Long before the British Isles had a professional navy – let alone laid claim to rule the waves – lessons had been learned on the need to protect the lands from seaborne threats.


The Romans had found the tribal peoples of Britain divided and ripe for invasion; Vikings crossed the North Sea unimpeded to maraud the coast; and as the French increasingly entered the picture, the narrowness of the stretch of water today known as the English Channel posed an obvious danger.

It was to combat this danger that a federation was formed of coastal towns, predominantly in Kent and Sussex, to ensure there were always ships, and men to crew them, for the crown.

In return for their ‘ship service’, these so-called ‘Cinque Ports’ received privileges, freedoms and honours, enough to see them survive in a ceremonial capacity to this day.

What are the Cinque Ports?

There were five original ports, although more towns would be added over the years. They were:

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  • Sandwich
  • Dover
  • Hythe
  • New Romney
  • Hastings

While the idea of the Cinque Ports developed gradually, the first formal acknowledgement of the confederation came in the reign of Edward the Confessor (r1042–66). It turned out the Anglo-Saxon king had good reason to fear boats crossing the channel, with the Normans on the way.

The Bayeux Tapestry depicts horses being unloaded from Norman boats at Pevensey
The Bayeux Tapestry depicts horses being unloaded from Norman boats at Pevensey, on the south coast of England, before the 1066 Norman Conquest, which led to an extended role for the Cinque Ports. (Photo by: Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The role and stature of the Cinque Ports truly bloomed after the Norman Conquest of 1066, and they remained a powerful entity throughout the Plantagenet dynasty, complete with their own coat of arms, and judicial and political influence.

Why are they called Cinque Ports?

Since the Cinque Ports were properly established under the Normans – earning a mention in William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book – the name that caught on was, unsurprisingly, the Old French version of ‘five harbours’.

It didn’t stay at ‘cinque’ for long, however. The Ports turned to their neighbours to help build the ships, so more than 30 towns ended up in the confederation.

These included the two so-called ‘ancient towns’ of Rye and Winchelsea and ‘limbs’ across Kent and Sussex, such as Faversham, Margate, Ramsgate, Deal, Folkestone, Lydd and Tenterden.

What were the Cinque Ports’ responsibilities, and what rights did they receive?

Ship service in the original five ports meant building and crewing a regular supply for the royal fleet. The commitment was for 57 ships – Dover and Hastings providing 21 each, and the other towns giving five each – for 15 days of service every year. Before the Royal Navy, this could prove critical in a naval conflict.

On dry land, the Cinque Ports had responsibilities in the lucrative industry of herring fishing, each appointing a bailiff to keep order at the days-long, often-rowdy annual herring fair at Yarmouth.

A map showing the Cinque Ports on the coast of Kent
A map showing the Cinque Ports on the coast of Kent. The ports had responsibilities in the lucrative industry of herring fishing. (Photo by English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

For assisting the crown, the portsmen (as residents of the Cinque Ports were known) enjoyed a degree of self-government. Their rights and privileges were entrenched in a series of royal charters over the centuries, including Magna Carta.

Among them were exemptions from several taxes, rights to claim ownership of property (especially cargo from wrecked ships), and honours at court – notably carrying the canopy over the king and queen during coronation ceremonies.

The ports even established their own courts of law and had political representation. From the 13th century, each Cinque Port, as well as Rye and Winchelsea, had two MPs.

What was the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports?

The highest office within the confederation was the Lord Warden who, beginning with Stephen de Pencester in 1268, simultaneously held the title of Constable of Dover Castle.

The Lord Warden, who was also the Admiral of the Cinque Ports, became one of the most powerful officials in the kingdom, and it was a highly sought-after title.

Winston Churchill wearing the uniform of the Warden of the Cinque Ports
Winston Churchill wearing the uniform of the Warden of the Cinque Ports, inspecting a guard of honour at Dover. (Photo by Douglas Miller/Keystone/Getty Images)

In the list of previous wardens are names such as the future Henry V and Henry VIII, the Duke of Wellington, and Winston Churchill. To date, the only woman to hold the role is Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, from 1978 to 2002.

What happened to the Cinque Ports?

A variety of causes contributed to the decline of the Cinque Ports: ships got bigger so needed larger ports; changing geography meant the original ports lost their strategic value (Sandwich, for example, is now around two miles inland); then, under the Tudors, the navy was established.


Still, the Cinque Ports survives to this day as a ceremonial organisation.


Jonny Wilkes
Jonny WilkesFreelance writer

Jonny Wilkes is a former staff writer for BBC History Revealed, and he continues to write for both the magazine and HistoryExtra. He has BA in History from the University of York.