Welcome to The City Report, a new website about cities, telling stories of all kinds about a new city each month. Here's our very first story. It's about rebellion, struggle, and legacies:
Virginia is for lovers, right? Well, Norwich should be for rebels. The city of my birth has one of the worst mottos of any British town or city: “Norwich: A fine city.” Fine. Okay. Fine.
Norwich was just ‘fine’ when I was growing up. It was a little like the way Philip Larkin wrote about the 60s…
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) -
Between the end of the "Chatterley" ban
And the Beatles' first LP.
… the nineties didn’t reach Norwich at the same time as the rest of the country. It was slow on Britpop, it was slow on hip hop, it was slow on… chain restaurants that aren’t rubbish. It was slow on racial diversity. It was slow on gay rights. It was all a little bit backwaterish.
But it didn’t need to be. The history of Norwich and the wider county of Norfolk is laced with radical thought and action. It’s the place where Thomas Paine and Abraham Lincoln have their roots, a place of class struggle and rural discontent. And nobody represents that more than Robert Kett and his less valorized (but no less deserving) brother William.
The unlikely rebel
Robert Kett was an unlikely rebel hero. He was the fourth son of Thomas Kett, a farmer, and only he and his older brother William had survived to adulthood. Robert was unusual. Though he owned land, he thought deeply about the concerns of those who did not.
Prior to the rebellion, Robert and his family, driven by their faith, had fought to protect their parish church after Wymondham Abbey, the largest place of worship in Wymondham, the Norfolk town where they were born, was destroyed.
Robert came into conflict with Sir John Flowerdew, another local landowner who was more powerful because of his title, after he sided with rioters who tore down fences and hedgerows put up by Flowerdew and other landowners. The enclosures were illegal, depriving people of the common land where the poor could graze cattle.
The enclosure of that common land is echoed now in the continued degrading of public spaces, from squares swallowed up by developers, to the casual destruction of libraries and museums at the behest of the government’s austerity drive.
After listening to the common people’s grievances, Robert Kett tore down his own fences and joined their cause. Soon he was their leader. In July 1549, he marched his men to the outskirts of Norwich and formed a camp at Mousehold Heath. He was at the head of an army of 16,000 men who aided him in blockading Norwich, a crucial city for trade and politics.
Offered an amnesty by the crown in return for standing down, he refused: just men need no pardon. On 1 August 1549, he and his army took possession of Norwich. The King dispatched the Marquess of Northampton with 1,500 men, including mercenaries, to break the rebellion.
The chippy Marquess sent his herald ahead of him to demand the rebels’ surrender. The demand was ignored. Kett chose to withdraw to high ground overlooking the city and left it to Northampton’s small force to take. He then laid siege to the army and the city once again.
On 31 July, hundreds of rebels snuck into the city and used their local knowledge and the cover of darkness to launch guerrilla attacks on the Royal troops. The following morning, the Royal army had strengthened their defenses. But a diversion distracted Lord Sheffield and in the ensuing battle, he fell from his horse. He was killed by a butcher called Fulke.
Shaken by the loss of such a senior commander, Northampton ordered a retreat. This didn’t stop until the remnants of the force had reached Cambridge, 57 miles away.
With the King increasingly frustrated by this so-called “ragtag” rebellion, the Earl of Warwick was sent with a stronger army of 14,000 men, including Welsh, German and Spanish mercenaries, to break Kett’s resolve.
That wanker Warwick
Warwick was an experienced general, former MP, and a member of the Privy Council. He was a tough bastard but despite the clear threat from his arrival, the rebels remained loyal to Kett and to the fight.
On August 24, Warwick’s forces entered the city with the rebels retreating at speed, setting fires as they went in an attempt to slow the advance. At 3pm, Warwick entered the city in a baggage train, got lost and ended up running into the rebel forces. The train was captured, including artillery, although the Royal forces later recaptured some guns.
At 10pm that night, rebels entered the city and cause Warwick the same problem that Northampton had faced - the Royal forces were now trapped in a burning city, surrounded by rebel forces.
Fierce fighting continued throughout the 25 August but the following day, Warwick got the advantage - 1,500 German mercenaries. His army now too large to be contained within the city, the rebels knew that Warwick would now engage their forces in battle. They broke from the Mousehold camp to prepare for a straight fight.
On August 27, the final battle took place, in an area called Dussindale. The rebels were routed. In the open, against well-armed, well-trained, fresh troops, thousands were slain and the rest ran for their lives.
Around 3,000 rebels were killed. Warwick’s Royal army and their mercenaries lost no more than 250 men. The morning after the battle, rebels were hanged at locations around the city with as many as 300 men executed. Warwick had also executed 49 captured rebels when he first entered the city. The rebels executed one man -- an Italian mercenary captured in battle.
Robert Kett himself was captured the night after the battle. They were taken to the Tower of London, tried for treason, found guilty and returned to Norwich in December. Robert was hanged from the walls of Norwich Castle on 7 December 1549, the same day that William was hanged from the west tower of Wymondham Abbey.
For hundreds of years, the rebellion -- known as the commotion time in Norfolk -- was a forbidden topic and the Kett brothers were dismissed as treasonous, traitorous rebels.
In 1550, the year after the Ketts were murdered, the city authorities decreed that 27 August would be a celebration of Norwich’s deliverance from Kett’s rebellion. It paid for lectures on the sins of rebellion and continued this tradition for over 100 years.
Robert, remembered at last
Finally, in 1948, Alderman Fred Henderson, a former mayor of Norwich, who himself had been imprisoned at Norwich Castle for taking part in food rights in 1885, argued strongly for a memorial to Kett and a general reconsideration of the history.
In 1949, 400 years after the rebellion, Norwich finally commemorated the heroism of Robert Kett with a plaque at Norwich Castle. It reads:
“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 the leader. In 1949, four hundred years later, this memorial was placed here by the citizens of Norwich in reparation and honour in the long struggle of the common people of England to escape from a servile life into the freedom of just conditions." The struggle continues.
Image credits: The Kett Society