Edward Seymour: Life Story

Chapter 12 : Rebellion in the West

To encourage compliance with the enclosure legislation, Somerset introduced an Act in March 1549 to tax sheep and home-produced cloth – the intention being to make enclosure unprofitable. It proved almost impossible collect either levy and the attempt was abandoned within a year. At the same time, Somerset came to believe that, despite the pardons issued, many landowners had returned, like dogs, to their ‘old vomit’. A proclamation was issued that repeat offenders would be punished.

This proclamation was joyful to the ears of the commons and an orgy of destruction of fences and hedges began. There was rioting in the counties of Somerset, Hampshire, and Wiltshire. In the latter, the enclosures at Wilton were pulled down. The owner, Sir William Herbert, retaliated with a force of some two hundred men who ‘slaughtered [the rioters] like wolves among sheep’.

Appalled at the unrest, Somerset hastily issued another proclamation, forbidding any unauthorised tearing down of enclosures, but then another proclamation pardoned any rioters who were repentant. Unsurprisingly, in the face of such dithering, the rioting continued. Outbreaks of violence occurred in Kent, Surrey, and Sussex, under a man calling himself variously Captain Commonwealth or Hugh Latimer – presumably meaning to conflate himself with the radical bishop. All over the country, enclosures were broken down, and the palings of deer parks pulled up. One of Warwick’s own enclosures had been ploughed and sown with oats.

Somerset, not just losing control of the country, was losing control of himself. In council, he defended the actions of the rioters, saying that their concerns were valid. His temper was so on edge that he took to berating and shouting at any voice lifted in opposition – one councillor was so shaken he went to Paget in tears.

On top of the confusion over the enclosure proclamations, in June 1549, the statute enforcing the new prayer-book, as mentioned above, came into force. For the people of Cornwall, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The region had been affected by the new tax on sheep, and this seemed to the people to be the thin end of the wedge – they had to pay tax for sheep, would they be taxed next on pigs and geese?

Open rebellion broke out. Before long, news reached the court. Edward was said to be ‘grieved and in great perplexity’. Somerset responded by sending Lord Russell to contain the rebellion, but as hostilities were continuing in Scotland, Russell was not given many men in support. In hopes of calming the situation, Somerset issued a proclamation to control the price of food, but this could only address part of the people’s grievances. At the core of the rebellion was religion, and nothing less than a return to full Catholic practice would satisfy the rebels.

Once again, a barrage of contradictory proclamations, first condemning and threatening, then promising pardon and redress, flowed from Somerset. Russell informed Somerset that the proclamations were merely inflaming the situation. Meanwhile, other insurrections were breaking out throughout the south of England. Somerset took the king to Windsor for safety, and summoned the nobility and gentry to attend there, with a view to marching west. As soon as the local gentry had left their districts, further rioting broke out.

Somerset seems to have been in a quandary – from the tone of his proclamations, he obviously felt that many of the economic concerns of the rebels were valid, and promised that parliament would be called to investigate, yet his inability to control the country was creating danger. In desperation, his old friend, Paget, wrote to him, urging strong measures.

What seeth your Grace over the king’s subjects out of all discipline, out of obedience, caring neither for protector nor king….and what is the cause? Your own lenity, your softness, your opinion to be good to the poor….

Part of the problem, Paget continued, was that Somerset was trying to do everything at once – conquer Scotland, keep the French out of Boulogne, change religion and improve the lot of the poor. The duke had gone beyond listening to advice – instead, he was certain that by removing the illegal enclosures, the country would benefit and unrest cease. Yet another commission was created, with the commissioners having power to remove illegal enclosures. Somerset then wrote to Russell that his policy had been effective. The rebels, he said, ‘be appeased and thoroughly quieted in all places, save only in Buckinghamshire…whom we trust to have appeased within two or three days….’

Whatever Somerset thought might be happening, the other nobles and gentry were not prepared to believe that the rebels had, in fact, been appeased. Lord Grey of Wilton broke up rioting in Oxfordshire, by killing some two hundred insurgents. Thoroughly warmed up by these exertions, Grey led a troop in mid-August against the rebels at Sampford Courtenay, alongside Sir William Herbert, and Sir Peter Carew . The government force was victorious, with some 1,500 rebels being killed on the field, or hunted down in the surrounding lanes.