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18 June 2014
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Legacies - Norfolk

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Myths and Legends
A tale of two Ketts

Hero or villain?

Re-enactment of the rebellion
Kett addressing a crowd at the Kett '99 celebrations
© Graham Barrell
Robert Kett, the middle-aged tanner, achieved great notoriety through his involvement in the rebellion of 1549, and his name has stayed on the lips of locals for centuries. However, the popular image of him has fluctuated between hero and villain.

In the immediate aftermath of the rebellion, the authorities portrayed Kett as a dangerous rebel. Fearing further unrest and sedition they tried to make an example of him. The language the authorities used when discussing Kett at his trial helped to reinforce a negative stereotype. They described him as a "felonious and malicious traitor, and a public enemy", and unfairly accused him of using the rallying cry "Kyll the Gentlemen", encouraging the murder of gentry, knights, lords and king.

Kett would have been shocked at this representation of himself as a traitor. Ironically he always considered himself to be on the side of the Crown, and expected the government’s sympathy for his cause. He did want a redistribution of local power, but envisaged this happening within existing frameworks, and his main priority was to reduce gentry - not royal – power.

Bronze carving
Bronze carving depicting the hanging of Robert Kett
© Grace Bowers
He saw himself as setting up an alternative administration to effect government policy, which the gentry had failed to carry out. Thus he conducted the camp with a hand of restraint and moderation, and he probably actually saved the lives of many gentry.

Although Kett and his brother were tried in London, their death sentences were deliberately carried out in Norwich, as a deterrent to further unrest. Robert was hanged from the wall of the castle which faced the busy market, and his body was left there to rot. Norfolk's day of "delveraunce", as the authorities put it, was proclaimed a day of thanksgiving, and was marked well into the 17th Century, maintaining the notoriety of Kett's rebellion.

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