The 1549 Rebellions and the Making of Early Modern England

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This is a major study of the 1549 rebellions, the largest and most important risings in Tudor England. Based upon extensive archival evidence, the book sheds fresh light on the causes, course and long-term consequences of the insurrections. Andy Wood focuses on key themes in the social history of politics, concerning the end of medieval popular rebellion; the Reformation and popular politics; popular political language; early modern state formation; speech, silence and social relations; and social memory and the historical representation of the rebellions. He examines the long-term significance of the rebellions for the development of English society, arguing that the rebellions represent an important moment of discontinuity between the late medieval and the early modern periods. This compelling history of Tudor politics from the bottom up will be essential reading for late medieval and early modern historians as well as early modern literary critics.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"[Andy Woods] forays into the written sources and the balladry of the time are a major achievement and this book would be a fascinating read for anyone who wishes to understand how early modern England emerged from the apparent destruction of the Henrician reformation." -Jasmin L. Johnson, H-War

"Wood’s book is an interesting and thorough overview of popular politics during the mid-Tudor age." -Kristen Post Walton, HISTORY: Reviews of New Books

"...this is an energizing and exciting book." - Krista Kesselring, H-Albion

"Andy Wood's fascinating new book is social history at its very best." -Tim Harris, American Historical Review

"Until now there has not been a satisfactory modern study of the rebellions and their significance. Andy Wood's splendid new book has more than filled that gap in the scholarship."
Journal of Modern History, Buchanan Sharp, University of California- Santa Cruz

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Meet the Author

Andy Wood is Reader in Social History at the School of History, University of East Anglia. His first book, The Politics of Social Conflict: the Peak Country, 1520-1770 (1999), was declared Proxime Accesitt in 1999 for the Royal Historical Society's Whitfield Prize.

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Cambridge University Press
9780521832069 - The 1549 Rebellions and the Making of Early Modern England - by Andy Wood



Although historians usually situate the 1549 rebellions within the early modern period, the long-term significance of the risings lies in their place at the end of a long tradition of medieval popular revolt. This tradition stretched back to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 and included insurrections in 1450, 1469, 1489, 1497, 1525 and 1536–7. Diverse though they were in other respects, these risings had five unifying characteristics. Firstly, there was a remarkable consistency in popular political language, hinting at a shared tradition of popular protest. Secondly, the causes of rebellion were often similar. Thirdly, there were clear continuities in their leadership and organisation. Fourthly, some communities and regions were repeatedly involved in insurrections. Lastly, there is the possibility that rebels were conscious of these continuities: that is, that a red thread bound one rebellion to another, producing an ideology of popular protest.1

Nonetheless, the rebellions of 1549 differ in two important respects from this tradition. Firstly, the early Reformation strongly influenced the politics of the commotion time of 1549. Secondly, 1549 saw the climax of alonger-term social conflict which pitched the gentry and nobility against the working people of southern and eastern England. Although fissured by significant social divisions, yeomen, poorer farmers, labourers, artisans and urban workers united in 1549 against their rulers. In some respects, the confrontation of 1549 had similarities with the conflicts that had generated the 1381 rising. But whereas in 1381 peasants, artisans and urban workers had risen against the constrictions of feudalism, the social conflicts that generated rebellion in 1549 were different. These conflicts were the result of the complicated, uneven emergence of early agrarian capitalism. The year 1549 therefore stands at the junction of two epochs: the medieval and the early modern. As such, it represents a good point from which to view not only the short-term crisis of the mid-Tudor period but also longer-term, more fundamental transformations in economic and social structures; in social relations; in religious practice; and in popular political culture.

Economic and social change often occurs more swiftly than do ways of conceptualising society. Certainly, mid-sixteenth-century visions of the social order had more in common with medieval norms than they did with those of the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. One way of describing the late medieval social order was in terms of the mutual interdependence of those who worked (the commons); those who fought (the armigerous classes); and those who prayed (the clergy and monastic orders).2 Another mode of conceptualising society was also built upon this notion of mutual interdependence but made space for the state. This defined the social hierarchy as a society of orders comprised of four collectivities: the Crown; the gentry and nobility; the Church; and the commons.3 A common way of representing the late medieval social order was in bodily terms. As Carole Rawcliffe has put it, ‘Medical theory … inspired people to envisage the “body politic” in terms of class and rank because it recognised certain “noble,” “principal,” and “spiritual” organs, whose exalted function placed them in a position of authority over the rest.’4 Sir John Fortescue emphasised the reciprocal relationship between Crown and people and drew attention to the limits of royal authority, arguing that where monarchs sought to rule outside established laws they became tyrants. In his discussion of the Crown’s fiscal powers, Fortescue highlighted the conditional nature of the Crown’s powers and suggested that illegal taxation led to popular insurrection. Importantly for mid-Tudor fiscal strategies, G. L. Harriss has observed that in the late medieval period, ‘financial rectitude was the paradigm of good kingship, for both profligacy and avarice would impel a King to tyranny as he sought to live at the expense of his people’. Throughout Fortescue’s work, it was assumed that the Crown’s powers were limited; that the Crown was but one order within a mixed polity; and that where one order trespassed upon another, the consequence was an imbalance within the polity as a whole.5

Relationships between the four orders were supposed to be negotiated through the law. Summarising late medieval attitudes to justice, Harriss writes that monarchs were expected to meet their ‘obligations to uphold and govern by law, since “for fawte of law the commons rise”’.6 Thus, one essential role of the Crown was that of the neutral dispensation of justice; where the Crown failed in this duty, or where it was prevented from so doing, the commons might rebel. As Michael Bush has put it, late medieval popular rebellions assumed ‘a principle of answerability to the commons’. In his analysis, ‘The essential purpose of a rising of the commons was to denote that the body politic was out of joint.’ The disturbance of the polity released the commons ‘from their duty of obedience, not permanently, but as a temporary emergency measure, in order to put things to right’. Hence, for Bush, ‘risings of the commons were a defence of the society of orders’.7

In such accounts, popular rebellion is presented as performing a function, restoring balance to the polity and recalling rulers to their proper roles. There is certainly some evidence to support this view. Rebels did indeed present themselves as seeking the restoration of justice and order: one ballad behind which the rebels of 1536 marched proposed that ‘Then no marvell / thoght it thus befell / Commons to mell / To make redresse’.8 Other evidence, however, suggests that rebels had a more proactive vision of their political role. The articles of Robin of Redesdale, the leading figure in the 1469 rising, denounced the ‘covetous rule’ of ‘[s]edicious persones’ and called for ‘reformacion’. The stated object of the rebellion was to protect the ‘comonwele of this lond’ against the ‘singuler loucour’ of its rulers, and the articles denounced new taxes. Similarly, the corrupt administration of justice was held up as a target; the rebel articles claimed that this maladministration allowed ‘gret murdres, roberyes, rapes, oppressions, and extortions’. All this was to the detriment of the interests of the ‘trewe comons’. Therefore, ‘the Kyngis true and feithfulle Commons’ requested that for the ‘gret wele’ of the Crown and the ‘common-wele of others his true subje[c]ttes and Commons’ that taxation should not be levied upon them.9

The rebel articles of 1469 present the ‘trewe comons’ as a legitimate interest group that had been offended by corruption, taxation and ‘oppressions’. We will see that in 1549, rebels applied a very similar interpretation. To suggest that popular rebellion was a ‘corrective mechanism’, therefore carries more than a tinge of functionalism.10 Far from forming such a mechanism, it will be argued here that popular rebellion was reflective of a deeper, active popular politics. This plebeian politics was capable of mounting fundamental attacks on social inequality. As Rodney Hilton has put it, the 1381 rebels aimed at the ‘distribution of all lordship (except the King’s lordship) amongst all – in effect the abolition of lordship … the establishment of popular policing … the end of the control of labour; the division of church property amongst the commons; the clergy to have no property but only their subsistence’.11 This programme amounts not to the reassertion of the society of orders, but to a radical reconstruction of society from the bottom up. As such, it implies that the commons were capable of articulating an entirely different vision than that of their rulers of the distribution of wealth and power.

The Norfolk rebels of 1549 demanded a polity based upon a combination of monarchic lordship and popular sovereignty in which small communities formed autonomous entities, linked to the state in a dispersed network. We will see in Chapter Four that this had important similarities to the politics of the 1381 rebels. Both the 1381 rebels and those of 1549 demanded the abolition of serfdom; the commotioners of 1549 also demanded the limitation of seigneurial power and the separation of lords from the village community. Moreover, the 1549 rebels sought to exclude the clergy from the economic life of the village.12 Nor should we assume that popular politics was ideologically homogeneous; it is perfectly possible that the ‘radical Christian tradition’ which Hilton says existed amongst the 1381 rebels could endure alongside a static belief in the society of orders.13

The idea of the society of orders therefore represented one ideological resource upon which rebels could draw. As an ideal, it exercised a partial influence upon popular politics, inflecting political language while at times running alongside more radical discourses. This was very obvious in the 1530s and 1540s. Thanks to the Henrician Reformation, the Crown was popularly felt to be trespassing upon the territory of the Church and the commons. At the same time, lordly exactions led the commons to perceive of the gentry and nobility as venal, corrupt and oppressive. These two threats were experienced as linked; in the rebellions of 1536 and 1549, as in the reported seditious speech of that period, the commons interpreted the Reformation in terms of the dispossession of the parish community at the hands of greedy, avaricious and corrupt gentry, backed by the Crown. In these circumstances, the idea of the society of orders, with its neat separation of corporate bodies and social responsibilities, presented itself as an available discourse within which popular politics could be articulated. Thus, in July 1538 the Yorkshireman James Prestwich presented a strikingly assertive description of the separation of powers between Church and Crown, explaining that he had ‘spoke[n] according to my co[n]cynions [that] I thought and yet do thynk that the kyng or mayster colde not be supreme hedd of this church of england [believing] … that yff he might the[n] yt shulde be aswell for other foreign princ[e]s to take the same in there domynyons and thus thynkyng I trust yt be farr fro[m] treson’.14

If the Crown was felt to be undermining the Church, so in some disturbing rumours it was also said to intend the destruction of another one of the orders – this time, that of the commons. In 1536, for example, Adam Fermour reported to the people of Walden (Essex) that there was ‘evell newes for the kynge will make suche lawes that if a man dye, his wiff[e] and his child[r]en shall go a beggyng’.15 We shall see later in this book that Fermour’s fears were not isolated; rather, between the 1530s and the 1550s, labouring people frequently articulated such anxieties. While the idea of the society of orders continued to exercise a normative force, the everyday experience of social conflict undermined plebeian belief in the organic, hierarchical constitution of society. In John Heywood’s poem The spider and the fly, the commons were personified as a Fly and the gentry as a Spider. The Fly recollected how the dangerous Spider had once ‘kept your estate: and we … stood with our degre … / Dweld ech by other in welth and unit[i]e’. Now, Heywood suggested, those days were long gone.16

This book locates the 1549 rebellions at the juncture of late medieval and early modern popular political cultures. As such, it occasionally looks back to earlier insurrections. Sometimes it does so in order to highlight similarities and continuities; sometimes it does so in order to demonstrate important breaking points. At other times, it draws attention to the ways in which the 1549 rebellions shed light upon popular political culture in the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Both empirically and chronologically, the book therefore ranges well beyond the commotion time of 1549. In particular, the book exploits the rich material concerning the 1536 and 1537 rebellions, together with the evidence of seditious speech and attempted insurrection in the later 1530s. This material is employed for two reasons. Firstly, in contrast to the state papers for the 1530s, those for the reign of Edward VI are scanty. Where we deal with issues such as the surveillance of popular political opinion, material from the later years of the reign of Henry VIII is utilised alongside that of the reign of Edward VI. Secondly, it is suggested that there are important continuities in popular protest between 1536–7 and 1549. These continuities are most obvious concerning the Western rebellion in Devon and Cornwall in 1549, whose conservative religious grievances bore some similarities to those of the Pilgrimage of Grace of 1536. But there are also less frequently acknowledged similarities between the rebellions of 1536–7 and the Norfolk commotion time of 1549. It is significant, for instance, that during the crisis of 1536–7, Thomas Cromwell and the Duke of Norfolk both feared that East Anglia – and Norfolk in particular – would rise in support of the northern rebels.17 Such fears had some basis in reality. One of the plotters amongst the commons of Fincham, where the would-be rebels intended to kill the local gentry, spoke of how he wished that the ‘Yorkshyer men myght a cume forthe … that than the halydays that were putte down wuld a been restoryed ageyn’.18 Geoffrey Elton has noted that of all the counties that were not directly involved in the Pilgrimage of Grace, it was in Norfolk that the largest and most serious attempted risings were mounted.19

Most significant of the attempted Norfolk risings was that in Walsingham in 1537, where the conspirators intended to slaughter the local gentry.20 There were a number of organisational similarities between the intended insurrection in Walsingham in 1537 and the Norfolk rebellion of 1549. The Walsingham rebels planned to spread the rising under cover of archery matches into Suffolk; fairs were to provide the cover for rebel organisation; the town of Wymondham was cited as a centre for rebel organisation; and the rebels intended to seize King’s Lynn.21 But the most important continuities between the attempted risings of 1537 and Kett’s rebellion of 1549 lay in language and ideology. Raphe Rogerson, one of the leading Walsingham plotters, observed to his neighbour William Guisborough that ‘the gentle men buye upp all the grayn, kepe all the catal in their handes and hold all the farmes that poor men cann have no living’. Likewise, George Guisborough remarked to John Semble that ‘ther was moche penery and scarcenes among the Comons and poor folks for remedy therof he thought it were very well don that ther might be an insurrection’.22 A similar set of instincts drove the rebels in 1549. It is also possible to find similar organisational and ideological continuities between the commotion time of 1549 and the popular rebellions of the fourteenth, fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. These continuities enable us to talk meaningfully of a popular political culture that spanned the period between 1381 and 1549.23

One enduring continuity concerned popular attitudes to law, order and state formation. Far from seeing the state as the coercive arm of the ruling class, late medieval rebels were more likely to perceive of it as an agency that needed to be strengthened against gentry violence and corruption. Since the state was (at least theoretically) the guarantor of legality and order, late medieval labouring people often contrasted the disorderly behaviour of their gentry opponents with their own orderliness and legalism. This legalism – later to be a defining characteristic of early modern popular politics – originated in the years before the Black Death. The peasants and townspeople of the early fourteenth century preferred to submit cases to royal courts out of a belief that their landlords influenced local courts. Thus, Rodney Hilton finds ‘the earliest signs of … [peasant] resistance to manorialism in the records of the royal courts’. By the late fourteenth century, Hilton discerns a ‘peasant habit of litigation’. This use of the courts was more than merely tactical. Popular litigation also conditioned peasant self-organisation. In 1327, the tenants of Great and Little Ogbourne (Wiltshire) ‘not only formed a conspiracy [against their lord] … but supported it by a common purse’.24 By the early fifteenth century, there were many manors upon which wealthier villagers had liberated themselves from the restrictions of serfdom. Such individuals became used to administering the law as village officers, as jurors and as litigants in central courts. In Goheen’s analysis, this alliance with the law enabled the richer peasants to build ‘their own communities according to their own rules’.25

In their conflicts with their rulers, labouring people sometimes developed comparisons between their own orderliness and the violence and oppressions of their opponents. Thus, the petition of the town of Swaffham to parliament in 1451 described Sir Thomas Tuddenham of Oxburgh as a dangerous figure who committed ‘trespasez, offencez, wronges, extorcyons … oppressions and per[j]uryes’. They compared him to a ‘comon theef’, observing that his oppressions had resulted in the ‘sub[v]ercyon of the lawe and of the polityk governaunce of the land’.26 Popular criticism of the gentry’s brutality and venality therefore offered ethical and political arguments for state formation.27 This popular legal-mindedness influenced rebel behaviour. In 1381, rebels in St Albans (Hertfordshire) organised themselves as though they were setting a watch; elsewhere, in executing their leading opponents the rebels appropriated the state’s rituals of execution and thereby asserted ‘their judicial authority’. The rebels’ legalism also influenced the care with which they worked through those estate archives which fell into their hands, preserving the documents which legitimated their rights while destroying those that prejudiced them. In demonstration of their claim to stand for the King, the 1381 rebels marched behind royal standards. Like Kett’s rebels in 1549, who dispatched warrants in the King’s name, the 1381 rebels appropriated ‘the documentary forms of royal government’. Perhaps most notably, like Robert Kett in 1549, the leader of the 1381 Norfolk rebels, Geoffrey Lister, held lawcourts at which opponents of popular rights were punished.28

Such similarities can also be found in many of the causes of rebellion. Taxation featured, for instance, as an important cause of insurrection in 1381, 1450, 1469, 1489, 1497, 1525, 1536 and 1549. As suggested in Robin of Redesdale’s complaints, taxation was conceived of as more than a simple financial burden, but was also regarded as an extension of the Crown’s power and hence as a destabilising force.29 In 1381, 1537 and 1549 the authority of the landlord class came under direct rebel assault. The venality of gentry office-holders fed into popular protest in 1450 and 1549. Likewise, the failings of the gentry and the claim that they were ‘traitors’ lay at the heart of popular rebellion in 1381, 1450 and 1536 and strongly influenced rebel politics in 1549. Rebel violence in all these insurrections was not indiscriminate, but was instead directed against unpopular gentlemen, corrupt local officeholders or hated government ministers.30

Rather than acting out the gentry’s nightmare of a murderous jacquerie, rebels often took out their frustrations upon the material fabric of lordship: they stole deer, rabbits, sheep and cattle from gentry land and broke into their rulers’ mansions to plunder wine and food and to rifle through estate papers. It should not be a surprise, therefore, to find that rebellion often broke out in what the Norfolk rebels of 1549 called the ‘camping time’: that is, seasonal periods of festivity.31 Between 1381 and 1549, the organisation of popular insurrection displayed very similar characteristics. In 1381, 1450, 1536–7 and 1549, initial support for insurrection was spread by anonymous letters, bills and libels, and (even more importantly) by rumour.32 Rebels were so often summoned by the ringing of church bells that ‘to ring awake’ had, by the mid-sixteenth century, become a euphemism for popular rebellion.33 If the auditory landscape of rebellion was defined by the sound of church bells, its administrative topography was built upon rebel leaders’ prior experience of local government and law enforcement. In particular, the governmental machinery of the manor, parish and hundred (an administrative body comprising a group of perhaps ten or so parishes) was exploited by rebel leaders. Many of these leaders were used to holding office as constables, churchwardens, bailiffs or court jurors and were therefore able to draw upon the organisational networks that they deployed in those capacities.34 Militia muster grounds, each pertaining to a particular hundred, were used as the location for rebel gatherings.35

Perhaps the most important – and yet also the most difficult – question in the history of late medieval popular rebellion is that of how far rebels were conscious of these centuries-long continuities. The politics of popular memory is more fully discussed in Chapter Six, but the question is worth pausing over here. I. M. W. Harvey has marshalled important evidence which suggests that the political culture of the fifteenth-century commons stemmed at least in part from just such a conscious link. Harvey refers to the ‘psychological benefit of oral tradition’, in particular to ‘the inherited memory of the events of 1381’ in organising and motivating rebels. In 1407, Warwickshire dissidents posted up bills criticising the Church in the name of ‘Jack Straw and his companions’. In 1485, northern rebels named three of their captains ‘Master Mendall’ (a reference to John Amendall, the nom de guerre of Jack Cade), ‘Jack Straw’ and ‘Robin of Riddesdale’, ‘thereby saluting the memories of the risings of 1381, 1450 and [1469]’.36 There are, therefore, good reasons to think that a deep social memory of popular rebellion endured, conditioning protest and legitimating its ideology. Certainly, it is possible to demonstrate clear continuities in the sites of large-scale protest. All of the counties cited by Hilton as especially affected by 1381 – Middlesex, Kent, Essex, Surrey, Hertfordshire, Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire – were caught up in the 1549 rebellions.37 Textile-producing regions – the Kentish Weald, the Stour Valley, central Norfolk – seem to have been especially prone to rebellion.38 As to individual communities, Bury St Edmunds (Suffolk) was involved in risings in 1381, 1450, 1525 and 1549. Melton (Suffolk) was the site of trouble in 1450 and 1549. St Albans, Norwich and Cambridge were all caught up in large-scale trouble in 1381 and 1549. Lavenham (Suffolk) fell into rebel hands in 1525 and 1549. The same was true of the location of large rebel camps. Essex rebels converged on the field at Mile End in 1381 and 1450. In 1451, would-be Norfolk rebels gathered at the village of Thorpe, on the edge of Mousehold Heath, which was the location of rebel camps in 1381 and 1549. Blackheath was the location of rebel camps in 1381, 1450 and 1497.39

© Cambridge University Press

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements; List of abbreviations; Preface; Introduction; Part I. Context: 1. The 1549 rebellions; 2. 'Precious bloody shedding': repression and resistance, 1549–1553; Part II. Political Language: 3. Speech, silence and the recovery of rebel voices; 4. Rebel political language; Part III. Consequences: 5. The decline of insurrection in later sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England; 6. Memory, myth and representation: the later meanings of the 1549 rebellions; Bibliography; Index.

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