The Cinque Ports is a historic series of coastal towns in Kent and Sussex. It was originally formed for military and trade purposes, but is now entirely ceremonial. The ports all lie at the eastern end of the English Channel, where the crossing to the continent is narrowest. The name originates in Norman French, meaning "five ports", which are:
Other towns also contribute to the confederation, including two Antient Towns:
- and seven Limbs.
Apart from the five ports and the two Antient Towns, there are eight other members of the Confederation, which are considered to be Limbs of the other towns. These are:
- Lydd (Limb of New Romney)
- Folkestone (Limb of Dover)
- Faversham (Limb of Dover)
- Margate (Limb of Dover)
- Deal (Limb of Sandwich)
- Ramsgate (Limb of Sandwich)
- Brightlingsea (Limb of Sandwich)
- Tenterden (Limb of Rye).
There are in addition some 23 towns, villages and offices which have varying degrees of connection to the ancient Liberties of the Cinque Ports. Pevensey was once a Limb of Hastings, and the coastal confederation during the Middle Ages consisted of a confederation of 42 towns in all.
History of the Ports
Formation, duties and privileges
A Royal Charter of 1155 established the ports to maintain ships ready for the Crown in case of need. The chief obligation laid upon the ports, as a corporate duty, was to provide 57 ships for 15 days' service to the king annually, each port fulfilling a proportion of the whole duty. In return the towns received the following privileges:
Exemption from tax and tolls; self-government; permission to levy tolls, punish those who shed blood or flee justice, punish minor offences, detain and execute criminals both inside and outside the port's jurisdiction, and punish breaches of the peace; and possession of lost goods that remain unclaimed after a year, goods thrown overboard, and floating wreckage.
A significant factor in the need to maintain the authority of the Cinque Ports by the King was the development of the Royal Navy. With the advance in shipbuilding techniques came a growth in towns such as Bristol and Liverpool and the wider development of ports such as London, Gravesend, Southampton, Chichester, Plymouth and the royal dockyards of Chatham, Portsmouth, Greenwich, Woolwich and Deptford. A further reason for the decline of many older ports may be ascribed to the development of the railway network across Britain, and the increased quantity of overseas trade it could distribute from the new major ports developing from the 18th century.
King Edward I granted the citizens of the Cinque Ports special privileges, including the right to bring goods into the country without paying import duties; in return the Ports would supply him with men and ships in time of war. The associated ports, known as 'limbs', were given the same privileges.
The towns also had their own system of courts: the Cinque Ports Court of Admiralty still has wide jurisdiction over an extensive area of the North Sea and the English Channel, including the Straits of Dover which are amongst the busiest shipping lanes in the world, although the Court has not sat for many years.
The five head ports and two "antient towns" were entitled to send two Members to Parliament. A Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports was appointed, and also held the title of Constable of Dover Castle, and whilst this office exists today, it is now a purely honorary title, with an official residence at Walmer Castle.
The town of Hastings was the head port of the Cinque Ports in the Middle Ages.
Barons of the Cinque Ports
All Freemen of the Ports, termed "Portsmen", were deemed in the age of Feudalism to be barons, and thus members of the baronage entitled to attend the king's parliament. Termed "Barons of the Cinque Ports", they reflected an early concept that military service at sea constituted land tenure per baroniam making them quasi feudal barons. The early 14th century treatise Modus Tenendi Parliamentum stated the Barons of the Cinque Ports to hold a place of precedence below the lay magnates but above the representatives of the shires and boroughs. Writs of summons to parliament were sent to the warden following which representative barons of the Cinque Ports were selected to attend parliament. Thus the warden's duty in this respect was similar to that of the sheriff who received the writs for distribution to the barons in the shires.
The existence of common seals of the barons of the individual ports (see illustration) suggests they formed a corporation as the seal was designed to be affixed to charters and legal documents which would bind them as a single body. This no doubt related to their privileges as monopolies. The warden and barons often experienced clashes of jurisdiction.
In the 21st century the title "Baron of the Cinque Ports" is now reserved for Freemen elected by the Mayor, Jurats, and Common Council of the Ports to attend a Coronation, at which they had the right to hold the canopy above a new monarch, albeit that this has not been done since the coronation of King George IV. The title of Baron and is solely honorary in nature.
Changes in composition
As time went by and some ports declined or silted up, others were added. Rye and Winchelsea were attached to Hastings as "Antient Towns" in the 12th century, and later became members in their own right.
Other places associated with the Cinque Ports and sometimes described as "non corporate limbs" included Bekesbourne, Birchington, Brightlingsea, Fordwich, Pevensey, Reculver, Seaford, Stonor and Walmer. At one time there were 23 limbs.
The operation of the Confederation today
The Confederation plays an active part in the ceremonial affairs of state. Places of honour are reserved for the Cinque Ports Barons at Westminster Abbey, during coronation services, and new Lords Warden are still installed in office, with full pageantry, at Dover.
Meetings of the Common Council are presided over by the Speaker, who also acts as the principal spokesman of the Confederation. The speakership rotates amongst the seven head ports and the office is held by the mayor of the relevant port for twelve months, commencing on 21st May each year. The position of Speaker is one of only two offices with that title in the United Kingdom; the other being the Speaker of the House of Commons.
The continuing decline of the confederation of the Cinque Ports may be ascribed to a variety of different circumstances, essentially the development of other ports and the establishment of a permanent Royal Navy removed the function of the Cinque Ports to provide "ship service", leaving them with little function.
During the 15th century, New Romney, once a port of great importance at the mouth of the River Rother (until it became completely blocked by the shifting of sands during the great storm of 1287), was considered the central port in the confederation, and the place of assembly for the Cinque Port Courts, the oldest such authority being vested in the 'Kynges high courte of Shepway', which was being held from at least 1150. It was here that from 1433 The White (1433–1571) and Black (1572-1955) Books of the Cinque Port Courts were kept.
Much of Hastings was in the 13th century washed away by the sea. During a naval campaign of 1339, and again in 1377, the town was raided and burnt by the French, and went into a decline during which it ceased to be a major port. It had no natural sheltered harbour. Attempts were made to build a stone harbour during the reign of Elizabeth I, but the foundations were destroyed by the sea in storms.
New Romney is now about a mile and a half from the seafront. It was originally a harbour town at the mouth of the River Rother. The Rother estuary was always difficult to navigate, with many shallow channels and sandbanks. In the latter part of the thirteenth century a series of severe storms weakened the coastal defences of Romney Marsh, and the Great Storm of 1287 almost destroyed the town. The harbour and town were filled with sand, silt, mud and debris, and the River Rother changed course, now running out into the sea near Rye, Sussex. New Romney ceased to be a port.
Hythe is still on the coast. However, although it is beside a broad bay, its natural harbour has been removed by centuries of silting.
Dover is still a major port.
Sandwich is now two miles from the sea and no longer a port.
Ongoing changes in the coastline along the south east coast, from the Thames estuary to Hastings and the Isle of Wight inevitably reduced the significance of a number of the Cinque port towns as port authorities. However, ship building and repair, fishing, piloting, off shore rescue and sometimes even 'wrecking' continued to play a large part in the activities of the local community.
By the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the Cinque Ports had effectively ceased to be of any real significance, and were absorbed into the general administration of the Realm. Local Government reforms and Acts of Parliament passed during the 19th and 20th Centuries (notably the Great Reform Act of 1832), have eroded the administrative and judicial powers of the Confederation of the Cinque Ports, when New Romney and Winchelsea were disenfranchised from Parliament, with representation provided through their counties alone, while Hythe and Rye's representation was halved.
In 1985, HMS Illustrious established an affiliation with the Cinque Ports. In 2005, the affiliation was changed to HMS Kent.
The distinctive heraldic emblem of the Cinque Ports is the front half of a lion joined to the back of a ship, seen in the coats of arms of several towns, and also in the heraldic banner (flag) of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. This was originally created by heraldic dimidiation.
- Cinque Ports' official site
- Extensive historical information on Romney Marsh and the Cinque Port towns
- Hinings, Edward. The Cinque Ports: History People and Places
- History of the Cinque Ports: Cinque Port Limbs
- Roskell, J.S. History of Parliament, House of Commons 1386-1421, Stroud, 1992, vol.1, p.751, Cinque Ports
- The Cinque Ports in the Twentieth Century
- Sigillum commune baronum, from mediæval Latin baro, baronis (m), thus baronum is "of the barons"
- Arthur Charles Fox-Davies, A Complete Guide to Heraldry, 1909, pp. 182, 525.
- From the Book entitled The Cinque Ports. Contains endpaper maps of this area of Great Britain, also contains black-and-white photographic plates of architectural artifacts, and published by Spurbooks UK with an ISBN 0-902875-90-6.