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Buried History: the Legacy of Kett’s Rebellion

In his relentless quest to achieve deliverance from error, my father formed an archive of adages and aphorisms. They were part of his parental skill-set: pathways towards a moral sense, and an understanding of reality in the passing moment. Had this concentrated pursuit of observation and absorption been applied to business, I have no doubt we would have prospered – in the financial sense at least. Al-Ghazali, Gandhi, Aquinas and Keir Hardie, were amongst those he admired – the minds that intertwined, and the spring for many inspirational passages on health, wealth, education and change. Sometimes sayings were drawn from loud and irreverent though ultimately friendly discussions with his brother, Ferdinand (a priest) – conversations about death, anxiety, freedom and being – and some had their source within our ancestral Black Forest: a culturally distinct country within a country. It was of course in our native Scotland, a country that is also within a country, perhaps several, that the bulk of his wisdom was cultivated, from Duns Scotus to Robert Burns.

Towards the end of his life, and my late teens, my father increasingly invoked the well-worn insight attributed to Scottish novelist, John Buchan: “It’s a great life, if you don’t weaken.” In this he relayed his fear about the dangers ahead, and his concern that I would be alone in facing them. But as the years passed I came to realise this premonitory advice formed the crux of a deeper matter: the simple truth that sometimes the best way to live is to die.

It is a little-known fact that St. Martin at Bale, an old red brick Norwich ‘yard’ modernised in recent years to a keypad-entry gated community, was for many centuries a burial ground. After wearily wandering the fine city for several days in search of an apartment, I found a resting place behind those gates. The name swung it when it came to the shortlist of places to rent; a saint attributed with the miracle of bilocation seemed an appropriate, if not altogether logical choice – ‘relocation’ might have worked better – but it also seemed serendipitous given that I was named after him (Martin, following St. Martin de Porres, is one of my middle names). A campaigner for social justice, an animal lover, and a vegetarian. It was all good. When I was a little boy, a small plastic statue of St. Martin stood on my bedside shelf among the toy soldiers, between the advancing allies and the enemy machine gun nests: a black communist holding a lamb and a unity of opposites. Maybe that’s what they meant by bilocation.

It was not until after the lease was signed that I discovered St. Martin at Bale was once a graveyard – the burial ground, no less, for society’s most unwanted. My curiosity was piqued, and soon afterwards I did some scratching around. It was revealed the church was not named after St. Martin the vegetarian, but St. Martin the meat eater, who lived around 1200 years earlier – St. Patrick’s uncle, in point of fact. The suffix to the address means ‘in the bailey’, as the former churchyard of St. Martin at Bale was in the bailey of the castle which stands opposite, (though it actually predates this romanesque pied-à-terre of the Norman conqueror, William I, by several centuries). All who were executed at the castle, or died in the dungeons in chains, or tortured to death, were buried under my apartment: people hanged for murder, theft, treason and rebellion.

In 1962, exactly 400 years after St. Martin’s was demolished, artefacts were discovered during construction of the road that runs through the old churchyard; they dug up sherds, shards, pots, pins, tokens and tools. Not surprisingly, evidence of numerous inhumations was uncovered, but other than brief mention of the fact the remains belonged to St. Martin’s churchyard, no reference to the dead was made in the Council’s report. The site was deemed unworthy of protected status, and the resurfacing of the road, and of the past, continued.

Some digging of my own produced an insight into the mindset of many of the magnates and megalomaniacs that wielded power around the last days of St. Martin at Bale, but also of those slaughtered or hanged for their part in the greatest people’s uprising in Norfolk’s history: the struggle against social oppression led by Robert Kett – a wealthy landowner won over to the people’s cause.

Kett’s rebellion centred mainly on the enclosure movement: the fencing in of farmland, replacing fields of corn with flocks of sheep to supply wool for the cloth trade. This privatisation of the land – the beginning of today’s market system – meant soaring profits for the robber barons, and the creation of a pauperised agricultural workforce: looking after livestock required fewer peasants than the tending of farm crops, peasants were denied access to common fields to till strips of soil or to graze their animals, and rents rose rapidly as land prices soared.

The Norfolk rebellion was above all a popular struggle against poverty, injustice and inequality: the people challenged the rapacity of the rising landlord class, they complained about rising food prices, and they protested against the Scottish war. In the two years following the massacre of the Scots at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh on the outskirts of Edinburgh, Scottish nationalism had been stirred up, and there was the very real threat of a Scottish-French alliance – a French fleet landed 10,000 troops in Scotland in 1548. English garrisons in Scotland were therefore strengthened, and a further army was summoned: 15,000 including mercenaries. This was a significant drain on the Treasury, and the burden of cost was carried by those who could afford it least.

The Earl of Warwick, who played a major part in that bloodbath, the Battle of Pinkie, and a key part in campaigns conceived by the king to pulverise Scotland out of existence, or into abject submission, now found himself facing a rebellion consisting largely of impoverished peasants. He ruthlessly quelled it. Cavalry, royal soldiers and mercenaries – destined to join the crusade to crush the Scots – were diverted by Warwick from the south coast to Norwich, and driven into the protestors at Mousehold Heath. More than 3,000 protestors were slaughtered, and it is likely there would have been as many casualties. They died for their cause, a sacrifice that, indirectly, spared the Scots. Their cause was not so different after all, and learning this fact, and the manner of their death, brought me closer to them – a bond beyond borders and across time. Could this be the miracle of bilocation?

At least 350 rebels were hanged under orders by Warwick. Robert Kett, who had twice refused the offer of a pardon earlier in the campaign on the grounds that he had committed no crime, and who claimed moral justification for his actions, was among them: he was driven roughly through the town, and then hanged in chains from the castle walls. On the same day, his brother William was hanged from Wymondham steeple. Warwick’s brutality, however, failed to placate the Norfolk gentry; shocked by the challenge to their class position by the lower orders, they called for sweeping and indiscriminate slaughter of the rebels. Warwick certainly had no qualms about killing, but he was forced to remind the gentry that the rebels were the source of all their wealth – who else would work their land for them?

In 1562, thirteen years after the execution of Kett and his comrades, the early medieval church of St. Martin at Bale was swept away. The explanation given for its demolition was that it was ‘surplus to requirements.’ However, there was clearly a blatant disregard for those who were tossed into the grounds of St. Martin’s – and again in 1962 when they ran a road through those grounds – and it seems likely the original intent was to erase the memory of those buried there: the rebels hanged at the castle, and most likely Kett himself – names obliterated lest a vestige of hope remain for a just society.

After a fruitless search around the parishes, I visited Norfolk Heritage Centre and asked, ‘Where will I find the bones of Robert Kett?’ The librarian said no one had ever asked her that, and almost immediately she and her colleagues were digging into the archives, pulling out books and files. The matter remains unresolved. All that can be said with certainty is that curiosity led me to contemplate the ground beneath my feet, and in return the immense civility of the common people rose to meet me. It was enlightening and humbling to live in their midst.

As the Marxist historian, E.P. Thompson passionately argued, in making history, we make ourselves. By challenging the dominant world view and the ‘divine order’ of things, the Norfolk rebels triggered the first major act of its kind in the tradition of radical class action – an act that would shake the ruling elites to their foundation, and foster hope in the hearts of future generations. Their struggle for reason and for the rights of ordinary citizens helped in the understanding of reality and, as a consequence, in the calling forth of new possibilities. It was an action that gave birth to political theorists, philosophers and activists – one that influenced revolutionary thinkers such as Thomas Paine, a Norfolk rebel born just thirty miles from the slaughtered protestors. But these small beginnings came at immense cost. In choosing death, Kett and his comrades made a statement about life: death is inevitable, it is how we live that matters. He might have said it can be great, if we don’t weaken.

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