The Cinque Ports Confederation

As the name Cinque Ports ( from the Norman French for five and pronounced “sink” not “sank”) suggests, the Confederation originally comprised the five ports of Hastings, Romney, Hythe, Dover and Sandwich. Under the system of ship service, the Ports were required to supply 57 ships, each with a crew of 21 men and a boy, for 15 days every year. These ships were used not only in warfare, but also to transport the King, members of his entourage and his armies to and from Normandy and other parts of the Continent.

In return, the Ports were granted rights which included:-

  • freedom from toll, lestage, passage and similar taxes and duties;
  • exemption from the jurisdiction of external courts;
  • the right to levy local taxes, to hold their own courts and to punish offenders;
  • the privilege of den and strand (i.e. the right to dry and mend their nets and to organise a large and lucrative Herring Fair each year, in order to sell their catch), at the mouth of the River Yare in Norfolk; and honours at court (i.e. the right to carry the canopy over the head of the sovereign during the coronation procession and to dine at his or her right hand, at the subsequent banquet).
The Cinque Ports Confederation

The Flag of the Cinque Ports

The Cinque Ports Confederation

Cinque Ports Barons carry the canopy at the coronation of King JameII in 1685

Ship service was an onerous duty and the five original head ports enlisted the help of neighbouring towns and villages, which were known as members or limbs, to help them fulfil their quotas of ships and crew. Some of the limbs were merely small villages and hamlets and these non-corporate members negotiated directly, with their head port, to provide ships and men, in return for the right to share in the privileges granted to the head port. Other limbs were more substantial communities and were granted their own charters by the Crown, thus becoming corporate members. At one time, there were 23 limbs covering an extensive area from Seaford, in the west, to Brightlingsea on the Essex coast. Rye and Winchelsea were, originally, corporate members of Hastings but, as the harbour at Hastings silted up, the port found it difficult to fulfil its quota and relied increasingly on the assistance of its major limbs.

Eventually, the two ancient towns of Rye and Winchelsea were admitted as full members of the Confederation, with equal status to the five head ports.