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The Confederation of the Cinque Ports is an ancient feudal union of towns providing naval defence of the south-east coast of England, facing the Continent. In the Middle Ages they were of immense importance, but with the silting up of rivers, the rise of standing armies in the seventeenth century, and then with the parliamentary reforms of the nineteenth removing their political independence, they have become a ceremonial institution.

In Roman times there was a chain of forts called the Saxon Shore providing a similar defensive role. The present Cinque Ports might have been working together as a league in Anglo-Saxon times; their early history is unclear. Tributary to the five main ports are a number of others, which have varied through history, called their Limbs. These provided service in the way of ships, timber, or money.

Cinque means five, and is pronounced "sink", not as in the French cinq. Originally there were five main ports, head ports as they are called: starting from the east of Kent and proceeding south-westward they were Sandwich, Dover, Hythe, Romney, and Hastings. The last is over the border in Sussex. The two Sussex ports of Rye and Winchelsea were originally Limbs of Hastings, but were early on elevated to head port status under the name of the Antient Towns (sic).

So there are seven Cinque Ports, plus all their dependents. Today, seven limbs are corporate members, that is they have a charter and a mayor of their own. These are Deal and Ramsgate limbs of Sandwich; Folkestone, Faversham, and Margate limbs of Dover; Tenterden a limb of Rye; and Lydd a limb of Romney. But Winchelsea is now so small that it has lost its corporation and is governed as a charity, so it can retain its privileges as a head port. Sandwich still receives ceremonial annual payments of minuscule amounts of Ship Money from its limbs.

Their past

Romney is now represented by New Romney, and Old Winchelsea was wiped out by the sea and a new Winchelsea built inland, and Sandwich is inland, and Tenterden is very far inland, on what in Norman times was the Bay of Romney and is now Romney Marsh. Only Dover is still a major port. A great storm of 1287 shifted the mouth of the River Rother from Romney to Rye and much affected the coast, but all the coast of eastern England is geologically recent and shifting. Even at the height of their power the Cinque Ports were endangered by silt.

The Cinque Ports were granted extensive powers of self-government, administration of justice, and freedom from tax and toll by a charter in the 1200s. The King appointed a representative called the Lord Warden, and combined this post with the military post of Constable of Dover Castle and the naval post of Admiral of the Cinque Ports. The English Channel is one of the busiest shipping lanes anywhere, and much of it and the North Sea are technically under the jurisdiction of the Cinque Ports Court of Admiralty, though this no longer meets. The Lord Warden's office is at Walmer Castle near Deal.

The ports each functioned as a borough in Parliament, each returning two burgesses, in this case called barons. The Barons of the Cinque Ports have the right to hold a canopy over the Sovereign at the Coronation, though the last time this happened was that of George IV in 1821. Today only Hastings is a borough in the ordinary self-government sense (see English counties and county borough).

The Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports has traditionally been some very senior government official, often after their retirement from public office, and appointed for life. They have included William Pitt the Younger, the Duke of Wellington, W.H. Smith (the creator of the bookshop chain became a cabinet minister), Sir Winston Churchill, Sir Robert Menzies, and the late Queen Mother, from 1979. In July 2004 Admiral Lord Boyce, the former First Sea Lord and Chief of Defence Staff, was appointed Lord Warden, Constable, and Admiral.

Their powers

One of their earliest collective functions was the control of the herring fair at Great Yarmouth, the mouth of the River Yare up in Norfolk. It appears that they were given a military role by King Edward the Confessor, consolidating his coastal defence into a more reliable feudal chain of command. The earliest surviving charter however is only from 1260, though they were certainly working together and were known as the Cinque Ports at least a century before that.

The 1260 charter to the Confederation consolidated individual ones. They already had a common court, called the Court of Shepway, dating from before 1150. The Lord Warden presided over this assembly of the free Portsmen. Since the sixteenth century the Shepway, named after its meeting-place of Shepway Cross at Lympne, near Hythe, has been largely ceremonial. Their role is to install new Lord Wardens with full pomp and pageantry.

It was eclipsed by the Court of Brodhull, from its meeting-place near Romney, which from 1572 was known as the Court of Brotherhood. It had representatives from the five head ports and two antient towns. The three Sussex towns of Hastings, Rye, and Winchelsea had their own court, that of Guestling.

From the early 1600s the Courts of Brotherhood and Guestling met combined, and still have a ceremonial existence today, with the mayors of all fourteen corporate members taking part. One of their number is Speaker in rotation for a year, starting on May 21. They all dress in scarlet except the mayors of Sandwich and Deal, who dress in black to commemorate Mayor John Drury of Sandwich, killed by French raiders in 1457.

Demeter reminds me of another odd ceremony: in Rye, on Bonfire Night, instead of the usual effigy of Guy Fawkes, they burn one of a ship, to commemorate the French raiding.

Many thanks to the official website of the Confederation at www.cinqueports.org, and a hundred thousand curses on the Sandwich tourism authority website I first used for all its misinformation.

Part of the JudyT Golden Jubilee celebration of Britain.

Cinque" Ports` (?). [Cinque + port.] Eng. Hist.

Five English ports, to which peculiar privileges were anciently accorded; -- viz., Hastings, Romney, Hythe, Dover, and Sandwich; afterwards increased by the addition of Winchelsea, Rye, and some minor places.

Baron of the Cinque Ports. See under Baron.


© Webster 1913.

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