|The Cow Tower by the Wensum|
By Carole Barclay
Norwich, the county town of Norfolk, lies in the heart of East Anglia. The city is the home of two universities and a famous football club whose major share-holder is celebrity chef Delia Smith.
In ancient days Norfolk was the home of the Celtic Iceni tribe whose leader, Boudicca, led a doomed revolt in the early days of Roman rule. The remains of the much later walls of the Roman provincial capital, Venta Icenorum, can still be seen at the nearby village of Caistor St Edmunds. When Roman rule collapsed in the 5th century the Anglo-Saxons who made East Anglia their own in the chaos that followed shunned Caistor in favour of the trading settlement on the river Wensum that they called Norwich.
Anglo-Saxons, and the Danes and Normans who followed them, have all left their mark on the city that was second only to London itself in the Middle Ages. The city still draws visitors from far and wide to the Norman cathedral and the mighty castle that dominates the heart of the old town with its cobbled streets and medieval buildings – streets that once seethed with revolutionary anger in a revolt against enclosures that we now call Kett’s Rebellion.
In Tudor days land-owners began to steal land, that had once been the common property of villages throughout the country, to provide pasture for vast herds of sheep. These “enclosures” outraged villagers robbed of their traditional rights to the “common land” that their own livelihoods relied on. Riots erupted all over the country as angry villagers smashed the fences and tore down the hedges of the hated “enclosers”. In East Anglia it took an even more violent turn.
There, facing starvation and destitution they attacked local land-owners. One of them, Robert Kett, was persuaded to change sides, and he agreed to lead the protesters that soon grew into a peasant army. In July 1549 some 16,000 armed peasants, tradesmen and artisans marching against the rack-renting and enclosing landlords and camped outside the walls of Norwich to demand the restoration of their traditional rights. Kett formed a governing council drawn up from representatives of the villages that had taken up arms and held court beneath a tree that was called the “oak of reformation”. There justice was meted out to hated landowners charged with robbing the poor.
A terrified government tried to disperse them which the usual promise of pardons but this was rejected and the rebels, armed with swords, spears and pitch-forks, steamed into Norwich. The first attempt by a small royalist force to drive them out was beaten back. The government, led by the Duke of Somerset, then sent 12,000 troops and 1,200 European mercenaries to crush the revolt.
The rebels didn’t have the numbers to man Norwich’s city walls but they put up a spirited defence inside the city. Eventually they were beaten back to their camp where they were routed in a battle that left 3,000 of them dead. Kett was captured and hanged from the walls of Norwich Castle on 7th December 1549.
The communist historian, A L Morton, believed that though the rebels were defeated their revolt influenced later events. In his People’s History of England he says: “Though suppressed, the rising had some striking results. It helped to stay the progress of the enclosures and to give East Anglia the predominantly peasant character which it long preserved and which made it a stronghold for parliament and the most advanced section of the New Model Army in the Civil War. Its immediate effect was to bring about the fall of the government of the Protector Somerset, an aristocratic demagogue who had shown himself inclined to treat with the rebels rather than to suppress them, and whom the nobles suspected of wishing to halt the enclosures”.
A memorial to Robert Kett was placed on the walls of Norwich castle in 1949. Another, on Bishop Bridge, the only surviving medieval bridge in the city, marks the site of a battle on the approach to the bridge during the last days of the revolt. The Cow Tower, a well-preserved part of the medieval defences, was the scene of some fierce fighting during the rebellion and castle now houses the county museum and art gallery.