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The Kett brothers and common land


Tolls Meadow
Image: Wymondham, Norfolk

Despite the money and maintenance that every house we have lived in has needed, the pleasure and security that comes from owning a house has meant a great deal to us and to millions of others. It is essential for freedom, because it's much harder to push around men and women who own their own homes. It encourages prosperity, since a house can be used to obtain loans for a business, and (if it holds its value) can help to fund a retirement.

Increasingly we hear that lack of property rights, not lack of foreign aid, keeps people in Africa poor. But there was another way of owning property in Britain that resembled the sharing of land by tribes in Africa and America, and it had great merit and was protected in the Forest Act of 1217. As you have guessed this was common land. Today marks a defiant anniversary in its history.

It remains a mystery why a man in his early fifties, rich, with a wife and children and land would risk everything he had to lead a rebellion. But in the 16th century Robert Kett became the leader of 15,000 men protesting the enclosure of common land in Norfolk. Even more interesting, Robert Kett had enclosed common land. He was not innocent in this regard. But sometime in 1549 he had what appears to be an epiphany.

Families in Britain depended on common lands. For generations they had grazed their animals on the lands they shared in common, collected firewood, and hunted small game for the dinner pot. Then rich, powerful people began taking what had belonged to all and enclosing the land for themselves.

The catalyst for Kett's change of thinking may have been the action of a big landowner and lawyer who tore down part of Wymondham Abbey so he could use the stone. It was enough to make local blood boil since the abbey was also the parish church, where local people had worshipped for hundreds of years.

We do not know exactly what moved Robert Kett, but he suddenly saw everything differently. He tore down the fences he had built to enclose common land and became the leader of the men protesting the enclosures. In July they camped at Mousehold Heath, and his brother William joined them. Well organized and disciplined, they established a representative council that drew up a list of grievances.

Their core concern was the ancient right to share common land. Sitting out in the open under "the Oak of Reformation", they ruled on the justice of enclosures and imprisoned some of the landlords in a nearby house. Afterwards men remembered that summer camp-out as a "merry time".

Robert believed that he was acting in the best interests of the king because it was incomprehensible to him that the king could support injustice. Edward VI's government sent troops to destroy him.

The Kett brothers and 15,000 farmers beat the soldiers back, but they were defeated in a second fierce and bloody battle on 27 August. Four thousand farmers died. The Ketts were captured and tried. Robert was hanged in chains from Norwich Castle. William was hanged from the Wymondham church steeple. The bells of Norwich ring in remembrance of the Ketts today.

The idea of common lands remains our inheritance – in public parks, streets, museums and airwaves and fishing grounds that we share. In Wymondham the idea remains alive in the town's nature reserve, Tolls Meadow.

Comments (1)


I have also heard theories that Charles I was himself against enclosures and that that really riled the new parliamentary generation of commoner landowners. It's plausible, given that that other political movement the Diggers came out of the Civil War and were also loathed by these nouveau riche republicans. It would put a whole new spin on what we all learned at school though wouldn't it?

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