Captain Ann Carter – Hanged for Leading the Maldon Grain Riots of 1629
*CONTENT WARNING – This blog contains some strong language ***
Come, come you brave boys of Maldon, You Will not starve if you follow my lead.Ballad of Captain Ann by Maldon musician Niki Timpson
Thus goes the chorus of the recently written Ballad of Captain Ann by Maldon musician Niki Timpson. ‘Captain’ Ann Carter has in recent years enjoyed something of a renaissance in the town where she lived nearly four hundred years ago. For Women’s History Month I want to look at her tragic story and honour the woman who died trying to feed the starving people of Essex. Her story has been discussed in pubs and local history venues for many years, but she has always been a divisive character. One particularly scathing article was published in 2010 where she was described by the male local historian as ‘a local who flouted the law…incited our community to riot…and paid the ultimate price for it, leading others to their death’.[i] I find it interesting that he used the possessive term ‘our community’, telling us so much about how local historians want to connect themselves to the narrative and yet food shortages were a national issue and Ann’s story is part of a much bigger debate on the politics of food, women’s roles in feeding their families and even their very existence as individuals in the eyes of the court.
When Essex University Professor Emeritus John Walter came to Maldon in September 2015 to give a talk about Ann, the Maldon Brewing Company named a beer Captain Ann to mark the occasion. One local hotelier and gentleman farmer refused to stock the beer named after ‘that grain stealing b**ch’, an interesting demonstration of how a woman dead for nearly four centuries could still provoke patriarchal hostility.
So who was Ann Carter and what does her life as an early modern woman tell us? The first documentary evidence I could find of Ann is on 6 December 1620 when she married a butcher John Carter, in the parish of St Peter in Maldon[i]. Her maiden name was given as Barrington which might connect her to a family of fishermen in the neighbouring parish of St Mary, but it’s not really clear as there appears to be no birth record for her. John Walter has written her entry in the ODNB where he explores the squabbles she had with the authorities on the subject of non-attendance at church. She is recorded in 1623 as telling one borough functionary that she would attend church if he would supply someone to do her housework.[ii] On another occasion Ann was recorded as using a stout stick to club the Serjeant-at-Arms who had come to arrest her husband for some misdemeanour[iii]. In early 1629 she appeared in court for minor infringements of market regulations. Clearly she was a woman who had little respect for the town authorities, and it seems she and her husband were not making much of a living, leading to food insecurity and legal difficulties as the decade moved on.
The late 1620s were a time of instability in Britain. Charles I ascended the throne in 1625 and with his belief in the divine right of kings he regularly dissolved Parliament, refusing to acknowledge its authority unless he wanted it to grant him more money. After a series of unsatisfactory harvests the grain prices were high and in the marketplaces of East Anglia people were becoming frustrated at the lack of affordable food. The Privy Council was petitioned to ban exports of grain to protect British supply, but the King had sold licenses to export grain to Europe, meaning little was available for the locals to buy.
Feelings boiled up first on 23rd March 1629. Outside of Maldon’s borough boundary at a wharf known then as Barrow Marsh or Barrow Hills, now Mill Beach, ships were loading grain to take to Europe. A large crowd of women, led by Ann Carter, marched to the wharf, and forced the sailors to unload grain into the women’s aprons and caps, for the women to carry away to distribute to their friends and families. This act was considered justified as they saw the selling of grain abroad, as locals went without, contravened the moral economy, they had a right to British grain before it was sold elsewhere.
On 28th April 1629 Ann was examined by the Borough at the Moot Hall. She confessed to the ‘assembling of many women and their taking away of corn out of the ships’[i] having heard Philip Ewers, who was a Hoyman of Lee (Leigh) complain that the owners of the Hoy, a forerunner of the Barge, were from Dunkirk. Having assembled more than one hundred women she confessed to entering the ship where the Fleming sailors helped them carry away rye in the aprons. Another woman, Anne Spearman, the wife of a Maldon fisherman, also confessed to joining the assembly and another Elizabeth Sturgeon, wife of a labourer said that being in poverty and wanting victuals for her children she took about half a bushel of grain. All the women agreed no one had persuaded them to go, they just felt compelled to join in.
These were ordinary women of the town who wanted to feed their children. They took what they considered to be justifiable action against what they saw as an unfair export of food. The Borough authorities were already well aware that Ann was a difficult woman but took a restrained approach to dealing with the situation. The Borough was faced with a Leet Courtroom full of the womenfolk of their own community, wives of their suppliers or employees not normally known for being troublemakers, except Ann. The women were admonished, instructed to stay peaceably at home in future. Meanwhile the Borough Corporation quietly arranged for a collection from the Aldermen, each paying between 20 and 50 shillings towards the purchase of grain, to be distributed in the town at a fair price.
Thus all might have been well. Except there was a perfect storm brewing in the wider Essex community as the trade depression among the cloth workers of Witham, Bocking and Braintree was biting hard, people were becoming poorer and the increasingly high food prices led to further disruption, this time with fatal consequences. Ann took a decision to ride through the region gathering the support of several hundred unemployed clothworkers. She used the services of a literate baker who wrote letters for her to the cloth workers’ leaders urging people to support her cause. She took on the title ‘Captain’ and declared ‘Come my brave lads of Maulden, I will be your Leader, for we will not starve’.[ii] In May 1629 some 200 or 300 people descended again on the wharves and this time stole away nearly four tonnes of grain, demanded £20 to release one vessel, ransacked a house and warehouses and forced vessels to put to sea for their safety. Can we say Ann lost control of the crowd she claimed to lead? Possibly. Certainly central government was quick to react this time and the matter of justice was taken out of the Borough’s hands. Within a week the Privy Council had set up a special commission to hear the case with instructions to be severe. The day after the hearing, on 30th May 1629 Captain Ann Carter and three men were hanged, probably but not definitely, at Chelmsford.
Ann Carter was hanged for giving herself the male title of ‘Captain’, for presuming to lead men, and for premeditating riot by writing to gather support in advance. By taking a man’s title she lost the right to have her husband held accountable for her actions and so she took personal responsibility. She was the only woman hanged for rioting due to food instability. We all know women like Ann, whose highly developed sense of justice, combined with a resentment towards what she saw as an ineffective and uncaring Borough authority led her to civil disobedience. She was demanding affordable food for the starving families of her friends and neighbours. She was probably her own worst enemy, but she was not a ‘grain stealing b**ch’. I see her as a warrior woman, who did what she thought was right for her community, paid the ultimate price and who deserves to be remembered as a feminist heroine.
It should be said that a year later, since harvests had not improved, the Privy Council did take up control of the grain supply and marketing, ensuring the politics of food were back under control. So perhaps Ann did not hang in vain. I am campaigning now to have a statue commemorating Ann Carter placed in the Churchyard of St Peters in Maldon, the place where it all began when she married a butcher 400 years ago in December 1620.
By Julie Miller
Julie is a mature student who works as Curator of the Combined Military Services Museum in Maldon Essex. She is interested in many aspects of the early modern period including the local history of her home town of Maldon in Essex. She explores this interest through her work as a Trustee for the Friends of the Moot Hall, a charitable trust looking after a 15th century tower house in Maldon, built by the Darcy family. Julie is now studying part time for her PhD in History at University of Essex where she will research the life of the Saffron Walden Quakers John and Mary Farmer and the network of radical Essex Quakers who went to America to fight slavery in the early eighteenth century. Being the curator of a military museum and a student of Quakers, she is very conflicted.
[i] Maldon Leet Court Records, Essex Record Office D/B 3/3 208
[ii] British Library, Harleian Manuscript 7000, fol 259.
[i] Boyds Marriage Indexes, 1538-1850 & Essex Records Office T/R 149/3 Parish records of St Peters Church (Marriage).
[ii] Essex Records Office D/B3/3/1/19
[i] Nunn, S. The Myth of ‘Captain Ann’ Maldon & Burnham Standard 2010