Robert Kett and his Tudor Rebellion of 1549, Benjamin Zephaniah, William Shakespeare and a Norfolk Ghost Story

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Kett's Rebellion, AKA the Norfolk Rebellion or uprising, which occurred during the reign of the minor Tudor monarch Edward VI, started in Wymondham, Norfolk, UK, on 8 July, 1549, and ended seven weeks later on 27 August. It has been referred to as the very first class war in England.

Rebellion Against Starvation

The 16th Century was a hard time to live in, if you were not born into a wealthy family. People who didn't own their own land were known as 'peasants' or 'commoners' and were considered the lowest class of people. The lower class invariably had to rent their homes from richer people, the 'middle class' or 'upper class', who may or may not have been their employer as well. There was no welfare state, no benefits for disabled people. If you didn't or couldn't work, you probably depended on the charity of others, or starved. At the end of a hard life, a commoner's final resting place would be the best their family could afford - otherwise it would be a pauper's grave.

When landowners in England began fencing off common land, preventing the local non-elite from grazing their livestock, it sparked unrest among the poorer population. Facing starvation, some of the commoners of Wymondham near Norwich got together to protest against the richer landowners. One of those landowners, 57-year-old Robert Kett, listened to their grievances then called a meeting of the protesters under the great oak tree on his land1. Also in attendance was Robert's brother William. The Ketts not only sided with the commoners, but Robert agreed to lead a ten-mile march to Mousehold Heath2 at Norwich, gathering support along the way.

An estimated 10-15,000 protesters set up camp among the wildflowers on the heath, existing off the land and provisions that the poor of Norwich could spare. Robert Kett drew up a list of 29 demands on behalf of the protesters and presented them to a representative of the king, but they were rejected. Amnesty was offered in exchange for disbandment, but the rebels refused to disperse and they besieged Norwich. The attack on the city was the point where the rebellion became treason. Senior commander of the defending army, Lord Sheffield, was killed and the outnumbered forces retreated to Cambridge. In those days Norwich was the second-largest city in England after London, and it was now in the hands of rebels. The ruling class could not allow the uprising to continue and, determined to stamp it out, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, then Lord Protector of England, dispatched a 14,000-strong army led by Earl of Warwick to crush it.

Horrendous Ending

The second battle, known as the Battle of Dussindale, was bloody and decisive; the peasants with their pitchforks, pikes and fists were no match for trained, armed soldiers of the Crown and European mercenaries. Thousands of rebels were killed, hundreds were captured and executed without trial, including nine who were hanged at Kett's Oak. The Kett brothers were taken prisoner and sent to the Tower of London where they were put on trial for treason. The guilty verdicts were inevitable; William Kett was hanged at Wymondham Abbey's west tower on 7 December, 1549. As the rebels' leader, Robert Kett was made an example of. He knew the risk he was taking, to go up against the mighty Tudor regimen, but he decided to fight for what he thought was right, and paid with his life. He was wrapped in chains, put inside a cage and hung from the battlements of Norwich Castle, then a prison, on the same day that his brother was executed. Left to die, painfully, from hunger, thirst and exposure, Robert's last breath was, no doubt, a welcome release. The cage and its grisly contents remained dangling from the castle walls for many months, possibly even years, in full view (and smell-range) of the repulsed and horrified people of Norwich. The body rotted away until only the skeleton remained. During windy weather, bones would detach and fall between the bars of the cage, dropping onto the ground below. A Norfolk council ledger from the time, now residing in the British Library, states that a Norwich resident was paid a stipend for undertaking the unenviable task of collecting up the fallen bones and returning them to the cage. The final ignominy was that Robert Kett, a wealthy man, was denied even a pauper's grave, his gruesome fate intended to serve as a deterrent to any future rebels.

Benjamin Zephaniah visits Kett's Oak and the British Library

With the passage of time, Robert Kett has become something of a folk hero as a defender of the rights of common people to the people of Norwich, rather than a traitor. Benjamin Zephaniah visited the mighty old oak tree with the current landowner during filming of an episode of Treasures of the British Library, to learn about Kett's Tudor rebellion. Now known as Kett's Oak, there is a stone marker nearby, erected in 1896, which honours the 'Ket [sic] Rebellion of 1549'. Benjamin Zephaniah later visited the British Library to examine the rebels' demands, handwritten by Robert Kett. One of the demands was that the children of poor men be educated for free by the church. All of the demands were rejected at the time, but Parliament did provide free education for poor children, in the form of grammar schools, immediately following the Norfolk uprising.

William Shakespeare gets free schooling

One grateful recipient of the free education was William Shakespeare, who was born in 1564. His father signed his name with a cross, so he was probably illiterate. The classic literature-loving world is also thankful for William Shakespeare's literacy. Without his free schooling, Romeo and Juliet might never been written, and wouldn't that have been a tragedy.

1549 - 1949

'In 1549 AD Robert Kett yeoman farmer of Wymondham was executed by hanging in this Castle after the defeat of the Norfolk Rebellion of which he was leader. In 1949 AD – four hundred years later – this Memorial was placed here by the citizens of Norwich in reparation and honour to a notable and courageous leader in the long struggle of the common people of England to escape from a servile life into the freedom of just conditions.'

- Plaque on the wall of Norwich Castle, now a museum.

Hero Rebel

Today in the UK children's education is free up until the age of 16 and further education can be accessed in the form of college grants up to age 19 years. Fittingly, there is a Kett House residence at the University of East Anglia, and a junior school and a pub named after Robert Kett in Wymondham. A local Norwich beer commemorates the Kett Rebellion. Robert Kett's ghost allegedly haunts the exterior of Norwich Castle, which is a regular destination of local Ghost Walk events3. However, following a Robert Kett memorial march by members of Norwich Occupy and the Norwich Green Party on 7 December, 2011, 462 years to the day since his grossly-protracted execution began, a commemorative wreath was laid by the gates of Norwich Castle. We hope that his soul now rests in peace. In the eyes of the law Robert Kett was a traitor to king and country, but his legacy is that of hero rebel. According to Benjamin Zephaniah, the world needs more rebels such as him. Amen to that.

1It was a significant tree then, having been around since the late-13th Century. It still stands today, some 750 years later.2Now a designated Local Nature Reserve, you can witness some spectacular sunsets there.3Check their website for times and availability.

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