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Kett’s Rebellion: Land Enclosures were a Really Big Deal in Tudor England

They say that there are three things you shouldn’t talk about at a family dinner table: Sex, Religion, and Politics.  Keep that in mind for Thanksgiving, my American friends.  Please.  Turkeys everywhere right now are saying, “seriously, I’m not giving up my life so that you can argue over me about Syrian refugees.”  At least, I think they are.

Anyway, as much as they’re not good dinner conversation, they are good fodder for Tudor rebellions.  And Kett’s Rebellion in 1549 had 2 out of 3, which, as we all know, ain’t bad.

Kett’s Rebellion was rooted in religion and land enclosures (politics).  I don’t think there was much sex.

During the early 16th century, wool became a Really Huge Deal for Tudor England.  Wealthy aristocrats began to enclose lands so graze their sheep.  There was an ancient right to graze the common land, and more and more of the nobility started enclosing it. This gave them opportunities to make a crapton (yes, that’s a technical term) of money with more sheep having grazing space.  But it also cost the common people their own space and those ancient rights.  This actually really bothered a lot of the members of Parliament.

Thomas Cromwell himself had tried to draft legislation to make enclosures illegal.

In 1549 there were several rebellions in Cornwall around the land enclosures. The rebels also focused on religion, but with a difference.  Cornwall was much more Catholic than the rest of England, and wanted to keep the old familiar services.  On the other hand, Norfolk had been leaning towards Protestantism, and even Lollardy, for generations.  The rebels in Norfolk believed that their clergy didn’t have enough education to bring the new Protestantism to Norfolk. They also contested that that clergy were lazy, living lives far beyond the remit of priests.

Kett's Rebellion plaque

In July, several common people became frustrated at some new enclosures, which many actually believed to be illegal.   The rebels believed they had the right to tear down the enclosures because they were illegally raised.  Robert Kett owned one of the illegal enclosures, being an upper middle class farmer.  The rebels had initially gone to another enclosure, John Flowerdew.  Flowerdew persuaded them to go to Kett instead. Kett listened to the rebels and found that he favored their position.  He helped them to tear down his own fences, and then acted as their spokesperson.

Edward VI was a minor at the time, and the Protector Somerset actually was really sympathetic to the problems that came from illegal enclosures.  The commons, though, blocked 3 bills in 1548, and so instead, Somerset set up commissions to look into the abuses of enclosures.  There was a commission in the Norfolk area, which is why the rebels thought they would be supported by the government early on.

Soon Kett’s rebellion grew to 16,000 men. They camped in Mousehold outside Norwich.

People came from all over East Anglia and several camps had set up and took Norwich by force.  The Earl of Warwick sent 12,000 men and eventually defeated Kett outside Norwich, killing 3000 men in the process.
Somerset himself was indirectly blamed for provoking the rebellion and being too weak to defeat it.  Later in October, Warwick would defeat Somerset’s army.  The reaction in Parliament was swift and draconian.  They allowed the lords to enclose common land at their own discretion. However, Parliament asked the lords to leave “sufficient’ land for tenants to use, though of course the lords themselves decided what was sufficient.  If anyone broke down fences, they could suffer the death penalty.  They also passed laws making it a felony to lower rents and the price of corn.
Kett himself wasn’t able to avoid capture, and he found himself in the Tower. He was accused of Treason, then taken back to Norwich where he was hung in chains, and allowed to starve to death (not pleasant).  The government hung the other leaders of the rebellion as well, but not in chains. You know, the normal way.
On the 400th anniversary of the Rebellion, commemorators placed a plaque in Norwich commemorating the rebellion.