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.
King Edward the Confessor had contracted the five most important Channel ports of that day to provide ships and men “for the service of the monarch” and although this was frequently as a “cross-Channel ferry service”, it was not exclusively so. Under the Norman kings this became the essential means of keeping the two halves of their realm together, but after the loss of Normandy in 1205, their ships (the fore-runners of the Royal Navy) suddenly became England’s first line
of defence against the French.
These ports – Hastings, Sandwich, Dover, Romney and Hythe – became known as the Cinque Ports (from the French word five, but always pronounced ‘sink’ not ‘sank’). They were granted many freedoms (for example from militia service, from market and port tolls) and privileges, the most prized being the right to carry the canopy over the King at the Coronation and the very profitable, the running of the international Herring Fair on Yarmouth strand.
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 towns of Winchelsea and Rye were added tot he five original Cinque Ports - probably prior to 1210 - 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.
Coastline before the Storm of 1287
[Picture courtesy of the Cinque Ports Confederation]
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.
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.