Summer of Discontent
‘Woe to the land whose king is a child and whose princes feast in the morning.’
There must have been many preachers throughout England in 1549 who took those words from Ecclesiastes as their sermon text. England’s king was a child, Edward VI, and the land was in a dire state, seething with social discord, religious conflict and incipient rebellion. The man effectively ruling England as regent was Edward Seymour, duke of Somerset, the king’s uncle. Oral history reminded people of a time, sixty-six years earlier, when another minor – also named Edward – had been titular head, until brusquely elbowed aside by his uncle, Richard III. Foreboding, fear and resentment were felt at all levels of society, from the squabbling rivals on the royal Council to the yeomen and peasants who looked in vain to the government for the redress of their very real grievances. Matters came to a head in the middle months of 1549 – The Summer of Discontent. This is the factual background to The Devil’s Chalice, the latest in my series of Thomas Treviot crime novels.
The backstory: In January 1547 the old tyrant, Henry VIII, died, leaving the throne to his nine-year-old son, Edward VI. That throne rested on uneasy foundations. The Reformation which Henry had begun had sundered England into violently opposed religious camps. There were radicals who wanted to push Reformation further and conservatives who wanted a return to the ‘good old (Catholic) days’. There were also social reformers who called themselves ‘commonwealth men’. They opposed many of the new landlords who had acquired land ‘secularised’ by the Dissolution of the Monasteries and who, it was claimed, were riding roughshod over the traditional rights of the common people. King Henry had left power in the hands of a moderately reformist body of councillors. However, in the back rooms of Whitehall where secret deals were done, it was agreed that the boy king’s uncle, Edward Seymour, should assume the role of Protector while acting in concert with his colleagues. But Seymour gradually took more power into his own hands, consulted the Council less and less and ruled by decree in his nephew’s name. The Protector was determined to push ahead with further social and religious reforms. There can be no doubt that he was impelled by a genuine evangelical idealism, Somerset appointed royal commissions to purify churches of ‘superstitious’ images and to enquire into such agrarian grievances as enclosure of common land.
All this might not have had disastrous consequences had not groups of disgruntled people across much of southern and eastern England taken the law into their own hands. Following the lead of government policy, as they thought, bands of iconoclasts smashed church windows and tore down rood screens. Other malcontents uprooted the hedges and fences built by ‘grasping’ landowners. Unwilling to meet force with force, Somerset issued pardons to offenders and promised new ‘commonwealth’ legislation. This only encouraged further lawlessness. Then, to add to the unrest, a rebellion broke out in the South-West where militant conservatives protested about the government’s religious policy and particularly the attempt to force an English Prayer Book on a region where Cornish was the main language. On 2 July, 2,000 rebels laid siege to Exeter. The Summer of Discontent had begun.
8 July: A commotion at Wymondham, Norfolk, involving the breaking of hedges turns into a movement when Robert Kett, a landowner of moderate means, accepts the leadership of the rebels. He sets off, with a steadily-growing band of followers, for Norwich, the second largest city in England.
9 July: Lord Russell, sent to quell the western rebellion halts at Honiton, waiting for reinforcements.
11 July: Kett sets up camp on Mousehold Heath, outside Norwich, and within days he has 16,000 followers there.
12 July: News reaches London of fresh outbreaks in several counties. The city is placed under martial law. Meanwhile, the Protector, secluded with the king at Hampton Court, issues orders, sometimes contradictory, offering pardons, promising to listen to complaints, dispatching troops, ordering examples to be made of ringleaders. He refuses to summon Council meetings. He is facing, not only rebels, but landowners complaining of his ‘soft’ reaction and councillors resentful of being ignored.
21-22 July: Kett occupies Norwich. He sets up his own court, issuing orders, sitting in judgement on offenders and commandeering provisions. He sends to the government an ultimatum of twenty-nine demands, insisting that they are in line with the Protector’s policy, and directed only against landowners who are enemies of king and commonwealth. Somerset produces no plan of action. Though, himself an accomplished general, he does not dare to forsake the safety of Hampton Court. His security depends on his ‘possession’ of the king’s person.
28 July: The Protector dispatches a force of 1,300 mercenaries and local levies under the command of the woefully inexperienced William Parr, Marquess of Northampton to ‘negotiate’ a peaceful outcome in Norwich. Kett had withdrawn his men to Mousehold Heath but broken down parts of the wall and was poised to retake the city at a moment’s notice.
1 August: A totally incompetent effort by Northampton provokes Kett’s men to make a night assault on Norwich and drive the royal troops out ignominiously. One eye-witness reports.
Lamentable and miserable was the state of the City at this time when nothing was seen or heard but lamentation and weeping … the clashing of weapons, the flames of the burning, the ruin and fall of houses, and many other fearful things which … struck with incredible sorrow the hearts and ears of all that heard it.
2 August: Somerset instructs the Bishop of London to preach at St. Paul’s that ‘those who resist temporal authority resist God’s ordinance, and are utterly damned. The rebels deserve death as traitors and receive eternal damnation with Lucifer’. For most members of the political class, such condemnation from Somerset is too little, too late.At Honiton, Lord Russell’s reinforcements arrive, at last. With 5,000 men he sets off towards Exeter.
At Honiton, Lord Russell’s reinforcements arrive, at last. With 5,000 men he sets off towards Exeter.
3 August: In London, there is widespread fear that Kett will march on the capital. The guard on the city gates is doubled and gibbets set up as a warning to disaffected citizens. Several Council members leave the royal court and meet at Westminster as a ‘rival’ government.
4-6 August: Russell confronts the rebels at Fenny Bridges, Clyst Heath and Clyst St. Mary. Thousands perish, including 900 prisoners butchered by Russell. The king’s enemies are pursued over a wide area and hanged in places as far away as Minehead and Bath. Russell enters Exeter and unleashes gruesome vengeance. Observers used to warfare are appalled at the violence of this campaign.
7 August: Somerset reluctantly authorises John Dudley, Earl of Warwick (seen by many as a potential rival of the Protector) to go to the relief of Norwich.
17 August: Some of the western rebels rally but are finally defeated at Sampford Courtenay. The Prayer Book Rebellion has cost 5,500 lives.
24 August: Warwick, assembling his forces in a businesslike way, is at Wymondham with 10,000 levies drawn from a wide area and waiting for another thousand German mercenaries. He sends a message to Kett demanding surrender.
27 August: After two days of stand-off, the German landsknechts arrive. Warwick takes possession of Norwich and cuts Kett’s supply lines, forcing him to do battle at nearby Dussindale. The result is a massacre in which some 3,500 peasants are slain.
7 September: Dudley returns as a public hero to London. He camps his mercenaries outside the city. He and other councillors now know that the current regime cannot be allowed to continue. The next few weeks are occupied by a number of behind-closed-doors meetings. Meanwhile, pamphlets circulate and sermons are preached pro and anti the Protector. Somerset, feeling increasingly isolated and insecure tries in vain to have all armed levies stood down.
5 October: Panicking now, the Protector sends a flurry of messages to local officials ordering them to come to Hampton Court with as many armed men as possible, ‘to defend the king and the lord protector, against whom a most dangerous conspiracy has been attempted’.
6 October: Being accused of treason galvanises the ‘Lords of the Council’ into action. Astonished Londoners see them processing through the City ‘weaponed and had their servants likewise weaponed, attending upon them in new liveries’. Somerset responds by ordering the Lieutenant of the Tower, Sir John Markham, to hold it against the ‘rebels’ but Markham hands the fortress to the councillors.
7 October: Somerset flees by night with the king to Windsor, calling on all loyal Englishmen to come to his aid.
9 October: London’s Common Council decide in favour of the councillors.
Now the two principal royal strongholds are in rival hands. Messages from London and Windsor fly all over the country to gain the support of the great magnates for one side or the other. For a couple of days, England teeters on the brink of all-out civil war. Will it be the Wars of the Roses all over again? But no-one wants an escalation of the summer’s violence and peace negotiations begin.
13 October: Somerset submits at a full council meeting held at Windsor.
14 October: The Protectorate is over and the ex-holder of that office is taken to the Tower.
The rebellions failed and, for that reason, they tend not to receive much attention from historians. But we should not readily disregard what was a national crisis of major proportions. Perhaps this is one of those instances when fiction can help our understanding by using imagination to vividly convey past events. I hope so and I commend to you my novel, The Devil’s Chalice, set during the chaotic Summer of Discontent.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Derek Wilson has been writing historical fiction and non-fiction since the mid 1970s and is the author of 70+ books, as well as work for radio and television and innumerable newspaper and magazine articles. After graduating from Cambridge in History and Theology, he spent some years teaching and travelling abroad before settling to a freelance writing career. He specializes in the Reformation but his large output includes studies of the Rothschild family, the Plantagenets, Peter the Great, Charlemagne and the history of circumnavigation. He lives in Devon and is the patriarch of a family of three children and six grandchildren. His most recent release is The Devil’s Chalice, published by MadeGlobal.
The third book in the acclaimed series of Thomas Treviot Tudor crime thrillers – Based on REAL TUDOR CRIME RECORDS.
The Real Crime: In the steaming summer of 1549 two men languish in the Tower of London. William West is accused of attempted murder. Robert Allen is under investigation for dabbling in the Black Arts. Meanwhile, England is in the grip of rebellions against the boy king, Edward VI. The connections between these facts remains a mystery.
Our Story: London goldsmith, Thomas Treviot, is sent by his patron, Archbishop Cranmer, to discover discreetly what connections West has with leading figures at court. But Thomas has problems of his own: his teenage son has gone off to Norwich to join rebels led by Robert Kett. Trying to find his son and please Cranmer, he is plunged into dangers from peasant mobs, London gangsters and political chicanery, not to mention an enemy wielding occult power…
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