The Cinque Ports

The Cinque Ports

As has previously been said, the position of Kent, lying as it does between London and the continent, gave it an exceptional importance in the Middle Ages. The towns on the Kent coast enjoyed a corresponding importance, since they were at once the ports through which most of the continental traffic passed, and also England’s first line of defence against invasion from France or Flanders. The king dealt with Hastings, Romney, Hythe, Dover and Sandwich in the same way as he dealt with his great baronial landowners; each town was assigned certain duties to be performed when demanded by the king, and in return each was granted certain privileges. It was a normal arrangement within the feudal system.

The five towns, together with Rye and Winchelsea (both of them, like Hastings, lying in Sussex) formed a group known as the Cinque Ports and the Two Antient Towns, which was without parallel in England. From the 12th century onward the Ports had their own system of courts and meetings, and they worked together as a confederation which, for some purposes, was independent of the counties in which the ports lay. They were at the zenith of their power at the end of the 13th and the beginning of the 14th century—the exact period when Kentish agriculture also was at its zenith, although there is only a loose connection between the prosperity of agriculture and the prosperity of the ports. Soon afterwards they were in decline, but one of their special privileges, ‘Honours at Court’, they retain to the present day.

Map showing the Confederation of the Cinque Ports
Map showing the Confederation of the Cinque Ports

The Domesday Book entries for Dover, Sandwich and Romney, which are referred to in Chapter Five, record that ship-service was already being performed in the reign of King Edward the Confessor. The ships which the towns had to provide for the king’s use were quite small, each carrying a crew of 21 men. They might be used either to ferry the king, his men and his goods across the Channel, or to repel pirates. There were no such things as separate passenger ships, cargo ship and warships—the same vessel at different times might be all three. The Bayeux tapestry contains several illustrations of ships of this period.

William the Conqueror/Crusader no doubt continued the ports in their privileged position, and in 1155 and 1156 Henry II granted them charters confirming their special rights. Like many other towns, they were granted exemption from taxation, and each town had authority to set up its own court of law, independent of the shire court. In addition, the ports were granted two other privileges: the first, ‘Honours at Court’, was the privilege of holding the canopy over the king and queen at the coronation; the second, ‘den and strond’, was the right for fishermen from the ports to land on the shore at Great Yarmouth in order to sell their catch and dry their nets. A relic of the first privilege still exists in that representatives of the Cinque Ports occupy special seats in Westminster Abbey during the coronation service. The right of ‘den and strond’ was more valuable than might at first sight appear. Fishing was one of the main industries of coastal towns, upon which their prosperity in part depended. The North Sea was the great fishing ground, but unless catches could be landed and sold quickly, the fish was likely to be bad and unsaleable by the time it was brought ashore. Yarmouth was much nearer to the fishing-grounds than the Kent ports were and, moreover, it served East Anglia which, in the Middle Ages, contained the most prosperous and the most populous counties in England.

Not all of the ports’ activities were so innocent as fishing. The portsmen were constantly at enmity with the men of Yarmouth, and their quarrel reached a head in 1297. When, in that year, the king’s fleet, which included contingents from Yarmouth and from the Cinque Ports, was on its way to Sluys, England at that time being at war with France, the portsmen fell upon the Yarmouth ships, destroying 32 of them and killing over 200 of their crews. But even such an outrageous act of indiscipline as this the king was powerless to punish. The Cinque Ports also carried on what were really private wars with a number of foreign ports, as well as maintaining a feud with Fowey and some other ports in the west of England. It would, of course, be unfair to lay the blame for this state of affairs entirely upon the Cinque Ports. Probably they were no worse, and no better, than their opponents.

Henry II’s charters of 1155 and 1156 were granted to the ports individually, not as a confederation. Nevertheless, the confederation was already in existence, in at least a rudimentary form, by the middle of the 12th century, because the Court of Shepway, the common court of all the ports, originated not later than 1150. It took its name from the Lathe of Shepway, the Lathe which included south-east Kent. For the Cinque Ports it was very much what the Shire Court was for the county. To the portsmen it must have been a great advantage to have their own court, and to be exempt from the obligation of attending the Shire Court at Penenden Heath. The Warden of the Cinque Ports (an offce which from the time of Edward I has always been combined with that of Constable of Dover Castle) had the same kind of authority over the ports that the sheriff had had over the rest of the county. He was a royal officer and was appointed by the king, but on his appointment he took an oath to uphold the privileges of the Cinque Ports. He was, therefore, the ports’ representative and protector, as well as the king’s representative. In course of time the ports found it convenient to establish other courts—the court of Brodhill, and the court of Guestling, which later became one court known as the Brotherhood and Guestling, and which still occasionally meets. By the 20th century the term ‘court’ has come to mean, usually, a place where lawsuits are decided and criminals are punished. The Court of Shepway, the Brotherhood and Guestling, were courts in that sense, but they were mainly concerned with non-legal affairs, meeting to transact the common business of the ports. In fact, they should be thought of as being more akin to the modem county council than a court of law. This mixture of judicial and administrative functions continued to be characteristic of local government bodies in England until the 19th century.

To us today the casualness with which the unique constitutional structure of the Cinque Ports emerged during the course of a century or two, without any royal proclamation, still less any Act of Parliament, must seem surprising. Equally surprising is the way in which, without any authority from the king, the Cinque Ports brought other towns and villages, known as limbs or members, into their confederation, to share their burdens and some of their privileges. Rye and Wiinchelsea in this way were at first attached to Hastings, but grew into towns of such importance that later they ceased to be mere limbs of Hastings, and became known as the Two Ancient Towns of Rye and Winchelsea.  The various members of the Cinque Ports in the 17th century ranged from Grange in north Kent to Seaford in West Sussex. In some cases the reason for the association between a member and its Head Port is obvious: thus Rye was the nearest port to Tenterden (which had its harbour at Smallhythe, literally ‘small harbour’, where Henry V had built men-of war), Lydd was near Romney, and Ramsgate and Deal were nearest to Sandwich; Grange (part of Gillingham) and Bekesbourne (near Canterbury) were connected with Hastings because they happened to be owned by men who also held land at Hastings. However, in other cases, the reason for the attachment of one of the more distant members to its Head Port is not clear.

For the century and a half from the Conquest/Crusade until the year 1204, when. King John lost Normandy, the ports were for the most part engaged in the peaceful pursuits of fishing, trade, and ferrying men and goods across to the Continent. Sandwich was the main port of trade, Dover for passage to the Continent. Of other, less peaceful, pursuits, the main one was piracy. Many complaints were made of the behaviour of the portsmen and more than once the king was obliged to compensate foreign merchants whom they had attacked. The loss of French-Normandy in 1204 gave the Cinque Ports a new importance in the defence of the country. In 1217 their fleet, in a battle off Sandwich, defeated the much larger French fleet bringing reinforcements to Louis of France, who was then endeavouring to seize the throne of England. Louis gave up the attempt and Henry III, who had succeeded King John on his death in 1216, began his long and troubled reign. The Barons’ War, which disturbed Henry III’s later years, saw both sides trying to win the support of the ports. On the whole they favoured the party of Simon de Montfort, but his defeat at Evesham in 1265 does not seem to have affected them much. Winchelsea was admonished by Prince Edward for adhering to de Montfort, but no other punishment followed. The ports were still too necessary to the safety of the realm for the king to risk alienating them by any unwise disciplinary moves. Indeed only a dozen years later Edward I granted to the Confederation the first of the great charters which codified their privileges and duties, and the fact that it was granted to the ports collectively strengthened the corporate spirit Of the Confederation.

However, by the 14th century the heyday of the Cinque Ports was passing. The king’s government was becoming increasingly powerful, and unwilling to brook independence on the part of any group of towns. Sea-going ships were becoming larger, and the contribution which the Cinque Ports could make Gate and Bridge. towards the king’s navy was ceasing to have so great an importance. The French, who for more than a century had suffered at the hands of the portsmen, now turned the tables on them and began to harry the Kent and Sussex coasts. At Dover a wall was built to protect the town (Townwall Street marks the line of it), and at- Sandwich the earthen ramparts, which now make a pleasant promenade around part of the town, were thrown up. Hythe was too poor to afford any protective works and indeed Henry IV had to agree to remit the burgesses’ service in order to dissuade them from abandoning their town altogether. The ports which were now prospering were those like Southamp­ton, London, King’s Lynn and Boston, whose fortunes were soundly based on trade, not like the Cinque Ports, on fishing, with occasional acts of piracy. In 1572 it was recorded that, in the whole of England, there were 135 ships of 100 tons and upwards; only one belonged to a Kent port, namely, Dover. The extent to which the importance of the ports had declined is shown by the very small contingent which they contributed to the fleet which was to defend England against the Spanish Armada—a danger that was so serious as to call for the country’s greatest effort. All that the Cinque Ports could send was seven small ships—the Elnathan or Elizabeth of Dover (120 tons), the Reuben of Sandwich (110 tons), the William of Rye (80 tons), the Ann Bonaventure of Hastings (70 tons), the John of Romney (60 tons), the Grace of God of Hythe (50 tons) and the Hazard of Faversham (38 tons).

The final cause in the decline of the ports was the change which the Kentish coast-line underwent in the later Middle Ages. In the chapter on the estates of Christ Church Priory reference is made to the changes which took place on Romney Marsh, including the great storm of 1284 which caused the Rother to change its course, so that it flowed into the sea at Rye, leaving Romney haven high and dry. At Hythe the action of the sea built up a great bar of shingle so that the old town of Hythe is now a mile away from the shore. The harbour at Dover silted up and its site is covered by shops, streets and houses; a new harbour had to be constructed, but it required constant effort to keep it clear. At Sandwich the river Wantsum and the harbour were being encroached upon by banks of sand. In the 16th century an Italian merchant-ship sank in the harbour and the sand banked up around it, almost blocking the channel. Thus, by the 17th century, the confederation of the Cinque Ports retained only its outward forms of power and privilege; in truth its day had passed. Their past grandeur and subsequent decline are both recalled in Rudyard Kipling’s felicitous description of them as ‘ports of stranded pride’.