Kett’s Rebellion & The Hangman’s Oak

Kett’s Rebellion: On 6th July 1549, there was a large gathering at Wymondham in Norfolk, to celebrate the feast of St Thomas, which – though illegal following a ban of St Thomas’s feast by Henry VIII – remained a traditional holiday.

It was here that the seeds of Kett’s Rebellion, which would become a major insurrection with bloody consequences, were first sown. Here, with many ordinary people brought together and given the opportunity to exchange news and ideas, grievances were aired, and it became apparent that there was a great deal of discontent brewing.


A Tinderbox of Political Unrest

This was a period of high inflation with the cost of living making life harder for commoners.

On top of which, the local gentry had been enclosing common land, removing a traditional support by putting up fences to keep commoners out and robbing them of traditional rights to subsistence.

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Enclosure was not new to Norfolk, but the harsh economic conditions made people more impatient that the issue of enclosure be fairly addressed.

The tree that has become known as Kett's Oak in Hethersett. This picture comes from an old postcard. Tradition has it that the "rebels" gathered together under this tree before making their way to Norwich.
The tree that has become known as Kett’s Oak in Hethersett. This picture comes from an old postcard. Tradition has it that the “rebels” gathered together under this tree before making their way to Norwich.

Historian Geoffrey Moorhouse has argued that the situation was more complicated than it is usually presented. The peasants were angry at a number of laws which threatened their way of life, not only about enclosure: “local enclosures [were] a particular target of peasant anger, but by no means the only one.

People were also aggrieved by rack-renting, by the rise in food prices, by a steady erosion of tenant rights.”

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Their pleas for redress were ignored. Life was hard, the ruling classes were negligent, and there was rebellion in the air.

Kett’s Rebellion Pulling Down Fences

After the festival on 8th July, a crowd went together to Wymondham where they pulled down enclosure fences. Some historians, Diarmaid MacCulloch among them, have suggested that the timing was deliberate.

ridge and furrow enclosure act
Medieval ridge and furrow. There were once part of the open field system before being enclosed

The fall of the house of Howard, a prominent family in the area, had left a power vacuum. The local gentry were more vulnerable and less able to strike back than they usually would be. It is possible that the rebels seized on this chance.

Kett’s Rebellion, Robert Leads the Rebellion

One of the yeoman farmers whose land was targeted was Robert Kett. He owned land and farmed it as well as being a tanner. He was in his 50s and a relatively prosperous man, not a commoner dependent on common rights for an independent living.

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His social position was fairly affluent though he was not of the gentry or governing class. This is when the story takes a surprising turn; rather than fight back against the crowds who were damaging his property, Kett joined them.

His motivations appear to have been complex and not only about enclosure. It seems that he felt that the local gentry were not governing fairly; his grievances were with the local gentry, not with the king and his government.

An 18th-century depiction of Robert Kett and his followers under the Oak of Reformation on Mousehold Heath
An 18th-century depiction of Robert Kett and his followers under the Oak of Reformation on Mousehold Heath

He remained loyal to the crown and the government in London, but felt that the ruling class in Norfolk were not adequately representing justice and fair governance.

16,000 People in Kett’s Troop

With Kett at their head, the assembled crowd marched towards Norwich. As they marched, others joined their numbers. It was reported that there were as many as 16,000 people in Kett’s troop by the time they made camp on 12th July.

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They camped on Mousehold Heath, a large piece of open ground overlooking Norwich. This was a symbolic choice since it was also the site of a camp during the 1381 Peasants Rebellion. Kett’s ideas about the importance of justice and fair government can be seen in his management of this camp. He began a so-called “Oak of Reformation”, an open-air court beneath the canopy of an oak tree.

Here he kept law and order in the camp and created a forum for ordinary people to make complaints and seek redress against the local gentry, many of whom were imprisoned by Kett and his men.

Kett’s Rebellion, the Demands

They also put together a list of demands which speak to their priorities and aims. These included the following (the document is held in the British Library and can be read online here):

  • We pray your grace that no lord of no mannor shall comon uppon the Comons.[ix]
  • We pray that Rede ground and medowe grounde may be at suche price as they wer in the first yere of kyng henry the vijth[x]
  • We pray that all ffreholders and copieholders may take the profightes of all comons and therlordes to comon and the lordes not to comon nor take profightes of the same.[xi]
  • We pray that copie your grace to take all libertie of lete into your owne handes wherby all men may quyetly enioye ther comons with all profightes.[xii]
  • We pray that Ryvers may be ffre and comon to all men for ffysshyng and passage.[xiii]
  • We pray that the pore mariners or ffyssheremen may haue the hole profightes of ther ffysshynges in this realme as purpres grampes whalles or eny grett ffysshe so it be not preiudiciall to your grace.[xiv]
  • We pray that it be not lawfull to the lordes of eny mannor to purchase londes frely and to lett them out ageyn by copie of court roll to ther gret advaunchement and to the vndoyng of your pore subiectes.[xv]

These demands place a clear emphasis on land rights. They underline the importance of the commons to people who depended on it for foraging food and fuel.

Ketts Oak "Hanging Tree"
Ketts Oak “Hanging Tree” Nine of the rebels were hanged at Kett’s Oak….

It makes clear that they felt that they were being shut out by wealthier members of society, who were encroaching on a space which had been set aside for the sustenance of the poor.

An Army from London

Since the politically weakened local gentry were not up to the task of negotiating with Kett, an army was sent from London to offer pardons in exchange for quick surrender.

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This force was led by William Parr, the Marquis of Northampton. Kett and his men fought back, there was a bloody battle in which a peer of the realm was killed, and the rebels emerged victorious. They held Norwich for one month.

But Kett’s luck did not hold. The rebels sought to spread rebellion in Great Yarmouth. They were not successful.

Kett's Oak is a tree that folklore states was the meeting place for what was to become Kett's Rebellion in the year of 1549
Kett’s Oak is a tree that folklore states was the meeting place for what was to become Kett’s Rebellion in the year of 1549

When another royal army was sent to Norwich, Kett’s rebels were defeated. The final stand-off was at Dussindale on 27th August. Kett was captured the next day. He was then transported to London to stand trial for treason. He was found guilty and returned to Norwich for his punishment, so that he could be made an example of.  On 7th December, he was hanged from the wall of Norwich castle and left to rot there as a warning to other would-be rebels.

Afterlife of Kett’s Legend

The afterlife of Kett’s rebellion has been almost as important as the short-lived insurrection he led.

Was he a traitor, or was he a hero of the people? The authorities painted Kett as a criminal and a “felonious and malicious traitor, and a public enemy”. A story was circulated that he used the rallying cry “Kyll the Gentlemen” and that he sought the murder of the gentry and even the king.

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As we have seen, this was not the case; Kett was loyal to the king and only wanted the local gentry to represent his government more faithfully and more fairly.

When the gentry were tried by the rebels at the “Oake of Reformation” they were treated according to the letter of the law; the camp on Mousehold Heath embodied the principles of fair governance which Kett was fighting for.

The public execution of the Kett brothers in Norwich was celebrated as a day of “delveraunce” into the seventeenth century. They were made into into bogeymen and cautionary tales for years to come, a little like the commemoration of Guy Fawkes’s execution on 5th November.

Alongside this image, there is another persistent legend of Kett and his rebellion which sees him as a champion of the people.

Hero of the Common Man

Immediately after his defeat, there was disquiet about the display of Kett’s body on the castle wall, with people reported to believe he should be given a burial and saying so in public. His story became a source of hope and inspiration for those who continued to suffer the unchecked abuses of the local gentry.

Wymondham, Norfolk, England, UK
Wymondham, Norfolk, England, UK

In the twentieth century, Kett was once again rehabilitated as a folk hero. The labour and socialist movements saw Kett as a fighter for workers rights and a hero of the common man. The rehabilitation of Kett’s reputation can be seen in the twentieth-century celebrations marking anniversaries of his rebellion.

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The year 1949 saw the 400th anniversary of Kett’s rebellion. It was marked with a celebration and a public reappraisal of the revolt.

In 1999 the 450th anniversary saw a week-long celebration at Wymondham, the location where the rebels first pulled down fences enclosing common land in 1549. He was no longer a criminal, even if the picture of him as a socialist freedom fighter isn’t quite accurate either.

Ruling Elite

Robert Kett’s rebellion saw ordinary people standing up to the abuses of the ruling elite who took access to land away from ordinary people who depended on it.

Kett's Rebellion is remembered on Wymondham's town sign
Kett’s Rebellion is remembered on Wymondham’s town sign

The common right to access land was a hugely important support to rural life. The enclosure of this resource to enrich the few during a time of economic hardship, made a difficult situation harder and created a tinderbox of political unrest.

Whatever his politics – and it seems improbable that he was a socialist – Kett stood up for justice and the right of the common man to a living. His legacy has been a complicated one with different political factions telling different stories over the centuries that followed.

But the essential point remains, that Kett was a prosperous man in middle age who stood up to injustice and paid a high price.

Timeline of Kett’s Rebellion

June 1549:

Spontaneous outbreaks of rioting occur in Devon and Cornwall, driven by grievances over land enclosures and religious tensions.

6th July 1549:

A gathering takes place in Wymondham, Norfolk, to celebrate the feast of St. Thomas.

8th July 1549:

Men in Wymondham begin tearing down enclosures, expressing their frustrations over the encroachment on common lands.

12th July 1549:

Robert Kett joins the rebellion after the crowd attacks his own enclosures. He becomes the leader of the uprising.

The rebels march towards Norwich, with their numbers growing along the way.

16th July 1549:

The rebels establish a camp on Mousehold Heath, overlooking Norwich.

Kett begins organizing the rebels, issuing warrants styled from the king and creating military units.

Kett establishes a court of justice at the “Oak of Reformation” and captures and imprisons numerous Norwich gentry.

August 1549:

The rebels take control of Norwich, defeating a government force led by the Marquis of Northampton.

Kett’s rebels remain in control of Norwich for about a month, even winning over some of the city’s elite.

Attempts to incite rebellion in Great Yarmouth fail.

27th August 1549:

The rebel forces are defeated by a stronger royal army at the Battle of Dussindale.

28th August  1549:

Robert Kett is captured a few miles from the battle site.

Kett is transported to the Tower of London and later tried for treason.

7th December 1549:

Kett is hanged in chains from the walls of Norwich Castle, and his body is left to rot as a warning to others.

Kett’s brother, William, is hanged from the west tower of Wymondham Abbey.

The changing story of Kett’s Rebellion in history :

In the immediate aftermath of the rebellion, official accounts portray Kett as a dangerous rebel and traitor.

Over time, the memory and perception of Kett fluctuate between hero and villain.

In the 20th century, Kett’s rebellion is seen in a more favourable light, with efforts to rehabilitate his image as a defender of the common people.

Commemorative ceremonies and celebrations take place in 1949 and 1999 to mark the anniversaries of the rebellion. Kett’s Rebellion continues to be remembered in Norfolk today, with Kett regarded as a local hero and symbol of resistance against oppression.