1549 was a year of upheaval which led to rebellions which offer a fascinating window into English society. It also saw the publication of the Book of Common Prayer, Cranmer’s masterpiece which would form the bedrock of the English church for centuries
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The Petition of the Rebels from Mousehold Heath, July 1549
The 29 clauses of the Petition from Mousehold Heath survives and the petition is below. It is notable in reflecting the language of the new religion, in line with the Lord Protector’s inclinations; and in it’s carefully diplomatic format of requesting changes. Broadly speaking, the clauses seek:
- To limit the power of the gentry
- To restrain rapid economic change
- Prevent the over use of communal resources
- And remodel the values of the clergy, echoing Somerset’s religious radicalism
1. We pray your grace that where it is enacted for enclosing that it be not hurtful to such as have enclosed saffron grounds for they be greatly chargeable to them, and that from henceforth no man shall enclose any more.
2. We certify your grace that whereas the lords of the manors have been charged with certain free rent, the same lords have sought means to charge the freeholders to pay the same rent, contrary to right.
3. We pray your grace that no lord of no manor shall common upon the common.
4. We pray that priests from henceforth shall purchase no lands neither free nor bond, and the lands that they have in possession may be letten to temporal men, as they were in the first year of the reign of King Henry VII.
5. We pray that all the marshes that are held of the king’s majesty by free rent or of any other, may be at such price as they were in the first year of King Henry VII.
6. We pray that reed ground and meadow ground may be at such price as they were in the first year of King Henry VII.
7. We pray that all bushels within your realm be of one stice, that is to say, to be in measure VIII gallons.
8. We pray that priests or vicars that be not able to preach and set forth the word of God to his parishioners may be thereby put from his benefice, and the parishioners there to choose another or else patron or lord of the town.
9. We pray that the payments of castle ward rent, blanch farm, and office lands, which hath been accustomed to be gathered of the tenements, whereas we suppose the lords ought to pay the same to their bailiffs for their rents gathering, and not the tenants.
10. We pray that no man under the degree of a knight or esquire keep a dove house, except it hath been of an old ancient custom.
11. 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.
12. We pray that no feodary within your shores shall be a counselor to any man in his office making, whereby the king may be truly served, so that a man being of good conscience may be yearly chosen to the same office by the commons of the same shire.
13. We pray your grace to take all liberty of leet your own hands whereby all men may quietly enjoy their commons with all profits.
14. We pray that copyhold land that is unreasonable rented may go as it did in the first year of King Henry VII. And that at the death of a tenant, or of a sale the same lands to be charged with an easy fine as a capon or a reasonable sum of money for a remembrance.
15. We pray that no priest shall hold no other office to any man of honour or worship, but only to be resident upon their benefices, whereby their parishioners may be instructed within the laws of God.
16. We pray that all bond men may be made free, for God made all free with his precious bloodshedding.
17. We pray that Rivers may be free and common to all men for fishing and passage.
18. We pray that no man shall be put by your Feudatory to find any office, unless he holdeth of your grace in chief, or capite above 10 by year.
19. We pray that the poor mariners or fishermen may have the whole profits of their fishings such as porpoises, grampuses, whales, or any great fish so it be not prejudicial to your grace.
20. We pray that every proprietary parson or vicar having a benefice of 10 or more by year, shall either by themselves, or by some other person teach poor men’s children of their parish the book called the catechism and the primer.
21. We pray that it be not lawful to the lords of any manor to purchase lands freely, (i.e. that are freehold), and to let them out again by copy or court roll to their great advancement, and to the undoing of your poor subjects.
22. We pray that no proprietary parson or vicar, in consideration of avoiding trouble and lawsuit between them and their poor parishioners, which they daily do proceed and attempt, shall from henceforth take for the full contents of all the tenths which now they do receive, but 8.
23. We pray that no lord, knight, esquire, nor gentlemen do graze nor feed any bullocks or sheep if he may spend forty pounds a year by his lands but only for the provision of his house.
24. We pray that no man under the degree of [word missing] shall keep any conies upon any freehold or copyhold unless he pale them in so that it shall not be to the commons’ annoyance.
25. We pray that no person of what estate degree or condition he be shall from henceforth sell the awardship of any child, but that the same child if he live to his full age shall be at his own choosing concerning his marriage the King’s wards only except.
26. We pray that no manner of person having a manor of his own, shall be no other lord’s bailiff but only his own.
27. We pray that no lord, knight, or gentleman shall have or take in form any spiritual promotion.
28. We pray your grace to give license and authority by your gracious commission under your great seal to such commissioners as your poor commons have chosen, or to as many of them as your majesty and your counsel shall appoint and think meet, for to redress and reform all such good laws, statues, proclamations and all other your proceedings; which hath been hidden by your Justices of your peace, Sheriff, Feudatories, and other your officers, from your poor commons, since the first year of the reign of your noble grandfather King Henry VII.
29. We pray that those your officers, which have offended your grace and your commons, and [are] so proved by the complaint of your poor commons, do give unto these poor men so assembled 4d. every day so long as they have remained there.
Now I am aware that the title of this episode sounds as though it is sponsored by the Caravan Club. Now I would be proud to be so sponsored, come and talk to me Caravan Club, because I am a lover of the things, having spent a reasonable proportion of the holidays of my youth in one. But, this episode is not about he kind of camping where you keep tripping over guy ropes when you get caught short in the middle of the night and head for the bushes. This is series is about rebellious camping, performance camping. About camping of the mind. Of course I don’t want to over sell it. Because every day here at the History of England is a day of drama and fireworks, a constant and veritable celebration of drama and fireworks. This person having their innards torn out, that community having their religious traditions trampled on, these monarchs doing unspeakable things. So look, I realise that the pageant of history through which you are dancing with me sets a high bar for rum goings-on, and your senses may have become somewhat wearied and deadened. Oh please, not another burning. Rebellion? Yawn, so bored. But seriously this week I have for you a dinger that will hum like no other. In short, gentle listeners, we are talking about a concatenation, a confluence, and you don’t get much more thrilling than one of those. And I promise we’ll also have that thing I promised you last time.
Let me stop warbling, and I’ll get on with it. 1549 would be a big year for England, when a concatenation and confluence of religious change, economic dislocation and social turmoil all come together with a rather remarkable set of ideas of the Commonwealth to produce a conflagration. Let’s start with the religious bit, and talk about Thomas Cranmer and religion shall we? To remind you of the context. Historians are by and large agreed on one thing – that religiously speaking it’s confused out there. That it is way too soon for anyone to be claiming England to be a largely protestant place – traditionalists were still in the majority. But the religious visitation organised by Cranmer was still proceeding round the country, making sure images and the defined practices were not being abused, and as the visitations proceeded, there was chaos, some enthusiasts ripping images down, and sometimes resistance to the commissioners who ordered it. The Council slightly disingenuously noted that the chaos was least in those places where images had been taken down already – and so they ordered all images to be removed from churches whether they were being used according to the rules or not. In effect, the the gloves were being removed. Usually the commissioners went ahead with their work and met with the usual English response to outrageous provocation – a bit of foot shuffling, some eye rolling, and for the bravest, maybe a brief burst of tutting. Think of what happens when you push into a queue in England. If you’ve not done it, go and have a try just for fun. In some places though, commissioners met more serious resistance; on 5th April in the village of Helston in Cornwall a local chantry commissioner was hacked to death and the mob swelled to 3,000 before being put down by the local gentry. It was a warning. Meanwhile, England was awash with new protestant religious publications, many of them railing against the mass, and the rules of censorship were relaxed.
Thomas Cranmer then. Diarmaid MacCulloch is an historian at Oxford University, and the definitive biographer of Cranmer. He describes the core principle that Cranmer held dear like this:
One should make haste slowly, and be sensitive to the prejudices of those Christians who had not yet been made conscious of their elect status, but one should never abandon the eventual goal of reform
So make haste slowly – but never forget where you are going. And Cranmer never did.
Cranmer undoubtedly mourned the death of his king, Henry VIIII. It also undoubtedly transformed his life – Margaret Cranmer his wife returned to England, and they lived together openly – though still in defiance of the law it must be said. He also grew a beard, which I can tell you all is a liberating experience, especially if you have a double chin; but Cranmer had a less shallow reason to grow one – growing a beard had become a symbol of the rejection of papal authority; if you look at contemporary illustrations of reformers all over Europe you’ll often see them with nice bushy beards. In 1549 with the visitations underway, Cranmer could make the next step on the road; it would be enshrined in the Act of Uniformity in June, and is known to us as the Book of Common Prayer.
As I said last week, the Book of Common Prayer was to be come a central and unifying part of English culture; even the most irreligious of us will have heard at least some of its words. It was also initially very divisive, as we will see, and actually in the future it will prove divisive as well as unifying; there is one of the uniformly excellent In Our Time podcasts on the topic, where they note that the prayer book would be rejected by the non-comformists of the 19th century, forming part of a long English tradition of loyal dissent – a tradition which will mark the book’s introduction as well. Anyway, the 1549 edition was very typical of the man who created it; editor is a better word than author, since much of the content was brought together from a variety of sources, with very significant revision and melding by your truly, Thomas Cranmer. The Prayer Book, along with the manner of his death, may be Cranmer’s greatest achievements.
I was talking about it being typical of the man – in what way I hear you ask? Well, thank you for asking. Firstly, the very reason for creating it went to the heart of the aims of the reformers; to make worship accessible to everyone, to put the ordinary person into the heart of practice, to involve, to engage – participation. They wanted to strip away the complexities. So for Cranmer this was his way of achieving that, and I’ll explain how in a moment. However it was also a deeply compromised document; Cranmer’s great adversary Gardiner would seize on the book when it was published and triumphantly declare that traditionalists could live with it – they could interpret it, or misinterpret it, in a way consistent with traditional practice. Because as we have said, Cranmer’s concern was to move slowly, to take as many with him as possible. He was dissatisfied with it from the start, and knew that it would need to be revised – and within 3 years it would be. But you know, step by step, baby steps.
So complexity. The existing situation was something of a mess. There were 8 different services through the day; there was a breviary, but different dioceses tended to use different ones; there was a missal, there was a manual which basically dealt with baptism and death, and then there were a cascade of rules and regulations on all manner of stuff. All in Latin. This Cranmer took, and like the garden in early Autumn, cut it all back. There would be just two services a day. Everything you needed would be in a single book of Common Prayer. Everything you need. All in English. Common you see – common to all, no messing.
So there’s that – there’s simplicity, order and structure. There was also practice. A collection of old traditions were simply pruned away – the tradition of the priest turning to Golgotha, the need for silver bells at particular moments; the priest instead was to turn towards the congregation. The host and the chalice were not to be elevated, the priest was to be a minister now, and blood and the wine simply placed on the altar. The rich vestments of the priest were curtailed, and now the minister would only wear a simple surplice. When I say only, I mean he would wear normal clothes under the surplice, otherwise Thomas Cranmer really would have been a radical. A whole load of these traditions go, and your attitude towards this depends I guess on your basic mindset I guess; if I read a Catholic historian like Richard Rex, the page drips with regret and empathy for the pain of a people whose well worn ways of doing things were discarded. Others reflect the simplicity, openness and directness of Cranmer’s new services. You pays your money and takes your choice – I remember my folks dismay when the King James Bible was replaced by an updated version. They felt like they’d lost an old friend
So, structure, simplicity, directness – but then there’s language. Now look, Cranmer was an academic, and a humanist academic at that. The real and present danger was that the new Prayer Book would be an impressive and unreadable mass of rolling phrases drawn from the finest Greek and Latin. And yet it was not. And here’s Cranmer’s genius. Cranmer aimed for language that could be used again and again – it must have a cadence, it must support that wonderful shared experience of reciting a litany, satisfying phrases and rhythm that stay with you all your life. At the same time it must be easy to understand by everyone, not just the well-educated elite – otherwise, why not just stick to Latin. One of his objectives was that the book would encourage every individual to be inspired to continue reading and learning more about what they found in the book, by reading the bible as well, and therefore the language must be accessible. It’s a long, long time since I have looked at the Book of Common Prayer, but bits of it come back to me as I write.
In particular Cranmer changed the marriage service, adding the phrase that marriage was
For the mutual society, help and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity
Which is a welcome change from the rather functional avoidance of sin and begetting of children, so maybe this is Thomas’s experience of life with Margaret Cranmer making itself felt. We all recognise the words ‘Dearly beloved we are gathered here and all that, and of course phrases like ‘Ashes to ashes, dust to dust’.
The Prayer Book was also radical in what it changed about doctrine; Although it would take until the 1552 version to really complete this, the move was towards a service of remembrance, rather than a magical transformation. Everyone was to take communion once a week, not once a year, and they were to take both the bread and wine, in both kinds, rather than just the bread, in one kind, as before.
Cranmer’s new Book of Common Prayer was produced alongside an Act enforcing its use by everybody; any minister that refused would be put away for six months and lose his position. Nobody would be burned though. Around the same time another change was made – the end to clerical celibacy, English ministers of the church could now marry and have a family. Finally one other part of the revolution was simply in the extraordinary novelty of a country now able to ensure that every one of its 8,000 parish churches had a copy of the new Prayer book. Only the arrival of printing made this possible. Tudor administration might look ramshackle to us – but it proved its efficiency for the 16th century by doing the rest and getting the book to all of the churches. We will see in a moment how the new Prayer Book was received.
But before we do that, we need to add another ingredient to the stew. I think you should have got the message now that we are talking about a time of great dislocation; enormous economic distress as rising prices and a rising population meant that the poorest and most vulnerable in society stood constantly on the edge of famine. Under the immense pressure, many were forced to move to look for work, and were often greeted in new towns and villages with the stocks, whipping even branding; while Cromwell’s poor laws helped people look after their own parish, vagabonds were viewed with great suspicion. Obviously society looked for explanations for all these problems. The debasement of the coinage was identified as a problem and even the flow of silver from the Spanish and Portuguese colonies. But people could not understand why people had to move, this had rarely happened before, or certainly on nothing like this scale. Often they assumed that they were simply idle, ne’er do wells, and underneath was a tinge of panic – that this would all turn to social unrest and violence. Hence much of the brutality. But there was one reason Early modern man could understand and hang onto – which was enclosure.
I have to admit that I have talked about enclosure before, in the context of the late 15th century. But you know, repitition is the mother of education. What is the mother of education? That’s right education. It’s not necessarily the mother of entertainment though. Anyway, in brief enclosure is the process of consolidating small groups of land into larger plots, taking land previously held as a common strip farming system, fencing it in and putting sheep on it. Thomas More spoke of sheep eating the people, Wolsey legislated against it. There is quite a historiographical tradition to enclosure; for some it was part of a socialist tradition, or the strong stealing from the weak. For others, and many modern historians in fact, the level of change and extent of enclosure has been over emphasised, and that often peasant families were working these things out as a community, or profiting from the process. Probably the truth is that it was all of these things. But however far legend was fact or fact legend, the point was that people could point at people enclosing fields and changing ways of life and say ‘there! There it is! There’s the problem! Those landlords are destroying our precious way of life!’
At the same time, a way of looking at English society had come about in the early to mid 16th century, which has been labelled under the general title of the Commonwealth, and the writers associated with it became labelled as the Commonwealth men – though the phrase Common wealth men is a modern 20th century term. The idea of Commonwealth in general was a well understood and common language, and thoroughly traditional. The idea that each part of society had their part to play and that each must play it for the commonwealth to flourish. But in the context of the times, the Commonwealth rhetoric sounds refreshingly challenging to the elite, challenging them to reform their behaviour in the interests of social justice.
We have to be super careful about this. Firstly, really the argument has been pretty much won that there was no Commonwealth Men movement in the sense of an organised party or group. Secondly, when I say social justice, I am consciously using a modern term with inappropriate connotations for Tudor times; social justice categorically does not mean social equality. But it is undeniable that there is a body of writing and opinion that challenges the behaviour of the political classes and landholders and tells them to reform. That advances a vision of society working together for the benefit of all, not for the disproportionate benefit of a tiny majority.
Much of the rhetoric came from the evangelical clergy. Obviously, the church had always led a sense of responsibility for the poor of yesteryear – meaning the poor cottager who in times of economic distress was the first in trouble and needed support by the local church or society. But everything gets taken up a notch in the context of the dissolution of the chantries, and the way the money is used.
The preacher Hugh Latimer is a jolly good example; and his background as the son of a yeoman probably spurred him on, he understood the context well. He was a charismatic preacher, and after Henry’s death was back to preaching to the most influential of the land, at court. He was close to Cranmer, and lived with him at Lambeth for a while. The theme Latimer followed, and many evangelical preachers the same, was a condemnation of what they called covetousness, a love of money which can only have been exaserpated by the feeding frenzy for the sell off of the monasteries and chantries.
In time past men were full of compassion; but now there is no pity; for in London their brother shall die in the street for cold; he shall lie sick at the door between stock and stock – and then perish for hunger
Latimer looked his gilded court audience square in the face
You Landlords you rent-raisers, I may say you step-lords, you have for your possessions too much…thus is caused such dearth that poor men which live of their labour cannot with the sweat of their faces have a living
But simple greed such as this was not the only problem. Flying in the face of tradition was also the problem, abandoning the traditional farming that had served communities so well since time immemoral
These graziers, enclosers…whereas have been a great many householders and inhabitants, there is now but a shepherd and his dog
Peter Ackroyd in his book on the Tudors makes the observation that we look now at hedgerows with great affection; we think of them as sort of time capsules almost, and natural motorways and refuges that protects the wildlife we have left. In 1549 for some the hedge had become a symbol of change, repression, poverty and misery. Essentially, competition and contract was replacing the old ways of mutual obligation.
However, put out of your mind any idea of social equality or social change; Latimer also preached furiously against what he saw as ill discipline and social unrest; when the rebellions came he was in the front line condemning them for daring to take up arms against established order. In fact the commonwealth men were deeply conservative, reaching back to the medieval ways of doing things and security. These were not John Balls, questioning the justice of social hierarchy.
Now, you can imagine that the squirearchy as represented in parliament would have made short shrift of these views. Possibly nodding approvingly in church, and then nipping round the back to tell their tenants that inflation meant they’d have to double the rent next month. But, interestingly, they found sympathetic ears in the political hierarchy right at the top. They found sympathetic ears stuck to the head of the Duke of Somerset.
If he were the devil he would have him heard
Is a contemporary opinion of Somerset, which is a phrase that spookily seems to appear in a Man for all Seasons attached to More. Huh. Anyway, it is attached to Somerset, indicating that here was a man that believed in justice and equality before the law. And we know that he practiced what he preached; he personally pursued cases on behalf of poorer members of society who appealed to him for help. And in June 1548 he ordered a commission set up to enquire into illegal enclosures, and to enforce existing legislation which had been introduced by Wolsey as far back as 1517. And to lead this commission he appointed one John Hales, a personal friend and a fervent believer in the ideas of the common weal. Hales set to work with some enthusiasm. As he and his commissioners toured the country, he reported to Somerset that the great and good closed ranks in his face as you would expect, bribing juries and sheriffs. Meanwhile Hales doesn’t appear to have taken a measured professional, calming approach. Not a bit of it; instead he offered up impassioned sermons against rich landlords. Amongst those in power lining up against Hales’ radicalism was one John Dudley, Earl of Warwick whose lands and rights were affected.
Hales pressed on regardless, and brought 2 bills to set before parliament to stymie enclosures. Guess how parliament voted? Um…thanks for asking, No. However, he did manage to squeak through a poll tax on sheep – how did that happen. Well, um, because Somerset clearly promised a bunch of exemptions as part of the deal – but then within a few weeks he ordered repeat offenders to be punished. This is a thing about Somerset, there’s a bit of the katy Perry about him, he’s hot and he’s cold, he’s in and he’s out. Inconsistent. Contradictory. And worst of all he gave the distinct impression sometimes of siding with the common man, the ordinary joe. Was he doing this from conviction? Or was he just courting popularity? But then who, in their right minds in the 16th century gave a tinker’s curse about popularity with the common man? No parsnips were buttered by such a thing.
So as you can see we have a right old mess developing here; radical religious reform, economic and social grief, and on top a bloke holding the tiller who didn’t appear to know what was expected of him – your priorities are to maintain order, maintain order and ooh, maintain order. Social justice is a 4 letter word. All that was needed for this big pile of kindling and nitrates was a detonator. In one area in particular it was the Prayer Book that provided the spark, or the finger on the detonator. We are down in Cornwall, in the far west of England. Villagers simply refused to accept the new Prayer Book, and they ordered their priests to wear the same clothes and deliver the traditional services. When a local gentleman tried to reason with the villagers he was hacked to death, and buried north to south – the traditional way of burying heretics. The Prayer Book rebellion spread quickly, any local gentlemen trying to stop it were trapped and imprisoned. Interesting little wrinkle; Walter Raleigh, father of THE Walter Raleigh, you know cloak, puddle bloke, was one of the gents beaten by the rebels for his reformism.
Somerset’s response was from the start rather feeble; but he was a bit hamstrung to be fair. Most of his armed forces were in Scotland, or distracted elsewhere by enclosure riots. He managed to send the Earl of Southampton westwards with a small force, but it was insufficient, and Southampton had great trouble raising more men as he went. Rather than repeating the 1497 march on London, 2,000 Cornish marched on Exeter. There is little doubt that this was all about religion. And they were shall we say, reasonably intransigent, there was none of the measured intelligence of the Pilgrimage of Grace. For those that did not join them the message was
We will have them die like heretics against the Holy Catholic faith
Nice. They burned the new prayer book, demanded the suppression of the English bible, why would we want to read the bible? eyes were to be squeezed tight shut, everything was to be as it was
Cranmer was reasonably intransigent himself. He might support Latimer’s fury against enclosure of the commons, object to the misuse of Chantry funds, but like Luther, like all the Commonwealth men and others he was no social radical. Quite apart from the fact that this was his religious revolution against which the Cornish were revolting.
Will you now have the subjects to govern their king, the villains to rule the gentlemen and servants their masters? If men would suffer this God will not…
The rebels reached Exeter and set a siege round it, bragging that the townsmen inside were merely the birds in their coop. The direction of Somerset’s response here was clear enough – was had little or no sympathy with the Prayer Book rebellion. But his lack of resources meant his response was still unimpressive and inconclusive; one day ordering prices of bread to be regulated to try and placate the rebels, then next day threatening dire consequences unless they immediately dispersed, following offers of pardon for those seeking repentance. You could see that the rebels might feel a lack of firmness from government which would have been encouraging.
Meanwhile disturbances of a very different kind had flared up in Essex, Suffolk, Sussex, Hertfordshire, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire. It became known as the rebellion of the commonwealth, and the rebels set up camps and issued petitions to Somerset. And here’s the thing; Somerset’s response to the demands of these camps was remarkable; pretty much unprecedented. In a series of letters, he essentially agreed with them. Obviously, he wanted them to disband, but they would be pardoned, and he admitted that their grievances were, and I quote just to make sure you don’t miss it
For the most part founded upon great and just causes
Golly. Some of the reasons for this are clear enough. These Camp Men as they were also known were not campaigning for a reversal of religious change. Instead they often asked for greater changes in religion – and Somerset acknowledged this in his letters
Ye do acknowledge the Gospels which ye say ye greatly hunger for
The camps prepared and shared evangelical sermons; One group even offered to fight against the western Prayer book rebels. Some demanded better trained preachers, familiar evangelical tropes like removing pluralism are repeated. The camps were mainly in the South, South East and East Anglia here, where evangelicalism was at its strongest. On 10th July 1549 the strongest rebellion yet erupted in Norfolk, from Wymondham. The spark for rebellion was an enclosure protests. The protestors gathered around an Oak tree, which can according to tradition, still be found there, and they found themselves a talented leader in Robert Kett – and thus the rebellion is often known as Kett’s Rebellion. Kett’s rebellion stands in a proud line of English protest that links Wat Tyler, Jack Cade and now, Robert Kett. Now, I am sorry to say that I don’t really have the space for as much depth as I would like here – so how lucky it is that we have the Shedcasts! Shedcast 30 is therefore entitled Hero of the People and is all about the rebellion in Norfolk. For all you lovers of mysteries or conspiracy theories out there, it also includes an intriguing series of facts that cast a different light on Robert Kett’s involvement. So members, hie ye there if you have not done so already. Anyway, the rebellion spread through Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. Kett and his men took over the city of Norwich, and made camp at Mousehold heath near the city. There his camp swelled to 16,000 men.
What drove the Rebellion of Commonwealth was not religion, but economic distress and social unease. They are however, deeply conservative – they wanted an end to enclosure, and end to inflation, they wanted what they saw as greedy landlords stopped. However in the camps at Mousehold Heath, there is an attractively democratic strand to the rebellion. Kett formed a governing council made up of representatives from the villages that had joined the revolt; and even dispensed justice under an oak they named the Tree of Reformation; the indignity of it all – members of the gentry forced to doff their cap to their social inferiors, and receive judgement at their hand. Just to make it worse, even unbearable, the Mousehold court appeared to make responsible and reasonably mild judgements – it did not simply turn out to be a cover for vengeance. They sent a petition to Somerset as did other camps – and you can read said petition on the website if you so desire. Essentially, the camps resounded with ideas and excitement, with sense of new possibilities, and air of freedom, ways to make the commonwealth work for all people. While there is no way in which we can consider this a movement, a Commonwealth party or anything so modern; but there were without doubt common ideas around the ideal of the commonwealth. A revolt in Yorkshire by 3,000 people was incidentally considerably more radical:
There should be no king reigning in England; the noblemen and gentlemen to be destroyed
It’s interesting to see something quite so radical; but it’s an outlier, not typical of the general movement of the camping time.
Now, I think it’s fair to say that Somerset’s interested, emollient and even sympathetic response was not to everyone’s liking. On the Council in particular, Somerset’s supporter William Paget, was now jumping up and down and laying eggs. Somerset! Forget all this namby pampy ‘oh yes you’ve got a good point’ nonsense, crush them, like we always do, CRUUUUSSSHHH THEEEEEMMMM! A letter survives from Paget, of which this is part
What seeth your grace over the king’s subjects out of all discipline, out of obedience, caring neither for Protector nor King, and much less any other mean officer. And what is the cause? Your own lenity, your softness, your opinion to be good to the poor
Somerset’s response was to order another enquiry into enclosures, with the power to pull enclosures down themselves. An egg dropped and smashed quietly under Paget’s chair. Somerset issued a stream of proclamations to the rebels, and unfortunately they often had sadly conflicting messages, sometimes harsh sometimes conciliatory. He was convinced conciliation would work in the end – and he simply did not seem to want to crush them, but was not quite clear how to resolve the situation.
They stand for private reformation he said yet they musty tarry a parliament time
Essentially Somerset was promising the South and Eastern rebels a parliament to review their grievances. But panic rose around him; in London troops were assembled to defend the king, and then a rumour suddenly circulated that Edward had been killed. So Somerset was forced to wheel him out, riding through the streets waving his cap. The Earl of Southampton in the west was desperate for orders, worried that his men would desert, and at last he was given his orders. The rebels were defeated at a brutal battle at Clyst, where Southampton marvelled at the ferocity and courage with which the rebels fought. A thousand were slaughtered on the field of battle, and more hunted down as they fled into deepest Cornwall and into Somerset. Elsewhere, the Gentry and magnates took action as they always did; the Earl of Arundel invited his tenants to a slap up feast and talked them round, Lord Grey of Wilton killed 200 rioters in Oxfordshire to re-establish control. And so attention was focussed on Norwich, and Kett, the largest and remaining camp. Because in Norfolk the magnate who would normally have organised policing was discredited and powerless, kicking his heels in the Tower – the Duke of Norfolk. The absence of local leadership is one good explanation for the success and relative longevity of Kett’s rebellion.
By the start of August, though, Somerset was reaching the end of the line. The last straw was probably the news that King Henry II in France was now threatening Boulogne. Finally, Somerset knew that the issue was now not just whether the rebellion could be supressed, but whether or not he could survive politically. And so finally, John Dudley, Earl of Warwick was provided with 5,000 men with more to come, and ordered to crush the rebels.
By mid August 1549, Dudley’s army was outside the walls of Norwich, and when negotiations failed, Dudley attacked. Despite fierce resistance and a furious counter attack by the rebels, Dudley held took the city.
Kett was forced back to Mousehold Heath. As Dudley threatened to surround him, he retreated further to the plains at Dussindale, encouraged by a prophecy that promised victory. Which is a shame because it seems a poor decision – out in the open. Dudley followed, while Kett desperately dug in, and chained a line of posh folk in front of the hastily dug trenches, which is an amusing idea. None of it helped; Dudley’s army of professional mercenaries hacked 2,000 to death before Dudley stopped the slaughter by offering a pardon.
Kett ran for it, but didn’t make it far. 9 leaders were hung from the Oak of Reformation by 29th August, while the local gentry, understandably upset at having being chained together in front of 5,000 hairy pikemen, bayed for more – but Dudley was for mercy; the job was done. It would do his reputation little good locally by the way; he had already strung a bunch of rebels up in the market square in Norwich, and the slaughter at Dussindale would stay in the memory for many years.
Robert and William Kett rode through the city of London on 7th September through crowds that gathered to see them. The trial delivered no surprises, but it was decided the pair should die in Norfolk, It took a while, but on 7th December William was hung from the tower of the church at Wymondham where it had all started. Robert was dragged by a horse from the Guildhall in Norwich to the castle, and hanged in chains until the flesh rotted from his body. Interestingly, he became something of a local hero; there’s a plaque on Norwich castle apologising for the hanging thing, and thanking him for his part in the long struggle of the common people of England to gain freedom.
So camping time was over. Somerset might have breathed a sign of relief; but I rather doubt it. He must have been aware that he had not covered himself in glory.