Prior to the 15th Century England had no permanent navy to defend it from sea-borne aggression. Instead five ports in the South East - the region most vulnerable to invasion - contracted with the Crown to provide a defensive fleet when required. In return, they enjoyed extensive privileges, including the exemption from various taxes.
The Cinque Ports were a collection of ports on the east coast of England which - from early times - were granted, by charter, a number of Crown prerogatives in return for providing a ship service to the Crown. The earliest charter still exisiting dates from 1278. However, there may have existed charters granted by sovereigns to some - or all - of the Cinque Ports going back to the time of Edward the Confessor (1042-66).
The original Cinque Ports were the ports of Hastings, Dover, Sandwich, New Romney and Hythe. To these five ports were added - probably prior to 1210 - the towns of Winchelsea and Rye. And to these were later added corporate and non-corporate members (or limbs), being other smaller ports. The heyday of the Cinque Ports was in medieval times when they provided a vital navy for the protection of the realm. Today, the Cinque Ports, and their charters, still exist.
This Confederation of Cinque Ports (cinque is the French for five) was formed in the early 11th century. Its ‘head of state’ was the Lord Warden. The founding Members (‘head ports) were Hastings, New Romney, Hythe, Dover and Sandwich. They were joined by Rye and Winchelsea.
Each town recruited as ‘limbs’ other ports that could help it to raise the requisite number of vessels and crews. New Romney recruited Lydd, probably when the Confederation was formed.
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.
The leeway given to the Cinque Ports, and the turning of a blind eye to misbehaviour, led to smuggling, though of course common everywhere at this time becoming more or less one of the dominant industries.
picture courtesy of the Cinque Ports Confederation
The Five Cinque Ports are:
- New Romney
Two "Antient Towns"
The Eight Limbs 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)
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.
Lydd reached the height of its prosperity during the 13th century, when it was made a corporate member of the Cinque Ports, as a "limb" of New Romney. As with much of the marsh, the town was a base for smuggling in the 18th and 19th centuries.