Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Kett, Robert

KETT, ROBERT (d. 1549), rebel, was a member of an old Norman family, whose name passed through the forms of Le Chat, Cat, Kett, Ket, and Knight. A branch of this family settled at Wymondham, Norfolk, and held lands there in 1483. In 1549 Robert Kett is called a tanner, and his brother William a butcher or mercer; but both were landowners and men of some position in the neighbourhood. Robert held the manor of Wymondham from John Dudley, earl of Warwick, and other lands as well. He belonged to the class of landlords, and only through accident took the side of the people. This accident arose from a local quarrel. The parish church of Wymondham was joined to the priory church, and after the dissolution of the monasteries the men of Wymondham in 1539 bought from the crown the choir of the priory church and other parts of the monastic buildings. In spite of this the tenant of the royal grantee, Serjeant Flowerden, who lived at Hathersett in the neighbourhood, stripped the lead from the roofs and carried away the bells (Blomefield, Hist. of Norfolk, i. 733–734). The Ketts, as the chief people in the town, resented this, and a feud grew up in consequence. There were many hardships arising from the harsh conduct of the new landlords, especially in the enclosure of common lands; and on 20 June 1549 there was a riot at Attleborough, and fences were torn down. On 7 July an annual festival, with a play in honour of St. Thomas of Canterbury, was held at Wymondham. The gathering of excited rustics ended in the destruction of more fences, among them some erected by Flowerden at Hathersett. Flowerden gave the rioters money to pull down Kett's fences as well; and Kett, in his anger at this treatment, helped them to level his own fences, and then led them back to make a clean sweep of Flowerden's. In this Kett was helped by his brother William, and the riot became important when it was headed by two men of position. The excitement of leadership awakened in Kett's mind a sympathy with popular aims. He led the rioters to Cringleford, and thence to Bowthorpe, where the sheriff, Sir Edmund Windham, boldly ordered them to disperse. He was assailed, and fled to Norwich, where the rioters followed and pulled down the fences of the Town Close. The mayor of Norwich sent off a messenger to London, and tried meanwhile to save the city. Kett occupied Mousehold Heath as a camp, and his followers soon reached the number of sixteen thousand men, who scoured the country for provisions and blockaded the city. Yet Kett maintained order. He established law courts, which sat under an oak-tree; there were chaplains, who said daily prayers and preached to the people; among others Matthew Parker, afterwards archbishop of Canterbury, ventured into the camp and addressed the rioters. A petition of grievances was drawn up and signed by twenty-two delegates of the hundreds of Norfolk and one of Suffolk. The demands were singularly moderate, and aimed at redressing the hardships of the feudal system by diminishing the power of lords of manors as regards enclosures, outgoings which were unjustly thrown upon tenants, restrictions of rights of fishing, keeping of dovecots, and such like. The only general principle laid down is, ‘We pray that all bondmen may be made free; for God made all free with his precious bloodshedding.’ There is no ground for finding in this rising any sympathy with the old form of the church; clerical residence and diligence in teaching are the only demands of a religious nature. On 21 July came a royal herald, offering pardon, whom Kett answered, ‘Kings were wont to pardon wicked persons, not innocent and just men.’ After being thus treated as a rebel, Kett began the siege of Norwich, and William Parr, marquis of Northampton, was sent with 2,500 men to its succour. Among his troops were some Italian mercenaries, who were worsted in a skirmish, and on 1 Aug. Kett attacked Norwich, slew Lord Sheffield, and drove the royal troops out of the city. The privy council was in great anxiety, and not till 16 Aug. was John Dudley, earl of Warwick, named commander against the rebels. On 23 Aug. he reached Norwich, and sent a herald offering pardon to all except Kett. While the herald was delivering his message one of his escort shot a boy who affronted him, and the herald was almost torn to pieces. Kett interposed to save him, and for a moment hesitated whether or no he should accompany him to Warwick. But his followers seized his bridle, and the chances of peace were at an end. Warwick forced his way into one end of Norwich while the rebels held the other, and there was confused fighting in the streets till, on 26 Aug., Warwick was reinforced by eleven hundred lanzknechts, and was strong enough to meditate an attack on the camp at Mousehold. Moved by a local prophecy, which foretold that ‘the country gnuffes should fill up Dussindale with blood,’ Kett moved from Mousehold to Dussindale below, and there awaited Warwick's onslaught. In the open field trained soldiers easily prevailed; the lanzknechts fired a volley, and charged the centre of the rebels, who gave way, and their forces were thus cut into, and fled on different sides. At least 3,500 men were slain on the field, and so fulfilled the prophecy. Kett rode away to Swannington; but his horse was weary and he could go no further. He was taken and brought back to Norwich, whence he was sent with three brothers to London. Only he and William were brought to trial; they pleaded guilty, and were condemned to death as traitors. On 29 Nov. they were handed over to the sheriff, and were taken back to Norwich, where Robert was executed on 7 Dec. 1549, and his body was hanged in chains from the top of the castle. William was sent to Wymondham, and was similarly hanged from the church tower.

[Russell, Kett's Rebellion in Norfolk, has collected most of the documents relating to the rising. There are two contemporary accounts, Neville's De Furoribus Norfolcensium, first published 1575, and Southerton's The Commoyson in Norfolk (Harl. MSS.), 1576. Besides these: Hayward's Reign of Edward VI; Holinshed's Chronicle; Strype's Ecclesiastical Memorials and Life of Parker; Blomefield's Hist. of Norfolk, ii. 160, &c. Of modern writers: Froude's Hist. of England; Dixon's Hist. of the Church of England; Rye's Popular Hist. of Norfolk.]

M. C.