Grainriots and popular attitudes
to the law: Maldon and the crisis of 1629
Nothing more slackens the reins of government, and the stability of peace, which
is upheld by the reverent awe and respect which the people and subjects give to the
Magistrate, than when by injustice and unworthinesse, they bring their persons
and authority under contempt and dislike; but that they seem not as Gods but Idols,
which have eares but heare not, eyes but see not, mouths but speak not true judgement.
Against such Magistrates, people are prone to think it, not only
Early modern England was marked by profound changes in economy, society, politics and religion. It is widely believed that the poverty and discontent which these changes often caused resulted in major rebellion and frequent 'riots'. This book argues for the inherently political nature of popular protest through a series of studies of acts of collective protest, up to and including the English Revolution. Authority was always the first historian of popular protest. Explaining the complex relationship between the poor and their governors, the book overviews popular attitudes to the law and the proper exercise of authority in early modern England. A detailed reconstruction of events centring on grain riots in the Essex port of Maldon in the crisis of 1629 is then presented. Urbanisation, regional specialisation and market integration were the larger changes against which disorder was directed between 1585 and 1649. The book discusses the 'four Ps', population growth, price rise, poverty and protest, explaining their connection with population explosion to poverty and protest. The major European revolts of the so-called 'Oxfordshire rising' are then analysed. Popular politics might deploy 'weapons of the weak' in a form of everyday politics that was less dramatic but more continuous than 'riot'. On the very eve of the Civil War, large crowds, with underemployed clothworkers, attacked and plundered the houses of local Catholics and proto-royalists among the nobility and gentry. In a culture that proscribed protest and prescribed obedience, public transcripts could be used to legitimise a popular political agency.
The geography of food riots, 1587–1649
riot in this period. Though all smaller urban and proto-industrial centres
throughout the realm might have been vulnerable, grainriots appear to have
been geographically limited in their incidence as well as conﬁned, for the most
part, to years of crisis. Despite patchy record survival, there appear to have
been areas where the food riot was noticeably absent. It does not seem to have
been a familiar feature in the northern uplands or, for that matter, over much
of the north, and
thrusts the viewer once more into the middle of the protest, though the
hectic action is more sustained than it was in the grainriot and thus
the sense of risk from the People is greater: the camera whips around
everywhere as though it were trapped in the crowd, following Nesbitt to
the ground and up again; close shots of the backs of heads, shoulders
and raised arms rush through the frame; the perspective shuttles back
to cope with the crises of the later 1640s, and
prevent the widespread suﬀering that might have mobilised the many-headed
monster by continuity in the implementation of an eﬀective system of poorrelief. Signiﬁcantly, in the diﬃcult 1640s, grainriots were less frequent. But
this was also a system which could penalise too open an expression of support
for radical ideas. The radical Roger Crabbe showed an appreciation of these
realities when he wrote of, ‘labouring poor Men, which in Times of scarcity
pine and murmur for want of Bread, cursing the Rich behind his
whole community. Just
as importantly, Davis argued that the cultural system of the rioters shaped
the performance of the violence they committed. Government authorities
had failed in their duties to keep the community pure, and rioters drew upon
a long tradition, developed in grainriots and other popular movements, that
when authorities failed to enforce the law, the menu peuple might take it into
their own hands; hence their riots mimicked the forms of official justice.
Likewise, riots took on the ritual forms of processions and other types of
worship, or of
See M. Stoyle, Loyalty and Locality: Popular Allegiance in Devon during the English
Civil War (Exeter: Exeter University Press, 1994), pp. 120–121; and I. Roy, ‘Royalist
Reputations: The Cavalier Ideal and the Reality’, in McElligott and Smith Royalists
and Royalism, p. 110.
DCY, p. 94.
For Anthony Hunter, see ibid., pp. 88n., 94n., 194, 196, 199–201.
TNA, SP29/303/235, I.
TNA, SP 29/401/35, II.
Hall, Cultural Studies 1983, especially ‘Lecture 8’.
For other explorations of this idea, see J. Walter, ‘GrainRiots
Patterns of policing in the European empires during the depression years
1915 in Sri
Lanka: A Study in the Roots of Communal Violence’, Past and
Present, 102 (1984), 130–65; David Arnold,
‘Looting, GrainRiots and Government Policy in South
India’, Past and Present, 84 (1979), 111–45;
David Arnold, ‘Police Power and the Demise of British Rule in
India, 1930–47’ in Anderson and Killingray (ed.),
, Muniment Rooms, Room I, Case 3, vol. 15, fo. 41v.
87 For why this was so, see the discussions in J. Walter, ‘The geography of food riots, 1585–
1649’, in A. Charlesworth (ed.), An Atlas of Rural Protest in Britain 1548–1900 (London,
1983), pp. 72–80; Walter, ‘Grainriots and popular attitudes to the law: Maldon and the
crisis of 1629’, in J. Brewer and J. Styles (eds), An Ungovernable People: The English and
Their Law in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (London, 1980), pp. 47–84; Walter,
‘“A rising of the people”?’.
88 WRO, Q/S Order Book 1, Mich. 1652.
’s Remembrancer p. 452; I Kings 12:16; II Chronicles 10:16.
101 Baxter, Reliquiae Baxterianae, p. 123.
102 Bremer and Rydell, ‘Performance art?’, p. 51; Cragg, Puritanism in the Period of the
Great Persecution, p. 207.
103 Spufford, ‘The importance of religion in the 16th and 17th century’, p. 85; J. Walter,
‘Grainriots and popular attitudes to the law: Maldon and the crisis of 1629’, in
J. Brewer and J. Styles (eds), An Ungovernable People (1980), p. 51.
104 Baxter, The Practical Works, iv, p. 358, quoted in Mitchell, English Pulpit Oratory,
105 Compleat Collection