1. The 1549 peasant uprising commonly called Kett’s Rebellion has been the subject of two instructive articles (by Dairmand MacCullough and Julian Cornwall). NOTE 1 What we know is largely based on two more or less contemporary documents, an original account by a local Norfolk historian named Nicholas Sotherton, subsequently worked up into a Humanistic Latin monograph by Alexander Neville, but providing essentially the same factual information (both are available in The Philological Museum here). We also possess a a third in the form of copious passages written considerably earlier but subsequently patched into of Books IV and X of Sir Thomas Chaloner’s 1564 De Republica Anglorum Instauranda decem libri. I take the present opportunity to present another contemporary source-document that has eluded the notice of previous historian. but one that ought to provoke a radical reconsideration of the Rebellion, a lengthy diatribe by John Cheke, best remembered as Cambridge's original Regius Professor of Greek but who had a practical involvement in public affairs when acting as a commissioner for relief in Cambridgeshire (Calendar of Patent Rolls, Edward VI, V: 1547–1553 HMSO 1926] p. 351).
2. Although obviously written nearer to the event, Cheke’s lengthy remonstrance was originally printed by William Seres in 1569 under the title The Hurt of Sedition. Interestingly, in 1641, an editor who does not identify himself (the well-informed author of the Wikipedia article on Cheke names him as Gerard Langbaine the Elder) rescued it, dressed it up with a lengthy preface of his own, and arranged for its publication by Leonard Lichfield, the current Printer to the University of Oxford. (In the original edition the essay was given the subtitle The True Subject to the Rebell (so one should not be misled into timagining these are two different essays, as I originally was and as some bibliographers and library cataloguers likely have been). The date is of course highly significant: the point of the exercise was that it appeared on the eve of the Civil War, and for polemic purposes Langbaine, a dedicated royalist, wanted to draw a parallel between the unruly participants in the Kett Rebellion and contemporary Puritans, an easy comparison insofar as East Anglia was notoriously the bastion of the Puritan movement. In his view, the Puritans were no less misguided, hotheaded, and dangerous. And, though not explicitly stated, doubtless his opinion was that they needed to be put down with equal rigor.
3. In the popular English mind the 1549 Kett’s Rebellion was an uprising at Norwich created by local peasants disgruntled by landlords’ enclosure of common land and the consequent disruption of traditional social arrangements in an agrarian society (such a community feature died a very slow death, it is no accident that so many New England towns founded by East Anglians, Boston included, feature common land). By no means is this correct or at least complete, in two ways. MacCullough established that the Norfolk rebels’ Mousehold encampment outside Norwich was matched by similar ones elsewhere in East Anglia, and Cornwall presented evidence that in 1549 manifestations of peasant discontent were considerably more widespread than that single part of the realm. Although Cheke repeatedly demonstrates his awareness of events at Norwich, his words at the beginning of paragraph 8 make it clear that he is primarily addressing rebels at a different camp, one likely a good deal closer to Cambridge (Cornwall named two such, at King's Lynn and Bury St. Edmunds). Indeed, it appears that the inhabitants of this camp had made a foray into Cambridge itself, for in his introductory essay the 1641 editor quotes from a letter by a member of St. John’s College to the Duke of Somerset describing the ruckus they had created. And, as we shall see below, Cheke’s evidence goes to show that, although the inhabitants of these various camps may have been equally fired with resentment, this was not necessarily for identical reasons.
4. . For Cheke makes it clear, in a way that Sotherton and Neville do not, that the motivation of his particular crew of rebels largely had to do with religion. The motivation of our anonymous 1641 editor may be self-evident, but it should not mislead modern historians. These rebels may have anticipated the Puritans in their dislike of the Anglican Church because it so obviously existed to serve the purposes of England’s ruling class, but in no way can they be characterized as proto-Puritans (such a populist form of Protestantism may first have been injected into the region when Elizabeth allowed several thousand Huguenot refugees from the fall of Rochelle to settle in the region of Norfolk, and was reinforced when James I fetched in Dutchmen to drain the fens). Quite to the contrary, the single most remarkable thing Cheke has to teach us (in paragraph 6 and more explicitly in a passage beginning at paragraph 52) is that the particular gang of rebels he is addressing were inclined towards Catholicism. This comes as a distinct surprise. We have a surviving list of demands submitted to the government by Robert Kett’s crew and a couple of these do touch in matters of religion (most notably that an end be made to the scandal of absenteeism, whereby a vicar could collect the income for presiding over one or more churches without actually showing up to earn his keep). But in the list, and in the accounts of the Kett rebellion left us even by their harshest critic (by whom I mean Alexander Neville), no such Catholic bent is even hinted. On the other hand, in Cheke’s diatribe the issue of enclosures receives no mention. More than one camp was set up in East Anglia and conceivably even farther afield, but (beyond the general theme of class warfare and an enthusiasm for raising hell) their inhabitants did not necessarily share an identical agenda. It is conceivable that Cheke’s crew was disgruntled by the recent introduction of the English Book of Common Prayer and more generally inclined to Catholicism because it did a better job of addressing the spiritual needs of the peasantry, so that an element of religious discontent indeed was present. In due time Puritanism provided a more satisfactory means of satisfying the same need.
5. In an essay at the end of his 2018 novel about the Kett Rebellion, Tombland, C. J. Sansom claimed that the Mousehold camp included so-called prophets, likely to be Anabaptists and similar religious radicals. This was based a statement by Sotherton, soe now, neere unto such tyme as theyr destruction was present, had God suffrid them to bee deludid for now instead of putting theyr trust in God they trustid uppon faynid prophecies which were phantastially devisid, which prophecys they had often cawsed bfeore to bee openly proclaimid in the market & other placis. But what he meant by this is far from self-evident: an equally possible interpretation would be that the rebels kept up their morale by digging out passages from Scripture they believed to guarantee the success of their enterprise. And in any event if any such prophets existed they were not numerous or influential enough to make a mark on the rebel's' list of demands. Sansom also allowed that some of Kett's followers may have been what he called Traditionalists, devotees troubled by the very recent introduction of the Book of Common Prayer in English. And it may be significant that Neville did not see fit to repeat this information.
6. Not the least interesting feature of Cheke’s work is its importance for the history of the University of Cambridge. Together with such others as Thomas Smith and Nicholas Carr, he was responsible for introducing a new kind of education blending together Humanism and Protestantism. A remarkable number of the students who sat at their feet subsequently occupied key positions in Elizabeth’s government. NOTE 2 The most impressive of these was of course William Cecil, but one can mention other members of her Privy Council such as Francis Walsingham and Walter Mildmay, and others who held significant posts including Roger Ascham, who for a while served as her Latin Secretary and handled England’s overseas correspondence, and Thomas Chaloner, who for many years functioned as her ambassador to Spain, the trickiest and most sensitive posting of her diplomatic corps. At least one, John Parkhurst, became a bishop. With the single exception of Stephen Gardiner, all of the members of this cohort adhered to the same form of Anglican Protestantism in which they had been steeped at Cambridge, what they acquired there remained a firmly ingrained feature of their intellectual furniture when they rose to positions of authority. But, as is amply illustrated by Cheke's present diatribe, theirs was a specific brand of Anglican Protestantism crafted to comfortably serve the needs of England’s ruling class, which is why they received the enthusiastic support of such powerful families as the Brandons, Greys, and Dudleys. They did not bother concealing their disdain for the lower classes. This is particularly visible in Cheke’s paragraph 17, in which the rebels are compared to animals revolting against their human masters, an inversion of the natural order of things, and a contemporary line in a versified response to the Rebellion by Cheke’s contemporary Walter Haddon (poem 40 Lees) Discite, plebs, plebem quo decet esse loco. This isamply revealed in such articulations of Tudor political theory as John Case's 1588 Sphaera Civitatis, and it may be the case that this circle of Cambridge intellectuals had a hand in formulating it.
7. This text is based on Langbaine's edition, currently available in two forms, a downloadable photographic reproduction of the original printed text from the Early English Books website, from which one can obtain it as a PDF document, and a downloadable transcript from the Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership website sponsored by the University of Michigan, which can be saved as a word processing file. Like all the texts made available in this latter series, it is defaced by the constant and highly annoying intrusion of superfluous vertical strokes used to indicate new pages (who in the world requires this information?). The Michigan version contains a couple of textual mistakes at points where the original print copy is quite fine. Not knowing which version an individual reader may care to consult, I have corrected the latter as well as the original print mistakes. For the benefit of the modern reader, I have also modernized Cheke’s punctuation and introduced a more digestible form of paragraphing.
In various bibliographical resources (such as Google Books, the current catalogue of the Bodleian Library, although I have set in train measures which I hope will result in its correction)* and sundry other university library catalogues, the 1535 tract A Lamentation in whiche is shewed what ruyne and destruction cometh of seditious rebellyon is identified as the joint work of Cheke and Sir Richard Morison). I have no idea who was originally responsible for this mistake. Be that as it may, this attribution is silly. In 1536 Cheke, impressed by and envious of the advances made by Italian Humanism, was still a young up-and-comer bent on making a name for himself in academia and establishing a place at his own university, not yet showing any signs of developing into the man of public affairs he later became. But in a sense one can appreciate the logic of this mistake: both are expostulations reacting to to contemporary popular uprisings (Morison was adversely commenting on the Pilgrimage of Grace) written by horrified loyalist intellectuals, and it seems not implausible to suggest that Cheke took his inspiration from this earlier effort. And it may not be entirely out of the question that these two documents sowed the seeds of the line of thought from which such men as Sir Thomas Chaloner and John Case devised a progressively more articulate and elaborate structure which, fitted out with theological trappings, became the official doctrine commonly referred to asThe Divine Right of Kings. So it does not appear implausible to suggest that these tracts by Morison and Cheke deserve a place in the history of Tudor and early Stuart political thought.
* My thanks to Brian K. Geiger and Christine Straitt of the University of California at Riverside's Center for Bibliographical Studies & Research, which manages the English Short-Title Catalogue, for their help in this matter.
NOTE 1 Diarmaid MacCullough, “Kett’s Rebellion in Context,” Past & Present 84 (1979) pp. 36 - 59. , Julian Cornwall, “Kett’s Rebellion in Context:, A Rejoinder” Past & Present 93 (1981) 160 - 164. Both are available on the JSTOR website.
NOTE 2 See Winthrop S. Hudson’s groundbreaking Cambridge Connection and the Elizabethan Settlement of 1559 (Durham, North Carolina, 1980).