Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Dead King Watch: Edward VI



Today marks the 453rd anniversary of the death of King Edward VI. There is not really that much to be said about him to be honest. He was born in 1537, son of Henry VIII and on his father's death ten years later he became King. As he was only ten, real power lay elsewhere - not least because Edward was a very sick little child - and he died in 1553, when he was sixteen. Although his father and predecessor, Henry VIII, had broken the link between the English church and Rome, it was during Edward's 'reign' that the decisive move was made from Catholicism to a form of Protestantism which came to be known as Anglicanism.

However, there were a couple of heroic peasant rebellions of note that happened during his 'reign'. Firstly, there was the Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549, centered in Devon and Cornwall. On the face of it, this was a religious revolt organised by Catholic reactionaries against the introduction of the book of Common Prayer in English (they wanted to keep the Latin texts). Yet, under the slogan 'Kill all the gentleman and we will have the Six Articles up again and ceremonies as they were in King Henry VIII's time', thousands of peasants rioted against the power of the gentry in general and ended up being brutally killed by armies composed mainly of German and Italian mercenaries in order to 'keep the peace'.

The rebels were largely farmers armed with little more than pitchforks and the mercenary arquebusiers killed over a thousand rebels at Crediton. 1,300 died at Sampford Courtenay and 300 at Fenny Bridges. Further orders were issued on behalf of the King by the Lord Protector, the Duke of Somerset, and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer for the continuance of the onslaught. Under Sir Anthony Kingston, English and mercenary forces then moved into Cornwall and executed or killed many people before the bloodshed finally ceased (someimes referred to as the Cornish Holocaust). Proposals to translate the Prayer Book into Cornish were also suppressed. In total 4,000 people lost their lives in the rebellion.

Secondly, and less well known about, was the Norfolk rising, also of 1549. Morton notes that this was 'quite different in character' and 'after the revolt of 1381, the most important of all the English peasant wars. Norfolk was probably the most Protestant county in England and the rising was entirely directed against the Enclosures.' Thomas More, in the first part of his Utopia, in 1516, described for all time what the enclosures he witnessed meant for England.

"For look in what parts of the realm doth grow the finest and therefore dearest wool, there noblemen and gentlemen, yea, and certain abbots, holy men no doubt, not contenting themselves with the yearly revenues and profits that were wont to grow to their forefathers and predecessors of their lands, nor being content that they live in rest and pleasure—nothing profiting, yea, much annoying the public weal—leave no ground for tillage, they inclose all into pastures; they throw down houses; they pluck down towns and leave nothing standing but only the church to be made into a sheep fold. . . . They turn all dwelling-places and all glebe land into desolation and wilderness. Therefore, that one covetous and insatiable cormorant may compass about and inclose many thousand acres of ground together within one pale or hedge, the husbandmen be thrust out of their own, or else either by cunning and fraud, or by violent oppression, or by wrongs and injuries they be so wearied, that they be compelled to sell all. By one means therefore or another, either by hook or by crook they must needs depart away, men, women, husbands, wives, fatherless children, widows, mother with their your babies, and their whole household small in substance and large in number, as husbandry requireth many hands. Away they trudge, I say, out of their known and accustomed houses, finding no place to rest in. . . . And when they have wandered abroad till the little they have be spent, what can they then else do but steal, and then justly be hanged, or else go about a begging. And yet then also they be cast in prison as vagabonds, because they go about and work not: whom no man will set a work, though they never so willingly proffer themselves thereto. For one shepherd or herdsman is enough to eat up that ground with cattle, to the occupying whereof about husbandry many hands were requisite."

The Norfolk rising was led by Robert Ket, a landowner who gathered up a 20,000 strong army to march on Norwich in June 1549. 'For more than six weeks the power of the landlords was broken round Norwich, their enclosures were stopped, and the hope of better things filled the hearts of the peasants'. In July 1549, Norwich had been taken and an army of 1,200 men under the Marquis of Northampton routed.

'It is plain from Ket's speeches to his men, and from "The Rebels' Complaint," which he published at this time, that to Robert Ket the rising was not only to put down enclosures, its aim was rather to strike at the root of the evil and to put an end to the ascendancy of the landlord class, and make England a free common wealth. Either the people must put down landlords, or very soon the landlords would have the whole land in their possession, and the people would be in hopeless and helpless subjection....Ket's speech at Eaton Wood is a fierce attack on the landlords, and a reminder that having ventured so far, the peasants must advance yet further:

"Now are ye overtopped and trodden down by gentlemen, and put out of possibility ever to recover foot. Rivers of riches ran into the coffers of your landlords, while you are pair'd to the quick, and fed upon pease and oats like beasts. You are fleeced by these landlords for their private benefit, and as well kept under by the public burdens of State wherein while the richer sort favour themselves, ye are gnawn to the very bones. You tyrannous masters often implead, arrest, and cast you into prison, so that they may the more terrify and torture you in your minds, and wind our necks more surely under their arms. And then they palliate these pillories with the fair pretence of law and authority! Fine workmen, I warrant you, are this law and authority, who can do their dealings so closely that men can only discover them for your undoing. Harmless counsels are fit for tame fools; for you who have already stirred there is no hope but in adventuring boldly."

'The Government prepared a great army of 12,000 under the Earl of Warwick, known later as the Duke of Northumberland, a capable general and perhaps the greatest scoundrel who ever governed England. After a battle lasting two days Warwick's German cavalry broke the peasants and Ket and his brother rode out of battle, leaving the followers to shift for themselves. The remnants of the rebels drew together behind a barricade of wagons and held out so stoutly that they secured a personal undertaking of safety from Warwick before laying down their arms.'

'The Kets were pursued, taken and hanged, as were hundreds of others. The Norfolk gentry who had been terrified at the open class character of the rising clamoured for a wholescale slaughter and not even Warwick's brutality could satisfy them. The chronicle which tells the story of the revolt says that he was forced to remind them that the rebels were the source of all their wealth, asking [the gentry] pointedly, "Will ye be ploughmen and harrow your own land?"'

'Though suppressed, the rising had some striking results. It helped to stay the process of the enclosures and to give East Anglia the predominantly peasant character which it long preserved and which made it a stronghold for Parliament and of the advanced section of the New Model Army in the Civil War.'

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