Kett's Hill climbs up from the east bank of the Wensum, on the south side of Mousehold Heath. Anyone who says Norwich is flat should see these inclines, created partly by the geologic rifting of the Wensum valley and partly by centuries of chalk mining. Technically speaking Kett's Hill is the road, which rises steeply to the suburbs around Britannia Road and the Victorian redbrick prison at Mousehold; Kett's Heights is the wooded promontory jutting out over the city centre, facing straight towards the Cathedral spire.
Photo by Evelyn Simak.
Ascending Kett's Hill, a gate opens up in the brick wall to your right and leads you up from pavement-level on a winding, tiered path through tangled foliage, dotted with the ruins of some sort of garden. You pass a concrete area, formerly a piggery during the Second World War, with a pond to one side. And then, at the top of the hill where the trees open up to frame a view of the Cathedral and the Castle beyond, there is a herb garden and a crumbling medieval wall. The wall once belonged to St Michael's Chapel. At one point it was known as 'Old Father Tyme', because from a distance it had the aspect of a frowning old man, but now it is known as Kett's Castle, which was also the name of a pub at the bottom of the hill (opened in the 1830s, converted into housing in 2016).
So who was Robert Kett? His name is everywhere. He is the prime figurehead of the city, despite being from Wymondham (pronounced Wyndum if you're a local, but if you're a student or tourist you get a free pass to say anything up to and including 'Wyme-on-da-ham', if you're willing to put up with the snickering of Norfolk folk).
According to the plaque at the summit of the Heights, Kett was 'A NOTABLE AND COURAGEOUS LEADER IN THE LONG STRUGGLE OF THE COMMON PEOPLE TO ESCAPE FROM A SERVILE LIFE INTO THE FREEDOM OF JUST CONDITIONS.'
If we're using Marxist jargon to describe this proto-revolutionary, he was a bourgeois. What the modern press would call a champagne socialist. That is to say, he was a landed farmer, a yeoman in the language of the time, born in Wymondham around 1492. He may also have been a tanner, and held the manor at Wymondham (manor meaning the principal plot of land in the area, not a big country house). He would have died comfortably and in obscurity had he not been targeted by an angry mob of peasants in July 1549, when he was about 57.
At the time, English society was undergoing radical social change. Feudalism was collapsing, but the monarchy and aristocracy at the top of the hierarchy still had absolute power. Religion was a prime tool with which to hold onto that power, and during the 1530s King Henry VIII and his advisor Thomas Cromwell had systematically overhauled the Catholic Church in England and founded the Anglican Church in its place. They did this mainly so they could dissolve the monasteries and grab the monks' wealth, but Henry's son Edward VI, who succeeded him to the throne in 1547, aged nine, was a devout Protestant surrounded by more devout Protestants. He continued some unpopular religious changes—religious relics were confiscated, feast days were reduced in number and Catholic superstitions were discouraged. The old way of life, with its folk-religion, was dying.
Simultaneously the enclosure of land continued. in the Middle Ages about 30% of land was common land. Today it's about 3%, and much of that shift happened in Kett's time. A rhyme from the 17th century puts it finely:
The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose.
The law demands that we atone
When we take things we do not own
But leaves the lords and ladies fine
Who takes things that are yours and mine.
So the peasants of Wymondham had plenty to be angry about. At the start of July, they held a festival honouring St Thomas Beckett, which was forbidden by the religious laws at the time. The rowdy celebrations escalated, and a group of commoners assembled and decided to go about tearing down fences and filling in ditches on enclosed land. They may have thought they were acting legally, because there had recently been a proclamation against illegal enclosures of land, but the fences they tore down were probably legal.
The vigilantes targeted an unpopular local lawyer and religious reformer, Sir John Flowerdew, in Hethersett. Flowerdew bribed them to leave him alone and go and bother Kett, who as we've seen owned the manor at Wymondham. The locals duly charged over to Kett's estate, tore down his fences, uprooted his hedges. But to their surprise, Kett agreed with what they were doing. In fact he offered to lead them to Norwich to remonstrate with the Mayor about the enclosure situation. According to a biographer of Edward VI, 'By bearing a confident countenance in all his actions, the Vulgars took him to be both valiant and wise, and a fit man to be their commander.'
Despite destroying private property, the 'Vulgars' were still protestors at this stage, and wanted to appeal to the law. In those days the closest thing you had to a police force was a local brigade of armed citizens who kept an eye on things—in other words, groups exactly like this one. It wasn't too much of a stretch for them to feel that they were acting legally. With Kett as their new organiser, they set off for the city. July was a time of revelry and enthusiasm, not to mention political ferment, and they picked up supporters from all across the countryside as they marched on.
Kett's band arrived at Bowthorpe, to the west of the city, on 10th July, only to be told by the High Sheriff of Norfolk that Norwich had shut its gates and manned the walls with sentries. The High Sheriff informed the group that they were rebels, or indeed rabble, which didn't go down very well—he 'only 'scaped by his horsemanship being better than his rhetorik', according to one account.
The weather was unbearably hot and the group had few provisions. They asked for water and shelter inside the walls of Norwich, and were refused. So they marched counter-clockwise via Hellesdon and Drayton, coming to the north-east side of the city and Mousehold Heath. On the west side, the city was soundly defended by walls; on the east side, there were watchtowers and gatehouses, but most of the defence work was done by the river Wensum, and parts of the river could be forded.
At this stage the mob seems to have gotten particularly fed up: they had left fences and hedges torn down all over the countryside, and slaughtered hundreds of livestock to feed themselves. According to some sources, they may have numbered as many as twenty thousand—for comparison, the population of Norwich at the time was about twelve thousand, which made it the second-largest city in England. But take this figure with a pinch of salt.
What is important is that the Norwich authorities were now faced with a camp of several thousand violent protestors, directly outside the city boundaries, who wanted to get in. They were not the first in Norfolk to do this—that summer was known as the 'camping tyme', which makes it sound a lot less radical—but they were the largest and most determined group.
Things escalated when local gentry were taken prisoner at the house of the Earl of Surrey, to the south of the Heath. Thomas Codd, the Mayor of Norwich, went out to meet the rebels and was promptly captured himself. The crumbling walls of St Michael's Chapel, with its excellent vantage point over the city, became Kett's Castle.
Codd, in captivity, and his deputy mayor Augustine Steward, attempted to negotiate with Kett's rebels. Twenty-nine articles were drawn up demanding reforms in many areas of Norfolk life, asking 'that all bondmen may be made free, for God made all free'. This echoes John Ball's radical sermon in 1381, which is still a part of English folk memory: 'When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?' Kett, Codd, a former mayor and other prominent Norwich figures signed the articles, which were dispatched to the eleven-year-old King and his Lord Protector, the Duke of Somerset, the man who did the actual governing. A local preacher gave sermons at the camp, and some of the rebels were able to enter the city in small groups and attend church.
The York Herald, a messenger from the King's privy council whose real name was Bartholomew Butler, arrived in the city with a vague response saying that the rebels' demands were reasonable and they ought to be pardoned. This was not good enough for the rebels—Kett himself insisted that pardon was for people who had done wrong, and they had done no wrong. Allegedly, a boy in the crowd made a rude gesture at Butler, and was promptly shot dead by one of his bodyguards. It was the 22nd of July, the campers had been there for 10 days, and now things promptly escalated into open warfare. Butler barely escaped the camp with his life. The city watch prepared their defences.
The Wensum at Bishopsgate in 2005. Photo by Keith Edkins.
Kett's rebels swam across the Wensum and scaled Bishop's Gate, penetrating into Tombland via St Martin's at Palace Plain. Many were probably killed by crossbows or guns, but they outnumbered the guards, and were undeterred. The goal was now to seize the city. Augustine Steward, the acting mayor in the absence of Mr Codd, made the stupid decision to move the city's heavy artillery, which was safe in the well-defended vantage point of the Castle, down to the Bishop's Bridge area, where the rebels had crossed the river and entered the gap in the city walls. Kett's men (and possibly women) captured it straight away; they were no longer a mob, but an army. It's also worth noting that the city watch may have been against the rebels, but many of them would have had sympathetic friends inside Norwich's walls.
The Marquis of Northampton was sent in to quell the rebellion. He had about 1,400 men, including armoured knights and Italian mercenaries, and set up his army in the market square on 1st August, by which point the rebels had controlled Tombland for days. Street-by-street, the armies clashed. The leader of the Italian mercenaries was captured by the rebels and hanged in the street. There are stories of Kett's people pulling arrows out of their wounds to use as ammunition, and 'crawling with severed limbs into the mêlée to do what damage they could'.
Lord Sheffield, one of Northampton's lieutenants, was riding down Bishopsgate with a full flank of cavalry on 8th August, by which time the armed street-fighting had been going on for a week, with more and more rebels trickling down from the vast camp on Kett's Hill. Sheffield's cavalry charge was stymied by the rebel footsoldiers, and Sheffield was unseated from his horse. Mildly injured, he followed protocol and removed his helmet, expecting to be captured and ransomed, but a butcher named Fulke 'basely murdered him with a club'. Today there is a stone tablet commemorating the spot on Bishopsgate. Most of the quotes in this article are from Ralph Hale Mottram's 1953 book If Stones Could Speak; in it, Mottram recalls that when he was growing up in the 1890s, 'there was no such tablet, but only a paving-stone in the sidewalk with a gigantic S on it. Yet all the semi-literate inhabitants of the alleys and yards that then surrounded the spot knew what the S meant'.
After Sheffield's murder Northampton seems to have withdrawn and the rebels captured the city. But Kett's genius for organising does not seem to have extended to local government, and Norwich remained in a state of utter chaos. Around the 23rd of August the Earl of Warwick arrived with an even larger army, including Swiss arquebusiers, and re-took the city. Kett's army fled to the chapel ruins at Mousehold, and then struck camp and descended for a final showdown. The exact location of this battle, at somewhere called 'Dussindale' or 'Dussen's Dale', has never been established, but Mottram believes it is the area where Mousehold meets the city walls; near the roundabout and the car dealership at the bottom of Kett's Hill. Others say that the fighting centred on Thunder Lane in nearby Thorpe St Andrew. At any rate Dussindale recurs in the names of streets of bungalows and new-build housing all around the area.
The Thorpe Hamlet village sign, by the roundabout at the base of the hill, where Kett's army may have fallen. Photo by Adrian S. Pye.
The location may be vague but the outcome is certain: Warwick was a much better commander than Northampton, and he routed Kett's rebels. Many of his rebels were slaughtered on the spot in mass reprisals, but Kett himself escaped and was captured outside the city in the following days. He was hanged from the battlements of Norwich Castle and his brother, his chief lieutenant, was hanged from the tower of Wymondham Abbey.
Warwick himself did exceedingly well out of the rebellion. He became Duke of Northumberland and replaced Somerset as Lord Protector, i.e. the most powerful person in England. In Peter Ackroyd's History of England he actually suggests that the handling of the rebellion, with Somerset's men Northampton and Sheffield sent into Norwich and promptly defeated, was designed to prove that Somerset was incompetent and Warwick/Northumberland ought to be in charge of the country. At any rate, after Edward VI's death aged 15, Northumberland tried to put his daughter-in-law Lady Jane Grey on the throne and got them both executed in the process. Power was precarious in the 16th century.
Today, there are few signs of the street-fighting that consumed Norwich for weeks in 1549, apart from that tablet where Sheffield fell, and the names Kett and Dussindale recurring in street-signs and pubs. Ralph Hale Mottram puts it better than I ever could:
Can this quiet place ever have reeked of blood and black powder, and resounded to the shrieks of the wounded, the shouts of the victors, the clatter of steel-clad horsemen and their heavy steeds, flung to earth and done to death, between the strong walls and the burning houses? Well, it did ... Something happened on those old stones that people living near have never forgotten.