Class Struggle Against Capitalism Began With Rebellion in the English Countryside

The origins of capitalism lie in the transformation of English agriculture from the 16th century on. The early stages of this process provoked a huge wave of social unrest, starting a tradition of resistance to class domination that still continues today.

Illustration of Kett's Rebellion, Norfolk, 1549, from Ashburton's History of England, by Charles Alfred Ashburton. [W. & J. Stratford, High Holborn, London, 1793.] (Print Collector / Getty Images)

The English ruling class faced a time of crisis in 1549. King Henry VIII had died two years previously. His heir, Edward VI, was barely twelve years of age, and a council dominated by the Lord Protector, the Duke of Somerset, ruled the country.

The country itself was in turmoil. The effects of the Reformation were continuing to be felt, and economic changes were causing impoverishment and discontent among the peasants and small agrarian producers. Discontent at the bottom of society and the lack of coherent leadership at the top created a pressure cooker, which exploded in 1549.

That year, tens of thousands of ordinary people rebelled. This article will focus on Kett’s Rebellion in Norfolk, which was just one of several revolts that year. This wave of popular unrest was inseparable from the transformation of rural society that would eventually make England the world’s leading capitalist nation.

The rebels of Norfolk and other English communities were eventually defeated by brute force, clearing the way for the development of capitalism over the centuries that followed. But their struggles and the demands they expressed form part of a popular tradition of resistance to class domination that continues right up to the present day.

A Year of Rebellion

In other parts of England, protests against the introduction of a new Protestant prayer book sparked rebellion. In Devon and Cornwall, thousands of rebels fought pitched battles against mercenary armies sent by the Lord Protector. In his recent history of this revolt, historian Mark Stoyle has emphasized the scale of this “Western Rising,” pointing out that it came close to turning the Tudor world “upside down.”

If that was not enough for the king’s council to deal with, numerous local rebellions also took place. One study has suggested that in addition to Devon and Cornwall, twenty-five other counties saw uprisings, rebellions, and protests. In many cases, these rebellions were quashed only through vicious repression.

As Stoyle indicates, these rebellions put enormous pressure on the English ruling class. In many places, rebels set up protest “camps” where they hoped to force local authorities to offer reforms. Had these rebels united and marched on London as the rebels in Cornwall and Devon intended, they might well have raised greater forces and provoked a rebellion that would have led to the fall of the government.

That scenario is no idle speculation: similar protests like the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 and Jack Cade’s Rebellion of 1450 had nearly resulted in such an outcome. As it was, however, the rebellions in 1549 tended to remain localized, and the government was able to defeat them in turn — though not without difficultly.

Kett’s Rebellion

The greatest challenge to the Tudor government came from Norfolk, where Kett’s Rebellion erupted in the summer of 1549. The name derived from the leaders of the revolt, brothers Robert and William Kett. The Ketts were local landowners in the village of Wymondham, about ten miles from Norwich.

In July of that year, the village hosted its annual fair, bringing people from across Norfolk to enjoy a festival that became a focus for discontent about enclosure. The following day, people from Wymondham started pulling down fences and hedges.

Robert Kett, whose fences had been the initial targets, put himself at the head of the movement and encouraged the destruction of hedges owned by other landowners. Confidence and numbers grew, and the protest movement swelled to involve thousands. A few days later, the protest had become a rebellion that marched on Norwich.

Norwich, Norfolk’s largest city, was one of the wealthiest in the country, having grown rich from the cloth and wool trade. The enclosure of common land to farm sheep was a major source of discontent for the people of England, as we shall discuss in greater detail below. However, Norwich’s economy was in bad shape by 1549. Poverty and unemployment were high, and the urban population had a great affinity with the rural rebels gathering outside the city.

After several days of marching and destruction, the rebels camped on Mousehold Heath outside Norwich, where signal fires and bells brought further rebels to the camp. At its height, the rebel camp had up to sixteen thousand rebels living in it.

A Merry World

The Norfolk rebels set about constructing a democratic framework to ensure their movement was well organized and disciplined. Kett consciously copied the structures of the existing English state in order to legitimize the rebellion. Meeting under a tree referred to as the “Oak of Reformation,” the movement ruled on disagreements and planned the rebellion.

The camp also had a democratic structure. Each Norfolk “hundred” — the name of an English administrative area — could elect two deputies to the rebel council. This council issued “warrants” from the rebellion in the name of the king. One of them read as follows:

We, the King’s friends and deputies, do grant license to all men to provide and bring into the camp at Mousehold all manner of cattle and provision of victuals, in what place soever they may find the same, so that no violence or injury be done to any honest or poor man.

The historian Julian Cornwall reports in his account of Kett’s rebellion that “3,000 bullocks and 20,000 sheep, to say nothing of pigs, fowls, deer, swans and thousands of bushels of corn” were brought into the camp. This was a rebellion with mass support.

The uprising also transformed those who joined it. Despite the repression that followed, many looked back to the time with fondness. As one survivor recollected years later: “It was a mery world when we were yonder eating of mutton.”

With these structures as their framework, the rebels produced a list of twenty-nine demands, known as the Mousehold Articles, that explained their grievances. Unlike the predominantly religious demands of the rebels in Cornwall and Devon, these were related to the conditions in the Norfolk countryside. Historian Andy Wood sees the articles as reflecting a popular desire to “limit the power of the gentry, exclude them from the world of the village, constrain rapid economic change, prevent the over-exploitation of communal resources and remodel the values of the clergy.”

The rebels wanted fisherfolk and agricultural producers to receive the “whole profits” of their labor, and their platform included demands for the protection of rents and prices as well as limits on further enclosures. One article sought the passage of a law that would prevent “the lords of any manor” from being able to “purchase lands freely and to let them out again.” Another called for rivers to be “free and common to all men for fishing and passage.”

There were also calls for “all bond men” to be made free and even for those who joined the protest to be paid fourpence a day for their actions. Articles relating to the clergy evince the desire of common people to control their own community: they wanted, for example, to be able to choose another priest if the existing one proved inadequate.

Greedy Gulls

The Mousehold Articles offer a fascinating insight into the hopes of the commoners at a time of great change in rural communities. At their most basic, they demonstrated the tensions inherent to a society riven with class divisions, where the wealthiest could reshape the very landscape in order to increase their incomes while the poorest found themselves at the beck and call of their “betters.” The articles showed that ordinary people wanted a say in the organization of their communities, in their religious instruction, and in the use of natural resources.

The great agrarian changes taking place in England, which saw the countryside increasingly being enclosed in the interest of the rich, were a particular source of inspiration for the articles. The enclosure of land, the engrossment of fields into ever larger farms, and the destruction of common lands were part of an agrarian transformation that arose out of the development of capitalist relations in the countryside.

The English ruling class was painfully aware that these changes were driving discontent. In 1550, a year after the rebellions, the writer and poet Robert Crowley set down what he thought were the causes of “Sedition.” He argued that a poor man would point the finger at

the great farmers, the graziers, the rich butchers, the men of law, the merchants, the gentlemen, the knights, the lords . . . men that have no name because they are doers in all things that any gain hands upon. Men without conscience. Men utterly void of God’s fear. Yea, men that live as though there were no God at all! Men that would have all in their own hands; men that would leave nothing for others; men that would alone on the earth; men that be never satisfied. Cormorants, greedy gulls; yea, men that would eat up men, women, and children are the causes of Sedition. They take our houses over our heads, they buy our grounds out of our hands, they raise our rents, they levy (yea, unreasonable) fines, they enclose our commons!

The words put in the mouth of a “poor man” by Crowley were directed at a new class of individual in English society. These “greedy gulls” had economic interests that meant that they saw the land and people as mere objects for the pursuit of unlimited wealth creation. In carving up the countryside to maximize profit — particularly through a shift toward sheep farming, away from peasant agriculture — they were prioritizing their own accumulation of riches. The poor who were cast off the land by this process lost everything.

From different places on the social ladder, the English poor and the established feudal lords opposed this emerging capitalist mindset. In 1548, Edward’s council issued a proclamation condemning enclosures and appointed a commission to look into the condition of the countryside. Somerset and the other ruling members of the council understood that enclosures undermined their own rule by removing the basis for feudal power.

In using the word “capitalist” here, I am not suggesting that capitalism had already arrived in England. Rather, what I am describing is the beginnings of the process that eventually saw the transformation of England’s economy from feudalism to capitalism. Nevertheless, these changes had begun, and there were other indications of this transition as well.

The religious changes of the Reformation were linked to economic transformations. Those who wanted to exploit people and nature without having to worry about feudal restrictions needed a new ideology to justify their actions. Older Catholic ideas no longer fit how they wanted to organize society, and the Protestant ideas of the Reformation were more suitable to their new outlook.

This religious shift helped provoke further discontent, as did the actions of the religious reformers themselves. For example, when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, he further encouraged local changes that pushed society toward a more market-based economy by undermining traditional social and economic relations.

Defeating the Rebellion

It was in the midst of these multiple, interrelated changes in English society that the common people rebelled in 1549. The articles written on Mousehold Heath summarized the mood of discontent among ordinary people as well as the hope that they could shape their own future. In this sense, Kett’s Rebellion represented the desire of ordinary people to find their own way forward, independent of the existing ruling class and the emerging merchant classes.

It was not to be. There were two centers of power in Norfolk that summer. One was inside Norwich, where the local authorities struggled to maintain control against the influence of the rebels. The city authorities hoped to get relief from London if they could draw things out as long as possible, so they negotiated with the rebels and allowed them to come and go from Mousehold.

This uneasy truce could not hold and finally broke when a representative of the king, the York Herald, arrived on Sunday, July 21 and addressed the Mousehold Heath camp, declaring the residents to be rebels while offering them pardons.

Some of Robert Kett’s followers were enthused by this, but Kett himself saw it as a trap. He was unwilling to accept being labeled as a rebel, as he believed that they had done nothing wrong: “Kings are wont to pardon wicked persons, not innocent and just men.”

By declaring them rebels, the York Herald ensured that Kett’s forces were locked out of Norwich, which made conflict inevitable. The day after the York Herald’s speech, Kett’s forces stormed the city, capturing it easily.

This forced the council to send military forces from London. However, the rebels defeated this relatively small force. Kett now tried to strengthen his position by spreading the rebellion further in Norfolk, in particular by capturing the important trading and fishing port of Yarmouth. This effort proved unsuccessful, and defeat at Yarmouth left Kett isolated.

The government now sent a huge army under the Earl of Warwick to Norfolk. A force that may have numbered up to fourteen thousand soldiers marched on Kett’s forces, and heavy fighting took place. After capturing Norwich, Warwick then marched on the rebels themselves.

Kett’s forces had abandoned their camp and set up for a final defense at a place called Dussindale where, despite valiant resistance, the rebels were massacred. Perhaps 3,500 were killed. The Kett brothers were imprisoned in the Tower of London to await execution.

Somerset’s Eclipse

The rebellion had a fascinating coda, as the Ketts were eventually joined in prison by the Duke of Somerset. Somerset was no longer able to balance the competing interests represented in the governing council. Discontent at his handling of the rebellions and a widespread belief that he had used his position to line his own pockets were particular problems for the duke.

Yet another key factor behind Somerset’s downfall was his agrarian policy, which opposed enclosure. In the eyes of many landowners, this had encouraged the rebellions. The fact that Kett’s rebels believed that they were acting in the name of the king indicates that there was some truth to this belief.

With the wealthiest landowners against him and his position greatly weakened, Somerset took King Edward to Hampton Court. From this vantage point he tried to strengthen his hand by urging the Commons to rally behind him and the King. Although there was initially enthusiastic support for this call, it eventually melted away as it became clear that Somerset’s opponents — among whom were the Earl of Warwick and Lord Russell, who had put down the rebellion in Cornwall and Devon — commanded huge forces.

Somerset surrendered and was imprisoned in the Tower of London, although he was pardoned a few months later. The Ketts had no such luck. William Kett was hanged from a tower of Wymondham Abbey. Robert was dragged on a hurdle through the streets of Norwich and hanged at the castle.

The Rebellion in Context

Through executions like these and the mass repression of rebels throughout the country, the English ruling class regained control after the summer of 1549. The changes that had inspired the great year of rebellion were not so easily contained. However, the economic developments themselves were simultaneously undermining the sort of village unity that enabled landowners like Robert and William Kett to lead thousands of poorer rebels.

As the sixteenth century drew on, growing class divisions within rural communities further widened the gap between rich and poor. Wealthier villagers had less and less in common with the poor, making rebellion harder though not impossible. The great changes in the English countryside eventually culminated in the formation of a rural working class against the backdrop of a new capitalist order.

The details of Kett’s rebellion are well known in part because the episode was extensively documented by a Norfolk ruling class determined to use the story to warn off future rebels. Yet the story we usually hear tends to look at events in Norfolk in isolation from the other uprisings of 1549.

Recently, historians have spent more time exploring the breadth of rebellion in England at the time. This helps us see that ordinary people did not meekly accept the great economic changes that were transforming society. The development of capitalism, with the destructive consequences it wrought for hundreds of thousands of laboring people, was contested at every stage.

Today we should remember the rebels of 1549, in Norfolk and everywhere else, as women and men who fought to control their own lives and the community and environment in which they existed. They wanted a society for all, rather than for the “Cormorants and greedy gulls.” While their struggle was defeated, their determination should continue to inspire us in our own struggles for democracy, freedom, and liberation.