Robert Kett’s Petition, 1549

Robert Kett leading a peasants' revoltThe Petition of the Rebels from Mousehold Heath, July 1549

The year is 1549. Henry VIII is two years in his grave, and the Boy King, Edward VI has been on the throne for 2 years. He’s now 11, and so he is under the control of a regency, led by the Lord Protector, the Duke of Somerset – his uncle. In June 1549, Cranmer had introduced that lasting and elegant pillar of the church of England, the Book of Common Prayer, and in one part of the country, Cornwall, the result has been a mass riot and rebellion – the Prayer Book Rebellion. In the same month, rebellions of a very different kind sprang up in Hertfordshire, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Essex, Suffolk, with camps of rebels set up protesting against their economic condition and demanding change. This is the Camping time, or the Time of Commotions.

One of those movements started in Wymondham in Norfolk, and a 57 year old Tanner and landholder called Robert Kett seems to have become one of its leaders. Before long, the rebels had set up camp at Mousehold Heath to the north East of Norwich, and may have swollen to as many as 20,000.   Each Village set up their own area on the heath, and sent a representative to a Council. The job of Robert Kett and the Council was to put together their pitch to the Lord Protector.

The 29 clauses of the Petition 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.

The Rebel’s Complaint

According to Joseph Clayton, writing in 1912, the Rebels’ Compliant was written at the time of the Rebellion in Norfolk, and possibly therefore from the hand of Robert Kett. I have not been able to trace it further backa,d most modern historians do not quote from it. It is probably safer therefore to see it as a document reflecting the importance later generations have attached to Robert Kett and the rebellion, and what they stood for

“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, and, 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 out, deprived, and thrust from all his goods.

How long shall we suffer so great oppression to go unrevenged?

For so far are they, the gentlemen, now gone in cruelty and covetousness, that they are 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 the 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.

8 thoughts on “Robert Kett’s Petition, 1549

  1. Having just finished C J Sansom’s book Tombland I was eager to read an actual account of what happened in Norfolk. Although Sansom does give a very good breakdown of events at the end of the book I found your article fills in the background perfectly. Thank you for an interesting and scholarly read.

    1. I am not sure whether the actual text survives or whether it was copied by an antiquarian or some thing; I suspect the latter, but I could be wrong. Historians seem reasonably confident this is an accurate text, though

  2. I have on just come upon your podcasts and enjoy them very much. I have lived in Norfolk all my life but mostly just a few minutes walk from Mousehold where I dog walked for thirty years almost daily. I am a member of the Mousehold Defenders a voluntary group which helps to look after the heath. I now live in Sprowston also once part of the heath, before part was enclosed in 1801. We hope that we walk in the footsteps of the heroes of the rebellions past and are proud to be lucky enough to enjoy some of the things Kett and his followers fought for. Tombland is very good and it is refreshing that Norfolk and Mousehold (which has had a very turbulent history) are now recognised as most visitors think this a very slow and backward area.

    1. One of my daughters when to UEA, and I have always loved Norwich. Such a beautiful, varied and fascinating city. And having been brought up in Leicestershire, our nearest coast was Norfolk, of course, so like the rest of Leicetsershire across we came, especially in the Leicester Fortnight. I love the fact that Robert Kett’s name is so well remembered in Norwich too – it’s brilliant to have a town that remembers it’s past and celebrates it.

  3. I too am just reading C.J.Sansom Tombland & decided to look up Robert Kett.Glad I did very interesting history & incite into era of Elizabeth the first.

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