THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

16 November 2016

‘Kett’s Demands Being in Rebellion’

On 15 November 2016, Sky Arts aired the latest episode of ‘Treasures of the British Library’, with poet Benjamin Zephaniah. This is one of the books he chose.

At Wymondham, Norfolk, a multi-day play was performed annually during the Middle Ages, commemorating the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170. Although the play was banned by King Henry VIII (1509–47) when he broke with Rome, it was revived on 6–8 July 1549. The suppression of their cultural and spiritual lives exacerbated the audience's unrest, since their livelihoods had been threatened by ‘enclosure’, a process of fencing in common land by landowners to transform it into private property. The loss of commons made small farming unsustainable.

Benjamin Zephaniah

Benjamin Zephaniah at the British Library.

The performance of this play in 1549 turned into a uprising, and the crowds began tearing down the hedges that enclosed the land. Robert Kett, one of the landowners originally targetted, became leader of the cause, helping to tear down his own fences. Kett led a march to Norwich, and set up camp in the open space of Mousehold Heath, just outside the city walls. It grew quickly, with accounts estimating that it numbered as many as 16,000 people. This was one of many similar camps across the country.

Kett drew up a list of twenty-nine demands to present to Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, then Lord Protector of England (for the minor King Edward VI). The demands were also signed by Thomas Codd, mayor of Norwich, who had a reputation as a moderate, as well as the past mayor, Thomas Aldrich. A simple plea ‘that from henceforth no man shall enclose any more’ heads the list, but this was not the rebels' only concern, which extended to improving education and reducing corruption. The movement was nonetheless suppressed and Robert Kett was hanged for treason on 7 December 1549; but the Mousehold manifesto endures as a witness to this attempt to propose reasonable solutions to deep-seated problems in society.

We pray your grace that no lord of no manor shall common upon the commons: Harley MS 304, f. 75v.

‘We pray your grace that no lord of no manor shall common upon the commons’: Harley MS 304, f. 75v.

The document in question is preserved in a small bundle of worn paper, folded probably to be delivered by a messenger, now British Library Harley MS 304, ff. 75r–78v. It opens with a list of the names of hundreds and their representatives in Norfolk, Suffolk and the city of Norwich, and the signatures at the end appear to be autographs.

The signature of Robert Kett: Harley MS 304, f. 77r.

The signature of Robert Kett: Harley MS 304, f. 77r.

The document is given the title ‘Keates demaundes beinge in Rebellyon’ (on the final page, f. 78v). Corrections by the scribe show revisions still being made as the sheets were written out from another copy.

There are errors in all published versions of Kett’s demands; the edition below has been corrected against the original manuscript, using the original spelling. Sections of the text whose reading is unclear due to damage are written in square brackets, while corrections are in angle brackets; these draw on earlier published versions of the text (see the bibliography below). Each of the demands is set out in paragraphs as below, but the numbering is editorial.

The Text

  1. |f. 75v| We pray your grace that where it is enacted for Inclosyng that it be not hurtfull to suche as haue enclosed saffren groundes for they be gretly chargeablye to them and that ffrome hensforth noman shall enclose eny more.
  2. We certifie your grace that where as the lordes of ther manours hath byn byn Charged with certen ffre rent the same lordes hath sought meanes to charge ther ffreholders to pay the same rent contrarye to right.
  3. We pray your grace that no lord of no mannor shall comon uppon the Comons.
  4. We pray that prestes frome hensforth shall purchase no londes neyther ffre nor Bond and the londes that they haue in possession may be letten to temporall men as they haue byn wer in the ffyrst yere of the reign of kyng henry the vijth.
  5. We pray that Rede ground and medowe grounde may be at suche price as they wer in the first yere of kyng henry the vijth.
  6. We pray that all marshysshe that ar holden of the kynges maiestie by ffre rent or of eny other may be ageyn at the price that they wer In the ffirst yere of kyng henry the vijth.
  7. We pray that all Busshelles within your realme be of one stice that is to sey to be in mesure viij gallons.
  8. |f. 76r| [W]e pray that [any prest] or vicars that be nat able to preche and sett forth the woorde of god to hys parissheners may be clerely putt from hys benyfice and the parissheners there to chose an other or elles the pateron or lord of the towne.
  9. We pray that the paymentes of castillward rent and blanche fferme and office landes whiche hath byn accostomed to be gathered of the tenamentes where as we suppose the lordes ought to pay the same to ther balyffes for ther rentes gatheryng and not the tenantes.
  10. We p⟨r⟩ay that noman vnder the degre of a knyght or esquyer kepe a dowe howse except it hath byn of an ould anchyent costome.
  11. We pray that all ffreholders and copieholders may take \the/ profightes of all comons and ther lordes to comon and the lordes not to comon nor take profightes of the same.
  12. We pray that no ffeodarye within your sheres shalbe a counceller to eny man in his office makyng wherby the kyng may be trulye serued so that a man beeng of good consyence may be yerely chosyn to the same office by the comons of the same sheyre.
  13. We pray that copie your grace to take all libertie of lete into your owne handes wherby all men may quyetly enioye ther comons with all profightes.
  14. We pray that copiehould londes that is onresonable rented may go as it dyd in the ffirst yere of kyng her henry the vij and that at the deth of a tenante or of a sale the same landes to be charged with an esey ffyne as a capon or a resonable […]ss some of money for a remembraunce.
  15. |f. 76v| We pray that a prest sh[all be a chaplaine] nor no other officer to eny man of honor or wyrshypp but only to be resydent vppon ther benefices wherby ther paryssheners may be enstructed with the lawes of god.
  16. We pray thatt all bonde men may be made ffre for god made all ffre with his precious blode sheddyng.
  17. We pray that Ryvers may be ffre and comon to all men for ffysshyng and passage.
  18. We pray that no man shalbe put by your Eschetour and ffeodarie to ffynde eny office vnles he be holdeth of your grace in cheyff or capite aboue x li by yere.
  19. We pray that the pore mariners or ffyssheremen may haue the hole profightes of ther ffysshynges in this realme as purpres grampes whalles or eny grett ffysshe so it be not preiudiciall to your grace.
  20. We pray that euery propriatorie parson or vicar havyng a benifice of x li or more by yere shall eyther by themselues or by some other parson teche pore mens chyldren of ther parisshe the Boke called the p cathakysme and the prymer.
  21. We pray that it be not lawfull to the lordes of eny mannor to purchase londes frely and to lett them out ageyn by copie of court roll to ther gret advaunchement and to the vndoyng of your pore subiectes.
  22. We pray that no propriatorie parson or vicar in consideracon of advoydin[g] trobyll and sute bet⟨w⟩yn them and ther pore parisshners whiche they daly do procede and attempt shall from hensforth take for the full contentacon of all the tenthes which nowe they do receyue but viij d of the noble in the full discharge of all other tythes.
  23. |f. 77r| [We pray that no man] vnder the degre of es[quyer] shall kepe any conyes vpon any of his owne ffrehold or copiehold onles he pale them in so that it shall not be to the comons noysoyns.
  24. We pray that no person of what estate degre or condicion he be shall from hensforth sell the adwardshyp of eny chyld but that the same chyld if he lyf lyve to his full age shalbe at his owne chosyng concernyng his marriage the kynges wardes only except.
  25. We pray that no matter mannor of person havyng a mannor of his owne shall be non other lordes balyf but only his owne.
  26. Item We pray that no lord knyght nor gentleman shall haue or take in ferme any spirituall promocion.
  27. We pray your grace to gyve lycens and aucthorite by your gracious comyssion under your grett seall to suche comyssioners as your pore comons hath chosyn or to as many of them as your maiestie and your counsell shall apoynt and thynke mete for to redresse and refourme all suche good lawes statutes proclamacions and all other your procedynges whiche hath byn hydden by your Justices of your peace Shreues Escheatores and other your officers from your pore comons synes the ffirst yere of \the reign of/ your noble grandfather kyng henry the seventh.
  28. We pray that those your officers which \that/ hath offended your grace and your comons and so provid by the compleynt of your pore comons do gyue onto those pore men so assembled iiij d euery day so long as they \haue/ remayned ther.
  29. We pray that no lorde knyght esquyer nor gentleman do grase nor fede eny bullockes or shepe if he may spende fforty pou[nds] a yere by his landes but only for the provicion of his howse.

By me Rob’t Kett           Thomas Cod

By me Thomas Aldryche

Further Reading

Fletcher, Anthony, and Diarmaid MacCulloch, ‘Robert Kett and the “rebellions of Commonwealth”’, in Tudor Rebellions, 6th edn (London: Routledge, 2015), pp. 66–89.

MacCulloch, Diarmaid, ‘Kett’s Rebellion in Context’, Past & Present, 84 (1979), 36–59, https://doi.org/10.1093/past/84.1.36.

Russell, Frederic William, Kett’s Rebellion in Norfolk (London: Longmans, Brown, Green, Longmans and Roberts, 1859), pp. 48–56 [text with commentary].

Andrew Dunning
@BLMedieval/@anjdunning

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