Cinque Ports - a Short History

Last updated 31 May 2017


The Cinque Ports are a unique association of maritime towns in Kent and Sussex dating back 1000 years. It was probably during the 11th Century when Saxon kings first formalised the arrangement under which key coastal towns were offered inducements for them to provide ships and men to meet the military and transportation needs of their royal masters.

The earliest known charter to the Cinque Ports collectively was granted by King Henry III in 1260 but it is clear from other charters and the Domesday Book the ports had enjoyed common privileges in return for their service to the Crown since before the conquest and were already known collectively as the Cinque Ports. There was a more formal confederation with common institutions in place by 1150 when the Court of Shepway was already established. Having their own court was one on the privileges granted along with freedom from taxation and it was presided over by the King’s representative known as the Lord Warden.

Their heyday was in the 12th and 13th centuries but waned over the next 300 years, as changing patterns of warfare at sea and natural changes to the coastline of south-east England left ship service a heavy burden for relatively small fishing communities. So the five head ports of Hastings, Romney, Hythe, Dover and Sandwich turned to their neighbouring towns and villages which became known as limbs, for help in providing ships and men and in return shared in the privileges. Rye and Winchelsea began as limbs of Hastings and in the 14th century were formally recognised as ‘antient towns’ and henceforth enjoyed equal status to the five original head ports. Of the some 30 other limbs from Seaford in the west to Brightlingsea in Essex, 7 remain in the Confederation. Faversham, Margate and Ramsgate are too far apart to include within 100 miles. More historical information on the 11 towns through which the walk does pass is given under Points of Interest.

The Tudor kings established a standing navy so ship service was last called upon in 1588 and few of the ancient rights and privileges survive. The Confederation continues to promote public awareness of the proud history and seafaring traditions of communities which played a key role in the early development of England as a naval power and the Lord Warden, currently Lord Boyce, now has a ceremonial role in doing that.

“Cinque” should be pronounced as sink. Anyone saying sank will be severely reprimanded!