Maldon grain riots

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The Maldon grain riots took place in January 1629, in the midst of industrial depression and poor harvests.[1] The English cloth trade had slumped in January, leading to more pressure on agriculture to satisfy export demand.[1] Starvation and high food prices in Essex only exacerbated the strain on the agrarian economy.[1] Discontent was thus harboured when those starving in Essex watched grain being loaded on to ships to be exported to Europe. In March of that year, a 100- to 140-strong group of rioters[2] led by one “Captain” Ann Carter, the wife of a butcher,[3] boarded a Flemish grain ship. There was a widespread belief at the time that women were beyond the law, since any prosecution could only be made against a male who might lie behind a crime; it was commonplace for a husband to be held legally accountable for the actions of his wife (refer to Legal rights of women in history). The women and child rioters removed some grain from the ship by filling their caps and gowns.

The local magistracy had been unnerved by the success of the rioting. After a fortnight's delay in trying to prosecute the rioters, the court finally granted a lower purchase price of corn.[4] Rioting caused by high food prices was one of the defining issues of early modern English society, and Maldon was no different. The rioters disputed the price of grain, demanding instead for the just price. For those living at the time, it was believed that prices should only fluctuate within defined limits. This was part of the idea of a moral economy, partly immune from free market forces.

Captain Ann, seemingly emboldened by her success, toured the local area drumming up support among clothing workers. The situation came to a head when a further riot took place on 22 May. This was taken much more seriously by the authorities and attracted the attention of the Privy Council.[5] A special commission was established and Captain Ann was hanged. It was because the second riot posed a threat to the social order that it was so forcibly persecuted by the government. We can set Ann's hanging within its tendency to make vivid examples of what happened to those who posed a serious threat to the harmony of the status quo.

The style of Captain was adopted by a number of other activists during the seventeenth century. "Captain" Dorothy Dawson,[6] who organised a protest at Thorpe Moor, and "Captain" Kate, who was recorded at an election meeting in Coventry,[7] are two female examples.


  1. ^ a b c John Walter, 'Grain Riots and Popular Attitudes to the Law: Maldon and the Crisis of 1629', p.49.
  2. ^ Walter, 'Grain Riots and Popular Attitudes to the Law: Maldon and the Crisis of 1629', p.53.
  3. ^ Bernard Capp, 'When Gossips Meet', p.317.
  4. ^ Walter, 'Grain Riots and Popular Attitudes to the Law: Maldon and the Crisis of 1629', p.59.
  5. ^ L. J. Reeve, 'Charles I and the Road to Personal Rule', p.131.
  6. ^ Bernard Capp, 'When Gossips Meet', p.316.
  7. ^ Bernard Capp, 'When Gossips Meet', p.319.

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