Ket's Rebellion

We will rend down hedges. .



"Nowe charitie is waxed cold"
from Charles L. Marson: Glastonbury; the historic guide to the "English Jerusalem". London, George Gregory Book Store, 1925.

In September [1539], the Commissioners swept down again upon Glastonbury, and found the Abbot at Sharpham Park. Everything was ransacked. His books and papers were seized. A good deal of hidden treasure was unearthed, and some material, "we think to be very high and rank treasons" -- the details of which are lost. The two treasurers, Prior John Thorne and Roger James (Brothers John Arthur and Roger Wylfryd) and two secular clerks, were also seized. The poor old man was hurried off to the Tower, tried there, and sent down to Wells "to be tried and executed," that is, re-tried. There is not a tittle of sound evidence that the Supremacy question was raised at either trial. It was "the very high and rank treasons" found in the papers, which convinced these two sets of jurors. The hiding of monies was not legally treason. It could be made into felony, by an unwholesome quibble: but "as worsshipfull a jurye as was charged there theis many yeres," would not have done to death an old man, for stowing away his cups and cash. Correspondence with rebels in the Pilgrimage of Grace, or with some others in Somerset, who made an abortive rising in March, would give colour to the verdict, without postulating a sudden martyr-spirit in one who had never shown a spark of it for seventy years. There is a legend that, misled by the hypocrisy of his gaolers, the bewildered old man at Wells thought the bitterness of death was past, and was about to sit upon the Board, which last tried him. Anyhow, he was condemned on Nov. 14th, taken to Glastonbury, where he lay, that night, as we may suppose, in the Tribunal dungeon, with the two monks. Next day, they were all drawn on hurdles to the Tor, hanged, disembowelled, beheaded, and quartered. The poor old Abbot's white head was set over the gate, and his quarters, boiled in pitch, were displayed at Wells, Bath, Ilchester and Bridgwater.

Glastonbury Whilst poor Richard Whytyng was taking his death patiently upon the Tor, the destruction of the great Church and House had already begun. The monks and servants were dismissed, the holy relics sent in bags to the King. The lead was stripped off the roof, and used for Jersey Castle. "Every person had everything good cheap, except the poor monks." The demolition of Roche Abbey (described by an eye-witness of the fate), may tell us of them all. Locks, shackles, and bolts were wrenched away, and the very doors were carried off. "Some took the Service Books that lied in the Church, and laid them upon their waine coppes to peice the same: some took windows of the Haylath, and hid them in their hay; and likewise they did of many other things; for some pulled forth iron hooks out of the walles that bought none, when the yeomen and gentlemen of the country had bought the timber of the church. For the church was the first thing that was put to the spoil; and then the Abbot's, lodging, dorter and Frater, with the cloister and all the buildings thereabouts; for nothing was spared, but the ox-houses and swine-coates, and such other houses of office, that stood without the walls; which had more favour showed them than the very church itself: which was done by the advice of Cromwell, as Fox reporteth in his Book of Acts and Monuments." "It would have pitied any heart to see what tearing up of the lead there was, and plucking up of the boards, and throwing down of sparres; and when the lead was torn off and cast down into the church, and the tombs in the church all broken (for in most Abbeys were divers noble men and women, yea, and in some Abbeys Kings, whose tombs were regarded no more than the tombs of all other inferior persons: for to what end should they stand, when the church over them was not spared for their cause, and all things of price either spoiled, carped away, or defaced to the uttermost." The indignant writer, who may be read in Ellis, 3rd Series, III 31, describes the burning of carved oak Misereres, tells of pewter vessels filched and hidden, bells broken and education at a stand. "Thus you may see that as well they that thought well of the Religion then used, as they which thought otherwise, could agree well enough and too well to spoil them. Such a devil is covetousness and mammon!" The cattle, furniture, locks, doors, glass windows, iron and timber, were sold at nominal prices. The carved wood hacked to pieces -- one bit can be seen in a cottage window in Northlode Street. The stones were sold in cheap cartloads for all purposes. Worst of all, the books and manuscripts of the matchless library were sold by weight to binders and grocers; torn up and used for parcels, fires, and every dishonest purpose. The poor stole handfuls, the rich filched farms and manours. "Little Jack Horner," one of Whytyng's judges, secured Mells, a legend says by concealing the deeds in a pie dish, which he covered with bread for the needy, and so conveyed them away. Perhaps, one of the saddest things of all this desecration is the little stir which it made. Men believed that there would be no more taxes, if once the Monasteries were made over to the King. Alas! they were more quickly converted to the truth in that, than in most things. The Somerset poor had been cowed already by Lord Willoughby's action in the West. The wealthy got plums and self-applause. Many of the richer trading classes were already strong Protestants, and the death of the three abbots was met by a shout of glee, from the adopters of religions made in Germany. Butler writes to Bullinger that "the Abbots are rotting on gibbets, a worthy recompense for their imposture." Edward VI's reign, with its spoliation of the Guilds and Lights, that pitiless grab at the savings of the poor, must have deepened men's regrets for the mercy which built the fair old House. . .

The other results of the Dissolution were unhappy. Instead of nearly £3 a week in alms (£30 of our money), with good schooling and much help for scholars, we hear a positive wail go up, "Nowe charitie is waxed cold, none helpeth the scholer nor yet the pore." Dr. Layton sneeringly said that Glastonbury had but three bachelours of Divinity, and those slenderly learned. Latimer gives a far worse story of the new men. "If the ploughemen of the countrey were as negligente in theyr office as prelates be, we shoulde not longe lyue for lacke of sustinaunce."

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Ket's Insurrection
from Eduard Bernstein: Cromwell and Communism: Socialism And Democracy in the Great English Revolution (1895)

Parliament in the time of Henry VII, and still more in that of Henry VIII, had become a tool in the hands of the King. Benevolences and duties belonging to feudal times were exacted on an immense scale; loans made to the King were again and again declared forfeit; decrees of the King had the force of laws; new crimes of high treason were created, and a special Court was constituted for troublesome State criminals (the Star Chamber), to which was added, in the reign of Elizabeth, an exceptional Court, declared permanent in 1583 (the Court of High Commission), intended to deal with persons who denied the supremacy of the monarch for the time being over ecclesiastical affairs. This proclamation of the supremacy of the King over the Church was the culminating point of Henry VIII's 'Reformation'. Its objects were: (1) to put an end to the interference of the Pope in English affairs; (2) and, which is of far greater importance, as the Pope's influence in England had generally been very small, to convert the clergy into a tool of monarchical absolutism. And (3) after the declaration of the supremacy came the dissolution of the monasteries and the confiscation of their enormous wealth, which the spendthrift King made haste to squander. These methods of reformation, it will be apprehended, did not meet with the enthusiastic approval even of those who, otherwise, were hostile to the Romish Church, especially as Henry retained most of the dogmas and rites of that Church. Catholics and sincere Reformers alike were dissatisfied. There were frequent revolts, in which the country population took an active part, and which were successfully suppressed under Henry VIII and his son, Edward VI, but when the latter died in 1553 a victorious rebellion overthrew the Reformation leaders and established the Catholic Mary on the throne.

The revolt which has a special interest for us occurred in the reign of Edward VI, who succeeded his father in 1547 while yet a minor, and whose Government was at first carried on by his uncle, the Duke of Somerset, the Protector. In June 1549 the peasants of Devonshire rebelled and demanded the restoration of the ancient faith. They forced the priests to read the Mass in Latin, and besieged Exeter for a week. The revolt was then quelled by an army, composed mainly of mercenaries, led by Lord Russell. While this insurrection was of a religious character, the revolt of the agricultural population of Norfolk, under Robert Ket, which followed in the same month, wore a distinct political and social character, and was directed against the feudal aristocracy.

Ket's rebellion was not an isolated phenomenon. There was universal unrest among the agricultural population, and the flames burst forth now in one place and now in another. As early as 1537 there was a popular revolt in Yorkshire on behalf of the Catholic faith (The Pilgrimage of Grace), whilst in Walsingham (Norfolk) an insurrection against the 'gentlemen' was prematurely discovered and its leaders executed. A woman, Elizabeth Wood of Aylsham (Norfolk), was reported to the Council of State to have said: 'It was pitie that these Walsingham men was discovered, for we shall never have good worlde till we fall togither by the earys:

And with clubbes and clowted shone
Shall the dede be done,
for we had never good world since this Kynge rayned . . .
The great land thieves ignored these warnings. They relied upon Henry's Draconian edicts against all kinds of rebellion, and continued expelling peasants, raising rents, acquiring monastic property at ludicrous prices, and enclosing common lands or taking them for grazing lands. Whatever his faults, Somerset, the guardian of Edward VI, seems to have sympathized with the poorer classes, for, soon after his assumption of the Protectorate, the harsh laws against the Lollards were repealed and a Bill to prevent the enclosing of land was introduced in Parliament. Neither House, however, would support it, and Somerset's initiative was ascribed to mere popularity-hunting. Later, Somerset was accused of having provoked the Ket insurrection by his clemency towards the country-people. Alexander Nevil, or Nevylle, the classic historian of the Ket rebellion, refers to these accusations in his work, The Commotion in Norfolk. 'The Lord Protector had at that time lost himself in the love of the vulgar, by his severe proceeding against his brother; and in order to regain their love he caused a proclamation to be published in the beginning of May that all persons who had inclosed any lands that used to be common should lay them open again, before a fixed day, on a certain penalty for not doing so: this so much encouraged the commons in many parts of the realm that (not staying the time limited in the proclamation) they gathered together in tumultuous manner, pulled up the pales, flung down the banks, filled up the ditches, laying all such new enclosed lands open as they were before.That the common people were troubled about the fate of Somerset's ambitious brother, Seymour, may well be doubted. Somerset had in fact arranged in 1548 for the appointment of a Commission to examine the legality of all enclosures that had been made since a given date, and to order the fences to be taken down in cases of doubtful legality. But as soon as they heard of the concession, the country-folk took the matter into their own hands, and began to 'examine' the enclosures in their own way. .

Full text at Marxists' Internet Archive.

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The Rebels' Complaint
Norfolk Rebellion of 1549

The pride of great men is now intolerable, but our condition miserable.

These abound in delights; and compassed with the fullness of all things, and consumed with vain pleasures, thirst only after gain, inflamed with the burning delights of their desires.

But ourselves, almost killed with labour and watching, do nothing all our life long but sweat, mourn, hunger, and thirst. Which things, though they seem miserable and base (as they are indeed most miserable), yet might be borne howsoever, if they which are drowned in the boiling seas of evil delights did not pursue the calamities and miseries of other men with too much insolent hatred. But now both we and our miserable condition is a laughing stock to these most proud and insolent men -- who are consumed with ease and idleness. Which thing (as it may) grieveth us so sore and inflicteth such a stain of evil report, so that nothing is more grievous for us to remember, nor more unjust to suffer.

The present condition of possessing land seemeth miserable and slavish -- holding it all at the pleasure of great men; not freely, but by prescription, and, as it were, at the will and pleasure of the lord. For as soon as any man offend any of these gorgeous gentlemen, he is put out, deprived, and thrust from all his goods.

How long shall we suffer so great oppression to go unrevenged?

For so far are they, the gentlemen, now gone in cruelty and covetousness, that they are not content only to take all by violence away from us, and to consume in riot and effeminate delights what they get by force and villainy, but they must also suck in a manner our blood and marrow out of our veins and bones.

Robert Ket The common pastures left by our predecessors for our relief and our children are taken away.

The lands which in the memory of our fathers were common, those are ditched and hedged in and made several; the pastures are enclosed, and we shut out. Whatsoever fowls of the air or fishes of the water, and increase of the earth -- all these do they devour, consume, and swallow up; yea, nature doth not suffice to satisfy their lusts, but they seek out new devices, and, as it were, forms of pleasures to embalm and perfume themselves, to abound in pleasant smells, to pour in sweet things to sweet things. Finally, they seek from all places all things for their desire and the provocation of lust. While we in the meantime eat herbs and roots, and languish with continual labour, and yet are envied that we live, breathe, and enjoy common air!

Shall they, as they have brought hedges about common pastures, enclose with their intolerable lusts also all the commodities and pleasures of this life, which Nature, the parent of us all, would have common, and bringeth forth every day, for us, as well as for them?

We can no longer bear so much, so great, and so cruel injury; neither can we with quiet minds behold so great covetousness, excess, and pride of the nobility. We will rather take arms, and mix Heaven and earth together, than endure so great cruelty.

Nature hath provided for us, as well as for them; hath given us a body and a soul, and hath not envied us other things. While we have the same form, and the same condition of birth together with them, why should they have a life so unlike unto ours, and differ so far from us in calling?

We see that things have now come to extremities, and we will prove the extremity. We will rend down hedges, fill up ditches, and make a way for every man into the common pasture. Finally, we will lay all even with the ground, which they, no less wickedly than cruelly and covetously, have enclosed. Neither will we suffer ourselves any more to be pressed with such burdens against our wills, nor endure so great shame, since living out our days under such inconveniences we should leave the commonwealth unto our posterity -- mourning, and miserable, and much worse than we received it of our fathers.

Wherefore we will try all means; neither will we ever rest until we have brought things to our own liking.

We desire liberty and an indifferent (or equal) use of all things. This will we have. Otherwise these tumults and our lives shall only be ended together.

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The Lion and the Dragon
from Conrad Noel's Jesus the Heretic. London, Religious Book Club, 1939.

England and Europe generally were chiefly agricultural; and in this country, by the time of Thomas Becket, there were few slaves left. The condition of the serf on the lands of the lords, both secular and spiritual, was by no means enviable, although in the earlier days of the monasteries, where the abbot and his monks would work in the fields with the serfs, their position was not so intolerable.

The serfs had their own piece of land, about four acres and sometimes more; villeins were only compelled to give a day or so a week in labour to their lord. In harvest-time more days would be required of them, though the villeins could contract out of this obligation by a small money payment.

In addition to their own land, there was abundant common land where they had their rights of grazing, and forests in which they also had certain privileges.

When the cities and towns of Europe had, under the banners of the Church, fought and won their freedom, their inhabitants, chiefly craftsmen in guilds, led a life beholden to no man and carried on their trades to the glory of God, for the sustenance of their families and for their own pleasure in good handicraft. They were people of considerable means and ample leisure; the holy days, or holidays, of the Catholic Church securing to them as to the serfs, between forty and fifty holidays in the year, as well as Sundays and half-holidays. Each town would have its belt of common land, and there thus grew up an interplay of common and personal ownership which was, perhaps, so far as the free towns were concerned, a better system than that of extreme Communism.

All this did not just happen by an economic chance, but by the practice of the deliberate social doctrine of the Catholic Church. Although the hierarchy opposed the claims of the Catholic workers, and often seized common and private lands, these claims were boldly upheld and maintained with success, the people's leaders referring to the teachings of Christ, the Fathers and the Schoolmen, and fighting for their rights under the protection of the Cross and the Blessed Saints. . .

[After the Reformation] it was the Puritan authorities who, like the medieval lords, were further enclosing the common lands. . . The Anglican Reformers. . .were as outspoken as any Bolshevist on the scandal of stealing land from the working folk. An Anglican preaching in St Paul's Cathedral, referred to the nouveaux riches as suckers of the blood of the poor; he demands that they shall 'restore the extorted lands and houses of their brethren; nay, remit some part of the debt.' It is not surprising that this incumbent of St Bennett's should have been expelled from his cure by the Long Parliament. Thomas Hancock -- a leader-writer in the Church Times -- from whose book, Pulpit and Press, I am quoting, proceeds as follows: 'I need scarcely quote from so classical a book as the splendid sermons of the socialist and martyr bishop, Hugh Latimer, the darling of the London poor. When preaching before the King he fearlessly apostrophized the nobles and Court gentry in language which would horrify a Philistine English jury in our day: "You landlords; you rent-raisers; I may say, you step-lords; you unnatural lords, you have for your possessions yearly too much!"' Archbishop Laud at a later date was equally outspoken.

Thomas Lever, Prebendary of St Paul's, preaching at Paul's Cross, inveighed against the plutocrats in these words: 'If ye were not stark blind, ye would see and be ashamed that fifty tun-bellied monks given to gluttony filled their paunches, kept up their house, and relieved the whole country round about them, where one of your greedy guts devouring the whole house and making great pillage throughout the country cannot be satisfied.'

Hancock sums up thus: 'I could spend hours in the citation of passages from sermons in which the Anglican bishops and clergy attacked the great landlords for their systematic robbery of the common lands of the poor.

The Blessed Thomas More who remained true to the Roman Obedience, was as urgent in his condemnation of the land-grabbers and in his insistence that the common lands should be restored as were the clergy of the Anglican Obedience, but his books are so famous, and can be so easily obtained, that I refrain from quoting them.

I shall conclude with one or two quotations from the official homilies of the Church of England, recommended to be read, by the priest in the perambulations of the parish at Rogation-tide; they will bring to mind our Commination Service in the English Prayer Book, with its curse on those who 'remove their neighbour's landmark.'

Lion of Judah After reminding the people that all material, as well as spiritual gifts come from the good God, the 'curate' exhorts the people to 'consider the old ancient bounds and limits belonging to our own township and to other our neighbours bordering about us, to the intent that we should be content with our own, and not contentiously strive for other's, to the breach of charity, by any encroaching one upon another, or claiming one of the other further than that in ancient right and custom our forefathers have peaceably laid out unto us for our commodity and comfort.' Surely Christian men for whom Christ shed His precious blood should not be contending and striving the one against the other for 'brittle possessions' although it is the part of every good townsman to preserve as much as lieth in him, the liberties, franchises, bounds, and limits of his town and country,' but even this must be done with charity and moderation.

'Thou shalt not, commandeth Almighty God in his Law, remove thy neighbour's mark, which they of old time have set in thine inheritance. Thou shalt not, saith Solomon, remove the ancient bounds which thy fathers have laid. And, lest we should esteem it to be but a light offence so to do, we shall understand that it is reckoned among the curses of God pronounced upon sinners. Accursed be he, said Almighty God by Moses, who removeth his neighbour's doles and marks; and all the people shall say, answering Amen thereto, as ratifying that curse upon whom it doth light. They do much provoke the wrath of God upon themselves, which use to grind up the doles and marks which of ancient time were laid for division of meres and balks in the fields, to bring the owners to their right. They do wickedly which do turn up the ancient terries of the fields, that old men before time with great pains did tread out; whereby the lord's records (which be the tenant's evidences,) be perverted and translated, sometime to the disinheriting of the right owner, to the oppression of the poor fatherless or the poor widow. These covetous men know not what inconveniences they be authors of. Sometime by such craft and deceit be committed great discords and riots in the challenge of their lands, yea, sometime murders and bloodshed; whereof thou art guilty, whosoever thou be that givest the occasion thereof.'

The Homilies have shown that there are righteous ways of defending private and common lands, and that even where riots have taken place in regaining such lands, the guilt lies with the stealers thereof. They conclude that it is not only these domestic injustices within the country which bring down God's displeasure upon us, but that the Almighty, 'in His ire doth root up whole kingdoms for wrongs and oppressions, and doth translate kingdoms from one nation to another for unrighteous dealing, for wrongs and riches gotten by deceit.'

Our English Homilies, then, are as bold as are the individual bishops and other clergy against the encroachments of the Dragon, and champion the cause of the Ascended Lord, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, who has in anticipation overcome the Beast, and gives grace to His people that they may tread him under their feet.

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