What were the Cinque Ports?

Coming from the French word for 'five', the confederation of five ports goes back to the Middle Ages and still exists in some form today. History Revealed magazine investigates...

UNITED KINGDOM - AUGUST 07:  Model (scale approximately 1:48) based on the Seal of Dover in use in 1284. The Seals of the Cinque Ports are almost the only contemporary information available. The ships of the 11th and 12th centuries differed little from Viking longships. As more reliance came to be placed on sail power the vessels were built with increased beam and depth to carry the larger sail. During the 13th century, fore and aftercastles were added to these ships for fighting purposes. This ship was about 75 ft in length and 25 ft wide. The Cinque Ports are first mentioned in an Enlish Royal Charter of 1155. They were five ports (Sandwich, Dover, Hythe, Romney and Hastings) which, in return for certain privileges, guaranteed to provide the Crown with ships in times of national strife or crisis.  (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

The Cinque Ports were a confederation of English south eastern ports which were given a number of privileges in the Middle Ages in return for lending the king their ships and crews for transport and warfare. The name (which is pronounced ‘sink’ and not ‘sank’) comes from the French word for five as there were originally five of these ports – Dover, Hastings, Hythe, Romney and Sandwich.

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These were later joined by Rye and Winchelsea, while numerous other towns were also enlisted by the confederation to help them fulfil their obligations. The privileges enjoyed by the Cinque Ports included exemption from a wide range of taxes and customs duties, and the right to carry the canopy over the head of the monarch during his or her coronation procession.

Representatives of the Cinque Ports were also allowed to run a highly lucrative herring fair at Yarmouth in Norfolk. This didn’t go down well with the locals, who weren’t members of the Cinque Ports, and in 1297 the two sides actually fought a naval battle off the Flemish coast in which at least seventeen ships were destroyed.

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The need for the ships of the Cinque Ports declined with the development of Royal dockyards and the privileges were eventually abolished. However the office of Warden of the Cinque Ports still exists today as an honorary post with Walmer Castle as the Warden’s official residence. The current Warden is Admiral Lord Boyce who was installed in 2005 following the death of the previous Warden, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.