Corn Laws , statutes designed to regulate the price and supply of grains, chiefly wheat. Although such laws go back to ancient Egyptian times, they are most significant in the history of England.
The first English corn laws, dating from the time of the Norman Conquest in the 11th century, were intended to prevent shortages of grain in England by prohibiting or controlling exports. Beginning in the 17th century, with the House of Commons dominated by landowners, this policy was changed. Imports, not exports, were tightly controlled, and the object was to keep the price high in England, thereby protecting the farmers. The most famous of these laws were passed in 1815 at a time when Great Britain's landholding class was threatened by falling prices and by the danger of a flood of cheap foreign grains.
The 1815 Corn Laws brought hardship to the laboring class, which had to pay a high price for bread. The laws were opposed by manufacturers who believed they forced higher wages. Opposition took the form of an Anti-Corn Law League, headed by such men as Richard Cobden and John Bright. Finally, popular uprisings and a potato crop failure led to the reluctant repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 by Prime Minister Robert Peel's Tory party. A new law (1849) permitted the buying and selling of food grain without restriction. This was an important step toward Britain's free-trade policy of the later 19th century.