Kett’s Rebellion Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Robert Kett, a Norfolk tanner and landowner, and his followers protested the enclosure of pastures for more-profitable grazing—which benefited landowners—instead of for growing crops—which was a necessary form of subsistence for the poor. After taking the city of Norfolk, the rebellion was defeated at the Battle of Dussindale.

Summary of Event

Kett’s Rebellion was the most significant of numerous English uprisings during the summer of 1549. The reasons for the insurrections varied, and there was little coordination between them. Most were minor and short-lived, but two (Kett’s Rebellion in the county of Norfolk, and another at the city of Exeter) were far more serious. In Exeter and elsewhere the disquiet was rooted in religious resistance, while other revolts protested economic concerns. The latter was primarily the case in Kett’s Rebellion. Kett’s Rebellion (1549)[Ketts Rebellion (1549)] Kett, Robert Somerset, First duke of Somerset, first duke of Parr, Sir William

The face of agriculture in rural England was changing during the first part of the sixteenth century. The feudal system of land ownership was being replaced by what were called enclosures. In the traditional system, land was owned by the local landlord and farmed by his tenants to produce a harvest that benefited all to a greater or lesser extent. With a growing, global demand for material goods, such as clothing, it became more profitable to use land for grazing sheep rather than growing food crops. This, however, required significant amounts of land, and wealthy landowners sought to expand existing properties and fence off, or enclose, these larger pastures solely for the use of grazing sheep. The practice was extremely unpopular with ordinary rural people, many of whom were displaced and unemployed as a result of the enclosures. Agriculture;England

It was this steady revolution in agricultural practice that formed the tense backdrop to Kett’s Rebellion. In Norfolk, as elsewhere, resentment toward enclosures was high, but Kett’s Rebellion is more complicated and, to an extent, a story of a revolt that is difficult to understand fully.

Historians speculate as to exactly why Robert Kett, a relatively wealthy landowner himself, seemingly overnight became a rebellious leader of thousands of men who, under Kett’s command, would seize the city of Norwich and then twice defend it against the king’s forces. The rebellion provides a revealing glimpse of rural disaffection and economic tension, but it is also a deeply absorbing psychological mystery.

If Kett’s motivations are lost to us, the broad outlines of his story, though hazy to begin with, are quite straightforward. In Wymondham, Norfolk, on Tuesday, July 9, 1549, a small group of locals knocked down fences associated with enclosures. One of the landowners the men sought to menace was Kett, but he turned them away and directed them to another landowner’s property. The next day, Kett began to march an army of men toward Norwich, seemingly with the goal of taking the city. Estimates of the number of men vary, but most accounts agree that it was between ten thousand and fifteen thousand.

After several days of maneuvering, which included taking a handful of wealthy hostages, the army had worked its way around the city of Norwich and was positioned on Mousehold Heath, east of Norwich. This date, July 11, marks the beginning of a strange standoff between Norwich and Kett’s army. According to most historians, it was believed at the time that the army could have taken the city easily, but neither side wanted bloodshed, so deliberations were conducted at the level of diplomacy rather than battle. Accounts show that Kett’s men moved freely through Norwich and that the city provided its large, menacing neighbor, Kett’s camp, with provisions.

A standard interpretation argues that this delicate balance was broken when a messenger from the king, responding to the city’s first plea for help, arrived in Norwich. Once there was an official presence, this view asserts, the city would have appeared to be losing to the hostile force and Kett’s army would not have been able to simply sit still once Kett had rejected the government’s offer of pardon. Kett’s men attacked and took the city, though they remained, mostly, based on Mousehold.

The government, led by Edward Seymour, the first duke of Somerset and lord protector, had to divide its attention between the different uprisings, particularly Exeter and Norwich, as well as address hostilities with Scotland and, increasingly, France. Their response to Kett’s Rebellion was to send a force quickly, led by Sir William Parr, the marquess of Northampton. The force, though relatively small, was made up of a significant number of courtly stars. Unfortunately for Northampton, his attempt to hold the city was resisted by Kett’s force, which enjoyed a real tactical advantage in the city streets and from Mousehold. The nobles retreated to Cambridge and awaited further direction.

The government had a serious situation on its hands, and it responded seriously. Somerset himself was preparing to lead a larger force to Norwich, though circumstances led him to give the charge to the earl of Warwick, John Dudley. As historians suggest, this change of mind would cost Somerset dearly, perhaps leading directly to his removal from the head of the Privy Council later in the year.

Warwick’s force met up with Northampton and progressed to Norwich, where it faced little resistance entering the city. Kett’s men tried to retake the city but ended up back at Mousehold, albeit after some initial successes. The situation looked increasingly hopeless for the rebels, who had lost momentum and advantage. On August 26, by cover of night, the rebels abandoned Mousehold and prepared for an open battle with the royal forces. The battle took place at Dussindale Dussindale, Battle of (1549) on August 27, quickly becoming the last stand of the insurgents. Warwick executed a number of captives after pardoning other combatants. Kett took flight but was soon captured and taken to the Tower of London. After being held there with his brother, William, who had also been a ringleader of the rebellion, Robert Kett was transported back to Norwich for execution. His fate was a gruesome one, reserved for those found guilty of treason: He was hung, cut down while still alive, then forced to watch his own entrails removed and burned. He was then beheaded and quartered. The strange series of events known as Kett’s Rebellion, which began as a rambunctious moment of local dissent six months earlier, was quelled, though not explained, by Kett’s trial and violent death.

Significance

It seems correct to argue that Kett’s Rebellion achieved virtually none of its aims in the short or long term. If Kett and his men were motivated by a sense of injustice against unfair and harmful changes to the system of land ownership, these changes were implemented nonetheless. The English economy continued its eventual transformation into a capitalist society, rewarding innovation and individualism rather than preserving traditional, community-based economic systems. Depending on one’s own interpretation, then, Kett could appear as a Romantic hero determined to take a stand against practices that he understood to be benefiting the few while causing hardship to the many. He is in this scenario a tragic hero felled by irresistible forces of change. Economy;England

Alternatively, one could see him as a troublemaker, though a well-intentioned one, who led hundreds of discontented men to their deaths and caused the city of Norwich to become a broken battleground. As with all people, historic figures and ordinary folk, a true understanding of Kett probably lies somewhere between the best and worst descriptions of him.

As Stephen Land and others argue, however, the greatest effect of Kett’s Rebellion may have been that it contributed significantly to the downfall of Somerset’s protectorship. Given the widespread unrest that Kett’s Rebellion came to symbolize, many judged Somerset’s domestic policies a failure. Warwick’s triumphal return from Norwich, moreover, ensured that he was well positioned to assume the lead of the King’s Council once Somerset’s fall had been engineered.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beer, Barrett L. Rebellion and Riot: Popular Disorder in England During the Reign of Edward VI. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1982. This book is useful for understanding the rebellion in relation to other contemporary disturbances, particularly Exeter’.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bindoff, S. T. Kett’s Rebellion, 1549. London: Historical Association, 1968. This pamphlet is still considered by many historians to be the preeminent modern account of the rebellion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Land, Stephen K. Kett’s Rebellion: The Norfolk Rising of 1549. Ipswich, England: Boydell Press, 1977. A highly readable account of the rebellion that synthesizes past sources nicely. Land stresses the larger contexts of the rebellion, stressing particularly the interwined fates of Kett and Somerset.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shagan, Ethan. “Protector Somerset and the 1549 Rebellions: New Sources and New Perspectives.” English Historical Review 114, no. 455 (February, 1999): 34-63. An analysis of Seymour’s handling of Kett’s Rebellion, along with copies of nine letters related to negotiations with rebel leaders.

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Dec. 18, 1534: Act of Supremacy

July, 1535-Mar., 1540: Henry VIII Dissolves the Monasteries

Oct., 1536-June, 1537: Pilgrimage of Grace

May, 1539: Six Articles of Henry VIII

Jan. 28, 1547-July 6, 1553: Reign of Edward VI

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