5. The Opposing Forces

5.1 The Rebel Army

Characterising the rebel army is an important but challenging undertaking, with concrete evidence regarding the size, composition, and armament of Kett's forces proving difficult to unearth. Although Southerton (1549-1559) claimed that the insurgency involved approximately 15,000 participants, the fierce fighting in Norwich would have depleted the rebels' numbers through death and injury. Equally, the night march to Dussindale would have enabled disheartened soldiers to desert Kett's army with ease, a fact noted by Delft who observed that 'some of the more important peasants have left their ranks [leaving] nothing but young serving-men and riff-raff' (1549, 434) to oppose Warwick's forces. Despite the impossibility of gauging how many men absconded in this fashion, comparisons can be drawn with the Scottish army of 1513, which lost between 15% (Phillips 1999a) and 20% (Sadler 2005) of its strength before the battle of Flodden, a common occurrence in an era when desertion was endemic. Applying this rough benchmark to the Norfolk rebels would result in their retaining approximately 10,000 men at Dussindale.

Before assessing the quality of the Norfolk rebels as soldiers, it is first necessary to say something of the wider Tudor military scene, which was undergoing an incremental conversion from medieval to early modern forms of organisation and technology. This period of transition saw the coexistence of England's traditional systems of recruitment, wherein the nobility and gentry outfitted their personal retinues for military service, with the growth of the county militia (Goring 1955). While the militia was more of a selection tool than a mass levy, it enforced adherence to the Winchester Provisions of 1285, stipulating that every able-bodied man between the ages of 16 and 60 should furnish suitable weapons and present himself for training at regional musters (Davies 2001). Such directives have important implications for rebel forces, suggesting that the majority of insurgents would, as English subjects, have had access to weapons and a modicum of military training, a conclusion supported by analysis of the armies of the 1536/7 Pilgrimage of Grace (Bush 1996).

The insurgents' levels of military preparedness can be discerned in their appropriation of regional government infrastructure, with Neville recording how Kett's associates used 'the ringing of bells and firing of beacons' (1575, 10) to muster forces as if in preparation for an official campaign. Similarly, the post-rebellion testimony of Robert Themilthorpe, lessee of Tunstead Manor, illustrates this use of military resources by accusing Constable Christopher Amis of assembling the inhabitants of Sco Roston, Tunstead, and other towns, before leading them to join the camp on Mousehold Heath (Whittle 2010). Nor were these isolated instances, as proven by reports of rebel-appointed commissioners requisitioning 'shot, powder, ammunition, corn, cattle, money, and everything else' (Southerton 1549-1559, 252) from areas under their control. Contemporary Quarter Sessions also described parties of rebels 'arrayed as if for war', and attested to the theft of body armour and weapons from armouries and private houses (Whittle 2010, 18-20). The evident parallels between the Norfolk insurgents and militia enables the use of official muster rolls, available for North Greenhoe in 1523 (Anon. 1523) and for the whole county in the later 16th century (Anon 1569, 1572, 1574, 1577), to assess the probable armament of the army that fought at Dussindale. Consulting such documents reveals that the Norfolk militia mirrored national trends (Anon. 1547), with its soldiers carrying longbows or bills and wearing standard protective equipment, including quilted jacks, sallets, and steel caps. While firearms appeared at the later 16th-century musters, they did not exceed a one-in-ten ratio with other weapons, whereas between half and two-thirds of soldiers were archers.

Narrative sources confirm the presence of an eclectic mixture of close-quarter weaponry within Kett's army, including 'halberds, spears [and] swords' (Southerton 1549-1559, 254), as well as 'staves and javelins' (Neville 1575, 29), while Smythe noted that the insurgents were 'all bowmen, swords, and bills' (1589, 95). Description of an ambush within Norwich also alluded to the rebels' archery, stating that they unleashed 'a mighty force of arrows; as flakes of snow in a tempest' (Neville 1575, 56). This suggests that, while melee weapons may have been slightly more heterogeneous than usual, perhaps reflecting the armament of the urban poor of Norwich, a significant portion of the insurgents would have been outfitted as members of the militia, with as many as 50% being equipped with longbows. Although they lacked access to gunpowder small-arms, accounts assert that the rebels possessed substantial quantities of ordnance, with Southerton listing 'six small pieces' (1549-1559, 253) taken from the walls of Norwich and Delft recording the capture of 'eleven pieces of artillery' (1549, 423) with the defeat of Northampton's detachment. Similarly, Warwick's retaking of Norwich was marred by the loss of much of his artillery train, with Smythe claiming that insurgents 'recovered eighteen field pieces' (1589, 95) in an audacious attack upon the loyalists' guns. As these examples show, the rebels acquired an impressive artillery complement of at least 35 cannon of varying calibres (Champion 2001, 264), although it is unclear how many weapons were transported to Dussindale, with the least-portable and least-effective guns probably being abandoned before the battle.

Although Kett's army represented a considerable military force, armed and trained to the standards of the county militia with England's traditional weapon systems of longbows and bills, it had several crucial weaknesses that diminished its effectiveness in combat. The first of these arose from their shortage of experienced commanders, with the nobility and gentry who normally played a vital role in recruiting and leading Tudor armies (Goring 1955) being imprisoned or driven into hiding and replaced by farmers, butchers, and skilled tradesmen from the smallholding yeomen class (MacCulloch 1979). While these men often served as the 16th-century equivalent of non-commissioned officers, playing a vital role within the cohesion of fighting units (Phillips 2001), their military experience would not equip them to lead an army of several thousand soldiers in battle. The rebel army's second key flaw was its absence of cavalry, which forced the insurgents onto the tactical defensive and reduced their ability to scout, harass, and pursue enemy forces (Cornwall 1977). As discussion of the loyalist army will reveal, these tactical weaknesses would become particularly apparent during the confrontation at Dussindale.