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The Cinque Ports: their Heyday & Decay

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The Cinque Ports are actually not "five" but seven in number and are officially described as "the Cinque Port towns of Hastings, New Romney, Hythe, Sandwich and Dover, with the two ancient towns of Winchelsea and Rye." These last were later additions to the original group, hence the old formula, but they ranked with the others. Their primary service was the naval defence of the kingdom, and this they provided from the day of Edward the Confessor, when they were first though more loosely utilised, till the fifteenth century.

In the desultory struggles of the loosely knit Saxon power with the Norsemen a sort of national contribution known as Danegeld had provided for the sea force among other requirements. But it was always unpopular, and Edward the Confessor first definitely fastened on these coast towns of Kent and Sussex, both for their seamanship and situation at the chief national danger point, as the most effective agents for his purpose. William the Conqueror, approving the general system, adopted and organized it into that with which successive charters to the various ports have made us familiar.

These charters were granted to the Ports as a "Brotherhood and Corporation" and also to each of the towns individually. The most valuable of these privileges was immunity from outside taxation and all county administration, but more especially freedom of all the English markets. They were answerable only at law to the king's constable at Dover, in due course designated the Lord Warden, while they also possessed the powers of life and death over their citizens. Among their decorative privileges was that of bearing the canopy at coronations, sometimes disputed however, but seldom successfully, by the Lords Marcher of Wales.

In return for these valuable concessions each port had to supply the crown on demand with a certain number of fighting ships, fully manned and equipped. The number required of each town was determined by the Lord Warden at Dover, and this varied according to their respective condition and resources at the moment and the nature of the service. They had to serve for a fortnight without remuneration, after which they were taken into crown pay. On normal occasions the assembled fleet would muster some seventy sail, their several contributions ranging from five to twenty ships, but the number collected on an emergency would be much greater.

Till the early fourteenth century these little craft were those of familiar illustration upon coins and seals, uptilted fore and aft, with a mast and squaresail in the centre, and of from twenty to fifty tons burden. When equipped for war they were fitted with "castles" on bow and stern, and a third at the mast head. They carried a crew of about thirty men, and being able only to sail more or less before the wind, they were supplied with oars to meet all weather emergencies. Sea fighting even then had its rude science-grappling, boarding, ramming and archery, which preceded the use of cannon. The Cinque Port men were in a sense professionals in the art as opposed to mere fishermen, carriers and sailors. They formed, in short, the Royal Navy. All other ships had to salute them and the Port towns when sailing by them.

The real heavy work of the Ports began with the reign of John. Hitherto, while England and Normandy were united, the Channel was almost an Anglo-Norman lake, and the Cinque Ports fleet, whose primary duty was to police the Channel, had a comparatively light task. But when the opposite coast became foreign soil, the Channel became a constant scene of raids and counter raids, fighting and piracy, and the Ports had their lawless periods.

A rapidly increasing trade with Flanders and Germany in Henry II's reign enriched and strengthened the Ports, some of which were periodically, in return for their services, granted monopolies in the import trade of French wines. Edward I was a fast friend to the Cinque Ports, and they, in turn, of great assistance to him. Their ships accompanied him in his Welsh, Scottish and Continental wars, while others defended the south coast from marauders in his absence. Together with subsidiary transports from the eastern and southwesterly coasts they carried or convoyed the large armies and their supplies which the first and third Edward took to France. Winchelsea and Sandwich, however, were the only harbours which could float these large war fleets. Those of the other ports only served for minor purposes, though the position of Dover, despite a poor harbour, gave it supremacy in cross-channel passenger traffic, which was another privilege of the Cinque Ports. Thousands of pilgrims, too, then crossed the Channel, from both sides, to the shrines of S. Thomas at Canterbury, on the one hand, and to Campostella on the other-a great source of profit to the Ports, particularly to Dover, Sandwich and Winchelsea.

The last mentioned, however, had been entirely engulfed and destroyed by an unparalleled tempest in the year 1287, to be rebuilt by Edward I on the ridge two miles away, where it stands now. Towards the end of the fourteenth century the Ports began to lose their pre-eminence. During the fifteenth they lost it almost entirely, and dwindled away into insignificance so far as their great services to the crown and the nation were concerned. Many causes contributed to their decay. One was the damage they periodically suffered from French raids, though they gave quite as good as they got. Another was the gradual silting up of their harbours owing to the drift of the tides upon the coast. Lastly, the crown began to build or hire ships of larger burthen, which the surviving Cinque Ports harbours could not readily float, and the centre of naval activity gradually shifted to Southampton and the Solent.

The privileges of the Ports, save a few decorative customs still surviving, vanished with their inability to earn them, and they lapsed into ordinary boroughs. They struggled for a time, with constant petitions to the crown for assistance to maintain their position. But their day was over. Even had the tides and the French left them intact, the kingdom had outgrown the utility of such a naval system, well as it had served it for over three centuries.

The Ports formed, as already stated, an independent Federation under the Lord Warden at Dover, directly representing the king. Their common affairs were regulated by periodical meetings of representatives from each port, held at Shepway Cross on the heights at Lympne and later at Romney. The full title of these assemblies was the Brodhull (Brotherhood) and Guestling. The second term, indicating "guests," leads up to the fact that to every Cinque Port was attached certain neighbouring ports of less consequence. These were known as "limbs," and shared the duties and privileges of their mother port, but only attended the Brodhull when invited- hence the term Guestling. There were "corporate limbs" in the position as above mentioned, as well as lesser satellites known as non-corporate limbs, which were never called to the Brodhull. As anexample, Faversham and Folkestone were full limbs of Dover, Fordwich and Deal of Sandwich, while the now extinct ports of Stonor and Reculver, together with Ramsgate and Margate, then of little consequence, were non-corporate limbs. Hastings, again, had Pevensey and Seaford as limbs, the latter place marking the western limit of the confederacy.

The Brodhull, among other duties, safeguarded the rights of the Ports and their barons, as all their freemen were curiously styled, both several and collective. Edward I summoned representatives of the Ports to Parliament, but not being concerned with national taxes and finance, they did not trouble to attend till a much later period. The confederacy had a banner, likewise its several members, which was hoisted on their ships and borne with some state by the deputies to the Brodhull and Guestling.

But the most important peace function of the Cinque Port Confederacy was as controller of the great autumn Herring Fair at Great Yarmouth. This lasted a month, and was resorted to by fishermen from all over Britain and its neighbouring coasts. In the earliest days of the Confederacy its ships had landed and dried their herring catch on the desolate strand where Yarmouth subsequently arose, and had acquired its ownership by use and charter. When a settlement of local fishermen gradually developed into the town of Yarmouth friction naturally began, and when King John gave the new town a charter, disputes and jealousy between the Cinque Port men and those of Yarmouth became chronic.

The Yarmouth interests grew stronger as the importance of the Cinque Ports waned, till in the Tudor period their delegates to the Great Fair, encountering nothing but insult and resistance to their claims to share the Yarmouth magisterial bench, ceased to press them after some four centuries of this strange division of authority. It may be mentioned, in passing, that merchants from other parts had some share in the regulation of many English fairs. Indeed, with the Reformation and the decreased demand for fish, together with the partial shifting of the European fishing interest to Newfoundland, the Yarmouth Herring Fair lost its old importance. The Ports themselves to-day have been left-either landlocked by the receding sea; like Rye, Winchelsea, Sandwich and Romney, accessible only by small rivers; or, like Hastings and Hythe, with nothing but a shingle beach to offer shipping. Only Dover, which now has a great artificial harbour, still keeps its national importance.

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