Cinque Ports

What were the Cinque Ports?

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This question should really be “What are the Cinque Ports?” as the organisation still exists. It is a confederation of ports around the south-east coast of England. It was formed in 1155 for commercial and military purposes and for many generations was a real force at sea and on land. It later lost its prime functions and is now largely a ceremonial organisation.

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The Royal Charter issued in 1155 by King Henry II granted significant privileges to the original five ports of Hastings, New Romney, Hythe, Dover and Sandwich. They were allowed powers of self government over tolls, criminal damage, lost goods, wreckage, and flotsam and jetsam, and were exempted from royal tolls on imports and exports.

In return they had to provide 57 ships for the use of the king for 15 days each year. The benefits that accrued to the Cinque Ports from this arrangement were great. Within a couple of decades Rye and Winchelsea joined the confederation as “antient towns”.

By the end of the 15th century Lydd, Faversham, Folkestone, Deal, Tenterden, Margate and Ramsgate had also joined, though they had a subsidiary status.

After about 1550, changes in shipbuilding meant that increasingly large vessels were conducting the trade with the continent and the smaller ports fell into a decline that, in some cases, was hastened by silting or erosion of the coastline. By 1700 only Dover remained an important port.

The confederation adopted a more ceremonial and social aspect, while the post of warden of the Cinque Ports became a sinecure that brought with it a comfortable residence in Walmer Castle. Despite this shift of character, the Cinque Ports retain a link to the Royal Navy, as one warship is always affiliated to the confederation. Today that honour is held by HMS Kent, a Type 23 Duke class frigate.

Incidentally, the word Cinque is pronounced ‘sink’ despite its derivation from the French word ‘cinq’, pronounced ‘sank’.
 

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Answered by: Rupert Matthews, historian and author