Edward Seymour: Life Story

Chapter 13 : Rebellion in the East

Whilst the rebellion in the West had been motivated in great part by objections to the Prayer Book, rebellion in the eastern counties was more closely allied to economics – indeed, the rebels were very happy with the Prayer Book and used it ostentatiously throughout the rising. Led by Robert Kett, the insurrection grew to sizeable proportions, although Somerset initially did not seem overly concerned, thinking that the insurgents were seeking redress over economic matters that could be accommodated by parliament. As a measure of safety, he had ordered that a greater bodyguard be provided for the king – some 6,000 cavalry and foot-soldiers in total, which had the unfortunate effect of leading to rumours that Edward had been deposed. A procession through London was hurriedly arranged to dispel such rumours.

As Kett’s Rebellion drew ever greater numbers, the king’s councillors became more concerned. Archbishop Cranmer was unhappy that his Prayer Book was being used so publicly, and denounced the rebels as only pretending ‘knowledge of the gospel’, rather than being its true adherents.

Somerset continued his placatory line, writing to the rebels his conviction that they were good people, led astray. The Marquis of Northampton was sent to contain Kett’s men. Although he had received orders not to provoke a battle, Northampton disobeyed, and marched into the rebel stronghold of Norwich. Once within the narrow streets, his troops were savaged. This put paid to Kett’s contention, that Somerset had been so glad to endorse, that they were not rebels, but merely wanted justice.

Somerset and the council were stunned at the news of Northampton’s defeat and retreat. London was fortified, but it seemed that the duke did not have a credible plan to manage the revolt. Eventually, an army was sent out under the Earl of Warwick, who successfully overcame the rebels at Mousehold Heath.

As if Somerset did not have troubles enough, Henri II of France took this opportunity of widespread unrest, and the diversion of soldiers to repress rebellions, to besiege Boulogne.

Somerset’s handling of the rebellions of 1549 was considered entirely ineffectual by the rest of the government. His open support of many of the rebel aims, and his reluctance to punish those who offended the landowning classes destroyed the loyalty that those landowners had for him. Whilst the Imperial ambassador wrote home that England was ‘restless for a change’, and Paget urged him to end the war with Scotland, Somerset cleaved to his belief that ‘the realm was never in more quiet’. Nevertheless, he knew that he had lost the loyalty of many and was suspicious whenever he saw his fellow-councillors talking together.

Somerset’s greatest loss was the withdrawal of the support of the Earl of Warwick, the last straw being the grant of an office that Warwick had requested for a friend being granted to one whom Warwick considered his enemy. The resentment was exacerbated when Somerset told the earl that there was no money to pay the wages of the men who had won the battle at Mousehold Heath. Warwick made sure that his followers knew who was responsible for the lack of pay. If they wanted their money, they must be prepared to support him.

At this point, the duke decided to take a short holiday, and went to Hampshire with the duchess, to go hunting. In his absence, Warwick and other councillors decided that they must force Somerset to listen to reason and work with them to ‘bring things into frame’. They were tired of his high-handed attitude, and his unwillingness to accept advice. Later, the councillors claimed that their only intention was to meet Somerset at Hampton Court, where he had gone to visit the king, and persuade him to improve the governance of the country.

At Hampton Court, the duke was persuaded by Lord St John to sign an order for the payment of outstanding wages, including to Warwick’s troops – totalling some £16,000. Hearing a rumour that Warwick and the Earl of Arundel were about to withdraw their support from his government, Somerset summoned the former to wait upon him. Warwick refused. Somerset, fearing the worst, issued a proclamation, calling men to come to Hampton Court to protect both him and the king from a ‘most dangerous conspiracy’. The army that had subdued the Prayer Book rebellion had not yet been disbanded, so Somerset sent urgent messages to Russell and Sir William Herbert to support him with their forces.