s plan was to advance to Mousehold, a wide stretch of high, we-wooded ground to the east of Norwich. Here the camp was fixed on July 12th, the river having been crossed at Hailsdon, and a night’s halt called at Drayton—for the mayor of Norwich, Thomas Cod, positively refused to allow the rebels to pass through the city. Ket, anxious to unite citizens and peasants in a common cause, willingly avoided altercation, and Cod, alarmed at the rising, and unable to dissuade the insurgents from their enterprise, was careful to refrain from all hostile demonstrations. Cod’s one purpose was to exclude Ket’s army from the city, and to accomplish this he kept on friendly terms with Ket, even while appealing to the government to send down troops to suppress the rising. Ket’s purpose was to break down landlord rule in Norfolk, extend the area of revolt, and to get the king to attend to the complaints of this subjects.
Ket’s company at Mousehold numbered no more than 2,600 on July 12th; but the ringing of bells and the firing of beacons brought in thousands of homeless men. At the end of a week 20,000 men wee enrolled under the banner of revolt, and now Ket had all his work to do in maintaining discipline and in arranging for provisions for the camp.
It is clear Robert Ket was the right man for a leader.(5) The people trusted him and obeyed his orders. Cod and two other reputable citizens of Norwich—Aldrich, an alderman, and Watson, a preacher—attended the camp daily, and along with Ket and his brother William sat under a great tree, known as the Oak of Reformation, and administered justice. The 20.000 hungry, disinherited men carried out in as orderly way as they could the instructions they received.
Ket’s first business was to send to the king a plain statement of “Requests and Demands.” He knew what was wanted for rural England, and refused to admit that his purpose was disloyal or that his conduct was rebellion.
The “Requests” were twenty-nine, and they contained a full statement of the grievances of the country folk. The chief requests were for the stoppage of enclosures, the enactment of fair rents, the restoration of common fishing rights in sea and river, the appointment of resident clergymen in every parish to preach and instruct the children, and the free election or official appointment of l ocal “commissioners” for the enforcement of the laws. One significant prayer was “that all bond men may be made free, for God made all free with His precious bloodshedding.”
This document, which was signed by Ket, Cod and Aldrich,(6) was answered by the arrival of a herald from the king with a promise that parliament should meet in October to consider their complaints, and that something should be done to redress their grievances, if in the meantime they would quietly disperse to their homes.
All this was too vague and uncertain for Ket. Not till some definite step was taken by king or parliament to end the present distress was he willing to lay down his arms and bid his followers disperse. He had put his hand to the plough, and no turning back was possible while the evils he had risen against flourished unchecked.
So Ket put his house in order on Mousehold Heath. The Oak or Reformation was boarded over “with rafters,” and to this place of summary justice landowners were brought and tried for making enclosures. Two men were chosen by the commons from every hundred to assist in the work of administration, and all the people were strictly admonished “to beware of robbing, spoiling and other evil demeanours.” As the army had to be victualled, Ket sent out men armed with his official warrant requiring the county houses to provide cattle and corn, “so that no violence or injury be done to any honest or poor man,” and this requisition brought in guns, gunpowder and money, in addition to “all kinds of victual.” The smaller farmers sent their contributions “with much private good will,” while on the landowners a great fear had fallen, and it seemed that the day of their might was passed.
A royal messenger bearing commissions of the peace to various country gentlemen falling into the hands of Ket, he was at once deprived of these documents and sent on his way. Ket filled in the names of men who had joined the rising on these commissions, and these new magistrates gave assistance in maintaining order. Cod and Aldrich were shocked at the arrest of landowners. “Notwithstanding were divers gentlemen taken and brought to prison, some in Norwich Prison, some in Norwich Castle and some in Surrey Place.” —St. Leonard’s Hill.
Ion every case the lives of the landowners were spared. Stern and unmoved by respect of persons was Robert Ket, but there was no taint of cruelty, meanness or bloodthirstiness in his rule. It was not his purpose to raise civil war or leave a festering sore of hatred by putting his neighbours to death. To destroy the power of the landlords and ensure the right of an evicted people to live on the land was the aim of the Norfolk Rising.
At the end of the first week relations became strained between Cod and the army on Mousehold.
It was the custom to have prayers every day under the Oak, and Dr. Conyers, vicar of St. Martin’s, Norwich, acted as chaplain. “Grave persons and good divines” would come out from the city and preach under the Oak, and on one occasion Dr. Matthew Parker, a Norwich man, who had been chaplain to Anne Boleyn, and who was to become Archbishop of Canterbury under Elizabeth, filled the pulpit. Parker’s sermon, full of rebukes on the rising and praise of Edward VI., was so obnoxious, for “he touched them for their living so near that they went near to touch him for his life,” that Conyers only prevented a riot by striking up the “Te Deum” in English, and during the singing Parker withdrew “to sing his part at home.”
Matthew Parker was a great man in Norwich (his brother Thomas became mayor), and the incivility he had received at Mousehold gave great offence. Cod and the aldermen sent off Leonard Sutherton, a respectable burgess, to report to the king’s council the doings in Norfolk, and Sutherton brought back from London a royal herald, who went out to Mousehold and promised the king’s pardon to all that would depart quietly to their homes.
The people cheered and shou ted “God save the king’s majesty,” but to Ket this talk of pardon was altogether beside the mark. With some dignity he informed the herald that “kings an princes are wont to pardon wicked persons, not innocent and just men,” and added, “I trust I have done nothing but what belongs to the duty of a true subject.”
The herald then called on John Petibone, the sword-bearer of Norwich, who with other civic notables was standing by, to arrest Robert Ket. But the thing was impossible. Ket had 20,000 men at this back, and the sword-bearer was supported by half-a-dozen elderly members of the town council. All that could be done was to escort the herald into the city, leaving Ket to his own devices.
There was no more peace between the comp at Mousehold and the city of Norwich after this. Hitherto Mayor Cod had retained the keys of the city, and his authority had been respected by Ket. At the same time Ket’s men had gone freely to and fro throughout the city without let or hindrance. Now all was changed. First the landowners were being arrested and despoiled, then the learned doctor, Matthew Parker (was he not master of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge?) had been interrupted and hooted, and now a king’s herald was contemned! Cod ordered the city gates to be made fast, commanded Ket’s prisoners to be released, and placed the city’s ordna nce in the meadows by the river. This amounted to a declaration of war, and Ket replied by bringing up his guns.
The night of July 21st was spent “in fearful shot on both sides,” but little injury was done. For Ket’s guns brought “more fear than hurt to the city,” and “the city ordnance did not much annoy the enemy.”
In the morning Ket sought to renew peace by asking permission for the transport of victuals through the city, “as the custom was of late,” and warning the mayor that refusal would provoke fire and sword.
Cod refused permission, and Ket opened fire on the city gates. But “for lack of powder and want of skill in the gunners the ordnance was spent to small and little purpose.” A desperate encounter followed, with bows and arrows for the chief weapons of offence. Boys from Mousehold, “naked and unarmed, would pluck the arrows from their bodies and hand them to the rebels to fire at the city.” At Bishopsgate a number of men swam the river and forced their way into the city, and on the night of July 22nd Norwich was in the hands of Robert Ket.
No reprisals followed. The herald made a last attempt to induce the insurgents to disperse by promising pardons, and was greeted derisively. “Depart with a plague on thee!” they cried. “To the devil with these idle promises. We shall only be oppressed afterwards.” Forthwith the herald did depart, with eight pounds of gold in his pocket from the mayor.
Ket retired to Mousehold, the passage through the city having been secured, and Cod accompanied him, leaving a deputy, Augustine Steward, who lived in the big house I Tombland, opposite Effingham Gate, to act as mayor.
Judgement went on as before under the Oak of Reformation, and people clamoured for the landowners to be hanged. “So hated at this time was the name of worship or gentleman, that the basest of the people, burning with more than hostile hatred, desired to extinguish, and utterly cut off, not only the gentry themselves, but if it were possible, all the offspring and hope of them.”(Nevylle.)
But Ket was strong in his mercy as in his resistance to the land enclosers. The gentry were imprisoned, and made to pay tribute: their fences were pulled down, but their lives were spared, and no hurt befell them. In the city Steward, no friend to Ket, was left undisturbed in authority.
At the end of July came William Parr, Marquis of Northampton, with 1,500 soldiers, mostly Italian mercenaries, and a number of country squires with their retainers, to put down the rising. Steward at once admitted him to the city; but Northampton—Henry VIII.’s brother-in-lay—was neither a soldier nor statesman, and after two days’ hard fighting he fled from Norwich, utterly defeated.
Ket’s men were badly armed, but they had numbers on their side, and they fought for freedom and for very life. They swam the river, as before, and forced an entrance. “Half dead, drowned in their own and other men’s blood, they would not give over; but till the last gasp, when their hands could scarce hold their weapons, would strike at their adversaries.”
Lord Sheffield fell in the fight on August 1st, killed by a stalwart rebel—one Fulke, a butcher and carpenter by trade—and some hundred of Ket’s men lay dead. The city suffered. Several houses and city gates were fired, and only a heavy rain prevented the flames from spreading. (This same rain drove many of the rebels to take refuge in the cathedral, much to the annoyance of the dean and chapter.)
And now for three weeks Ket had to take charge of Norwich as well as of Mousehold camp, for it was impossible to trust Steward. Many of the wealthier townsmen hastened away to Cambridge and London, leaving their wives and families behind. Trade was at an end.
The state of the city began to be in most miserable case, also that all men looked for utter destruction, both of life and goods. Then the remnant that feared God, seeing the plague thus of sorrow increasing, fell to prayer and holy life, and wished but to see the day that after they might talk thereover, looking never to recover help again, nor to see their city prosper.
The women resorted twice a day to prayer, and the servants (except what must need stay at home) did the same. When Ket’s ambassadors were sent to any private house they were fain to bake or brew or do any work for the camp, else they were carried as traitors to the Oak. As for trading, there was none in the city, people being forced to hide up their choicest goods, and happy were they that had the faithfullest servants.
They that did keep open their shops were robbed and spoiled, and their goods were measured by the arm’s length and dispersed among the rebels; their children they set away for fear of fire. I, the writer (who was then above twenty-two years of age, and an eye-witness) was present after prayer during this dolorous state, when people met and bewailed the miserable state they were in .
But for all their misery the tradesmen of Norwich were in no fear for their lives. The city had done its best to thwart the rising, but Ket treated it generously, allowing neither pillage nor bloodshed—though he did not scruple to take what goods were necessary for his army.(7) It was beyond the power of man to prevent all thieving during those first few weeks of August, for the civic magistracy was gone, and Ket had large responsibilities on his hands.
The hope that the rising would become general turned to disappointment in the weeks that passed after the flight of Northampton. In Suffolk a number of men rose at Ket’s call, and made an unsuccessful attempt to take Yarmouth. A small camp set up at Rising Chase was dispersed, but for a fortnight the peasants gathered at Watton, and stopped the passages of the river at Thetford and Brandon Ferry. For want of leadership they then came on to Mousehold. At Hingham a rising was put down by Sir Edmund Knyvett. And while Ket waited, hoping against hope for better news, the fugitive citizens from Norwich had already persuaded Somerset to send down an army to crush the revolt.
On August 21st the Earl of Warwick, with 14,000 troops, reached Cambridge, and three days later was at Norwich.
Warwick, Henry VIII.’s high chamberlain, the son of Dudley, Henry VII.’s minister, was a man of war and resolution. Sent down to suppress the rising he did his work, but not till he ha d tried an appeal to the peasants to disperse without further trouble.
Halting outside the city, Warwick sent a herald to proclaim pardon to all who should now return to their homes, and, as before, the people shouted, “God save King Edward!” Ket himself talked with the herald on the high ground near Bishop’s Gate.
Negotiations ended abruptly. Some ill-mannered boy gave an indecent and offensive salute to the herald, and was shot dead by an arrow from the herald’s escort. At once the cry of “treachery” was raised by the people, and all talk of peace was at an end. While the herald tried to persuade Ket to come to the Earl of Warwick under a flag of truce, the rebels gathered round their leader and besought him not to forsake them. To Ket there could be sure reliance on royal promises of pardon, and no surrender of the charge he had undertaken. His reply to the herald was to retire on Mousehold and prepare for battle.
Warwick at once entered the city, and began the business of pacification by promptly hanging sixty men in the Market Place, by Norwich Castle, “without hearing the cause”; and by issuing a proclamation that all who were out of doors would receive similar treatment. Then came a mishap, for the grater part of Warwick’s artillery fell into Ket’s hands. The drivers of the gun-carriages, entering the city after the soldiers, by St. Bennet’s Gate on the west, and ignorant of the way, actually passed out at Bishop’s Gate on the east on the very road towards Mousehold, and were quickly taken. Ket had now the advantage in ordnance, and there was fighting in the city all Sunday, August 25th. So uncertain was the issue that the burgesses feared Warwick would suffer Northampton’s fate, and prayed him to depart without further loss. But Warwick, waiting for reinforcements, and knowing that 1,400 German mercenaries were close at hand, was not the man to beat an ignominious retreat.
The hireling “lanznechts” arrived next day, and on Tuesday, August 27th, came the fatal battle.
Instead of remaining at Mousehold, where a strong resistance might have been made, the rebels decided to march out boldly from their camp and meet the king’s army in the open country that lay between Mousehold Heath and the city. An old song was recalled, which, it seemed, foretold victory in such a case:
The country gnoffes (churls), Hob, Dick, and Rick,
With clubs and clouted shoon,
Shall fill the vale
With slaughtered bodies soon.
But the country churls were to be the slaughtered, and not the slaughterers.
Warwick marched out by the north-east gate of St. Martin-at-the-Oak, and for the last time a herald promi sed pardon to all who would surrender. But the hangings in the market place had destroyed all confidence in such proclamations, and the answer to the herald was that they “perceived this pardon to be nothing else but a cask full of ropes and halters.”
Ket’s judgment failed him utterly on that last day of the rising. On the strength of an irrelevant old song he allowed his army to go to its doom unchecked, and at the very time when good generalship was wanted above all other things, Robert Ket seems to have lost his nerve, and to have been struck by some paralysis of the will, as though conscious of impending ruin.
The peasants poured down into the valley, and into the meadows beyond Magdalen and Pockthorp Gates, and fought with desperate courage, but they were simply cut to pieces by the professional soldiery. At four o’clock in the afternoon it was all over, the defeat utter and complete, and Robert Ket and his brother were in flight.
The remains of the rebel army laid down their arms, when Warwick himself offered pardon in the king’s name to those who would surrender.
The rising was at an end. The foreign mercenaries of the crown had triumphed over English peasants. Robert Ket was taken the same night at Swannington, eight miles north of Norwich. He had ridden away from the battle when the field was lost, but horse and rider were to o tired to proceed further. Taking refuge in a barn, he was recognised by some men unloading a wagon of corn and seized. The farmer’s wife “rated him for his conduct, but he only prayed her to be quiet, and to give him meat.” That same night William Ket was taken, and the two brothers were delivered to the lord lieutenant of the county, and by him carried to London to be tried for their lives.
At Mousehold Warwick proved the worth of the pardons he had given by first having nine of the bravest of the peasants hanged, drawn, and quartered under the Oak of Reformation, and distributing their bodies in the city; and then by hanging 300 prisoners on trees, and then forty-nine more at the Market Cross in Norwich. The country gentlemen of Norfolk, backed by their wealthier citizens, called for more executions, till Warwick turned with disgust from the vindictive clamour of these bloodthirsty civilians, and pointed out in impatient reproof that no one would be left “to plough and harrow over the lands” if all the peasants were massacred.
And now the king’s authority having been reestablished, a public service of thanksgiving was held in the church of St. Peter, Mancroft, and August 27th was ordered to be observed henceforth as “Thanksgiving Day” in Norwich. (This was done by prayers and sermon until 1667. In the grammar school, durin g Elizabeth’s reign, an account of the rising — De Furoribus Norfolciensum, written in Latin by Nevylle, and violently antipopular in expression—was ordered to be used as a text book in place of the usual classic, and was so used for some years.)
On September 7th Warwick returned to London.(8) In November Robert and William Ket, after lying in the Tower for two months, were brought to trial. They offered no defence for what they had done: for having borne arms without the king’s permission, and for having striven to stop the robbery and oppression of the peasant without the authority of king and parliament.
On November 26th they were found guilty of high treason, their property confiscated, and they were condemned to death. On November 29th they were delivered out of the custody of the Tower to the high sheriff of Norfolk, and on December 1st the Kets were again in Norwich.
It was winter, and hope was dead. The last great rising of the English peasantry had failed, crushed without pity, and the leaders of the army of revolt, who had judged it better to give up ease and worldly honour rather than acquiesce dumbly in the enslavement of their poorer neighbours, were to die as traitors.(9) On December 7th the executions were carried out, and Robert Ket was hanged in chai ns outside Norwich Castle, while William Ket was taken to Wymondham (where he held the manor of Chossell—Church lands, bought years earlier from the Earl of Warwick), and there hanged in chains from the parish church.
The property of the Kets was duly taken by the servants of the crown, and the bodies of the rebel leaders swung in the wind—to remind unthinking men of the reward of rebellion, of the fate of all who challenge, without success, the arms of government.
The Norfolk Rising was the last great movement of the English people in social revolt. Riots we have known even in our times, and mob violence, but no such rising as those led by Wat Tyler, by Cade, and by Ket has England seen since the year 1549.
The county people sunk into hopeless poverty and permanent degradation under Edward VI. and Elizabeth, and with the rejection by the government of papal authority, the supremacy of the crown and of the ministers of the crown was established.
In the nineteenth century, when the working people in town and county once more bestirred themselves at the call of freedom, their wiser leaders advised political and not revolutionary methods of action, and the advice has been followed.
But if the year 1549 marks the end of organised democratic resistance to intolerable misgovernment, the coming centuries were to see the rise of the mid dle class with the insistent demand for the predominance of that class in the parliament of the nation, and the incurable belief that in a popularly elected House of Commons resided all the safeguards of civil and religious liberty.
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1. See Dr. Jessop, The Great Pillage
2. See State Papers, Domestic, Edward VI.
3. The common lands engrossed in the 15th and 16th centuries were the farm lands cultivated in common by the peasants. The enclosure of the commons was left to a later date, and took place between 1760 and 1830.
4. This Flowerdew had distinguished himself at the destruction of the abbey at Wymondham by Henry VIII., by tearing off the lead from the roof of the church and pulling down the choir, for the sake of the tones, after the people had raised a large sum of money for the king in order to save the church.
5. “By bearing a confident countenance in all his actions the vulga rs took him(Ket) to be both valiant and wise and a fit man to be their commander.”
Sir John Hayward, Life of Edward VI.
6. These two “were partly fain to agree, lest they being out of favour and place, others might come to bring all out of frame that now might partly be well framed, and the rather they assented to keep the people in better order during answer from the prince.”
7. “That a populous an wealthy city like Norwich should have been for three weeks in the hands of 20,000 rebels, and should have escaped utter pillage and ruin speaks highly for the rebel leaders.”
W. Rye, Victoria County History of Norfolk.
8. A few years later, and John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, now Duke of Northumberland, again visited East Anglia to proclaim his daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Grey, Queen of England. No one rose at his call. Neither peasant nor landowner responded to the proclamation; and John Dudley, Earl of Warwick and Duke of Northumberland, died, as his father before him had died, convicted of treason, beheaded by the executioner?s axe on Tower Hill. It was August 22nd, 1553, just four years after the suppression of the peasants? rising in Norfolk when Northumberland was put to death.
9. “Robert Ket was not a mere craftsman: he was a man of substance, the owner of several manors: his conduct throughout was marked by considerable generosity: nor can the name of patriot be denied to him who deserted the class to which he might have belonged or aspired, and cast in his lot with the suffering people.”
Canon Dixon, History of the Church of England.
In 1588 a grandson of Robert Ket was burnt as a Nonconformist heretic by order of Elizabeth.