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Visiting Kett's Oak, Hethersett, Norfolk, England: recalling the execution of a 16th century malcontent

Updated on July 20, 2012
Flag of England
Flag of England | Source
 Kett's Oak, Hethersett.
Kett's Oak, Hethersett. | Source
Plaque at Kett's Oak
Plaque at Kett's Oak | Source
Map location of Norfolk
Map location of Norfolk | Source

(...and his relatives, too, for various reasons)

In England in July, 1549, during the reign of King Edward VI, many peasants and others in the Wymondham, Norfolk area were unhappy. The reasons for their unhappiness were varied; but rising prices and the enclosure of formerly common land are cited as some of the more obvious reasons.

They decided to vent their anger on a local farmer, Robert Kett. To their surprise, this articulate man offered to be their leader. As if to say: "Discontented? Here, let me be discontented with you, and not only with you, but on your behalf!" An ancient tree, for years reinforced, acknowledged as Kett's Oak, Hethersett, is the traditionally ascribed venue for Kett having rallied his supporters as they made their way to the city of Norwich in order to present their grievances to the authorities of the day.

It all sounds so straightforward.

Except it isn't. By the time Robert Kett arrived at Mousehold Heath overlooking the City of Norwich, his discontented supporters had swelled to 16,000. He then addressed his unhappy supporters, happy to be unhappy under his leadership, from another oak tree. In time, and in popular memory and myth, the two oak trees to some extent seemed to merge with one another.

Then some of his supporters managed to kill Lord Sheffield, when, at the beginning of August the rebels were in the vicinity of Cow Tower and Norwich Cathedral. What had begun as a discontented protest had already become a full scale rebellion. In the end, through sheer, superior firepower, troops led by the Earl of Warwick defeated Kett's Rebellion by the end of the month. Robert Kett then began journeying in captivity.

First he was taken to London and put in the Tower. Maybe the treason verdict at his trial was almost a foregone conclusion.

Back to Norwich he went. On December 7, 1549 Robert Kett was hanged at Norwich Castle. (Maybe as a lesson to any more would-be supporters?)

But even then the authorities were not finished with the Kett family. On the same day, William Kett, brother to Robert and an associate with his activities, was hanged at Wymondham at the ancient Abbey there (1).

Today the Green Party in Norfolk celebrates Robert Kett annually.

Kett's Oak is located in Hethersett, Norfolk, on the B1172, near the boundary with Wymondham. (Family note: my great-grandparents lived within a few hundred metres of this tree.)

A school in Wymondham is named for Robert Kett.

July 20, 2012


(1) Still the authorities had not finished with the Kett family. In 1589, nephew Francis Kett, a minister who had embraced Protestantism, was deemed to be the wrong sort of Protestant. While Robert and William Kett were hanged, Francis Kett was burnt at the stake. Again, Norwich Castle was the venue for this macabre dispatching of a Kett family member. (One supposes that people were supposed to feel grateful that it wasn't done at Wymondham Abbey... .)

Also worth seeing

In Hethersett itself, its parish church dates from the 14th and 15th centuries.

Wymondham (distance: approx. 6 kilometres); its Market Cross was built in the 17th century. Wymondham Abbey is a partly ruined structure, founded in 1107. Becket Chapel in the town was founded in 1174.

Norwich (distance: 15 kilometres) has numerous visitor attractions, including Norwich Castle, Norwich City Hall, Norwich Guildhall, Pull's Ferry, Elm Hill, Cow Tower, Bishop Bridge, and many others.


How to get there: United Airlines flies to London Heathrow Airport, where car rental is available. The nearest railroad station to Hethersett is at Wymondham, with rail links to London including those to Liverpool Street Station, via Cambridge. Hethersett is 212 kilometers from Heathrow Airport. Some facilities may be withdrawn, without notice. You are advised to check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.


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