The Story Of The Cinque Ports





The history of the English navy from the Conquest to the fifteenth

century is, in effect, the history of the great and powerful corporation

known as "The five Cinque Ports and two Ancient Towns"--Hastings,

Sandwich, Dover, Romney, Hythe, Winchelsea, and Rye. In the Domesday

Book only three such ports are mentioned--Sandwich, Dover, and

Romney--but in the charters and royal writs mention is always made of,

and precedence assigned to, Hastings. Winchelsea and Rye were added to

the first five soon after the Conquest, but the title of "Cinque" Ports

was retained. In addition to the seven head ports there were eight

"corporate members"--Deal, Faversham, Folkestone, Fordwich, Lydd,

Pevensey, Seaford, and Tenterden--and twenty-four non-corporate members,

which included Birchington, Brightlingsea, Bulverhithe, Grange,

Kingsdown, Margate, Ramsgate, Reculver, Sarre, and Walmer, all of which

were called Cinque Ports.

Some writers have endeavoured to connect the Cinque Ports with the five

Roman fortresses which guarded the south-eastern shores of Britain, and

the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports with the Comes Littoris

Saxonici--the count of the Saxon Shore, but it seems sufficiently clear

that the confederation of the ports was of Teutonic origin. Originally,

trading communities banded together to protect and control the

herring-fishery, the principal industry and food-supply of the people;

the regular descents of the Danes supplied the motive for the military

character the union afterwards assumed.

The Danish invasion, which ended in Canute's supremacy, raged most

fiercely round Sandwich, which was the head-quarters of the Danish

fleet, and acquired the title of "the most famous of all the English


As far back as the year 460, Hengist the Saxon conferred the office of

Warden of the Cinque Ports upon his brother Horsa, and since the time of

Godwin, Earl of Kent, who died in the year 1053, nearly one hundred and

fifty persons have held that distinguished office. These include many

whose names are illustrious in English history, amongst them being Odo,

Bishop of Bayeux, Eustace, Earl of Boulogne, William Longchamps, Hubert

de Burgh, Sir Stephen de Pencester, Edmund Plantagenet, King Henry V.,

Simon de Montfort, Richard III., Prince Henry, afterwards Henry VIII.,

James II., and Prince George of Denmark. William Pitt was Lord Warden in

1792, and from that date until the year 1896 the holders of the office

have been the Earl of Liverpool, the Duke of Wellington, the Marquis of

Dalhousie, Lord Palmerston, Earl Granville, Mr. W. H. Smith, the Marquis

of Dufferin and the Marquis of Salisbury. The privileges and

distinctions of the inhabitants of the ports in those days were of a

very substantial character. Amongst other things "pains and penalties"

were imposed on any one entering or quitting the kingdom from or for the

Continent except by way of Dover. The Grand Court of Shepway, at which

the Lord Warden takes the oath of office, in the presence of the

"barons," was formerly held in the open air at Lympne, a Roman port, the

remains of which are now several miles inland, in the neighbourhood of

Hythe, but the site of the court was removed to Dover as a more

convenient place in 1693.

To Edward the Confessor may be attributed the incorporation of the

Cinque Ports in the form of a Royal Navy bound to stated service. To

attach them to the throne he granted them lands and franchises, in

return for which they undertook, on a stated notice, to provide ships

for fighting purposes for a specified time. The Domesday Book, for

instance, records that "Dover, in the time of King Edward, rendered

eighteen pounds, of which moneys King Edward had two parts, and Earl

Godwin the third. The burgesses gave the king twenty ships once a year

for fifteen days, and in each ship were twenty men. This they did in

return for his having endowed them with sac and soc"--the right of

independent jurisdiction and free courts.

Soon after the Norman conquest, the Danes once more threatened invasion

with a powerful fleet, and Dover, Sandwich, and Romney were called upon

to provide, at their own expense, twenty vessels equipped for sea, each

with a crew of twenty-one men and provisions for fifteen days. Rye and

Winchelsea rendered similar assistance, and in return received

privileges similar to those enjoyed by the older ports. The fleet thus

provided was so fully maintained by William Rufus that England's

maritime supremacy may be dated from that early period. But, for more

than a century after the Conquest, English ships seldom ventured beyond

the Bay of Biscay or the entrance to the Baltic.

The reign of Henry I. was marked by the tragic death of Prince William

in the year 1120 while crossing from Normandy to England in The White

Ship. The rowers, hilarious with wine, ran The White Ship--probably

an undecked or only partially decked vessel, of not more than fifty tons

burden steered by two paddles over the quarter--violently on to a ledge

of rocks, now called Ras de Catteville. The sea rushed in, and all on

board, except two men, were lost. As soon as his ship struck, the prince

and a few others got into a small boat and pushed off, but, returning to

the aid of his sister, many persons jumped in the boat and all were

drowned. The prince's body was carried away by the current and never

recovered. Fitzstephen, the captain, whose father had carried William

the Conqueror to England, and who held his office by virtue of providing

a passage for his sovereign, rose once to the surface and asked, "What

has become of the king's son?" Being answered, "We have not seen him,

nor his brother, nor his sister, nor any of their companions," he

exclaimed, "Woe is me!" and sank back into the sea. For three days no

one ventured to break the news to Henry who, the old chroniclers say,

was so stricken with the tidings that he fainted away and was never seen

to smile again.

Not until the time of the Crusades, however, did maritime commerce

undergo any marked development, and England take her place among

sea-faring peoples. Whatever the Crusades may have done for the Cross,

they gave the first impetus to English maritime enterprise, and European

industry progressed with the conquests of the Crusaders. On ascending

the throne Richard Coeur de Lion made vast levies to equip an expedition

to the Holy Land. The fleet numbered one hundred vessels, the most of

which had been collected from the south and west of England, and from

the continental ports of the House of Anjou, Richard's own ship being

named "Trenche-le-mer," presumably because it was a swift sailer. It

was from Messina, on March 27th, 1190, that Richard dated his charter to

the Cinque Ports.

The reign of Richard marked another epoch in the naval history of

Britain, for he issued the first articles for the government of an

English fleet. If any man slew another on board a ship, he was to be

fastened to the dead body and thrown with it into the sea; if the murder

was committed on shore, he was to be bound to the corpse, and buried

with it. If any one was convicted by legal testimony of drawing his

knife upon another, or of drawing blood in any manner, he was to lose

his hand. For giving a blow with the hand without producing blood, the

offender was to be plunged three times into the sea. If any one reviled

or insulted another, he was on every occasion to pay to the offended

party an ounce of silver. A thief was to have his head shaven, boiling

pitch poured upon it, and feathers shaken over him, as a mark by which

he might be known; and he was to be put ashore at the first land at

which the ship might touch.

In the reign of John a close approach was made to a regular naval

establishment, and a kind of dockyard appears to have existed at

Portsmouth, for the Sheriff of Southampton was commanded to cause the

docks at Portsmouth to be enclosed with a strong wall to preserve the

king's ships and galleys, and to cause pent-houses to be erected for

their stores and tackle. The king had galleys, long ships, and great

ships; all allusions to which, however, make it clear that the largest

vessels had only one mast and sail. But no admiral or commander of the

fleets appears to have been created, and the chief management of the

navy was for many years entrusted to William de Wrotham, Archdeacon of

Taunton, who was designated "Keeper of the King's Ships," and also

"Keeper of the Seaports."

The expulsion of John from his dominions in Normandy in 1203 opened a

new chapter in English history and brought the Cinque Ports prominently

into notice, as frequently repeated orders were issued to the barons of

the ports to "guard the seas." By their vigilant guard, it is alleged,

the excommunication which followed the Pope's Interdict in 1208 was so

long prevented from making its way across the Channel, and they were

certainly the moving spirits in the great maritime exploit which help to

redeem the gloom of John's reign.

Philip of France, obeying the exhortation of the Pope to assist in

dethroning John, had made extensive preparations for the invasion of

England, and when in 1213 John became the Pope's vassal Philip did not

like the idea of giving up the project. John, therefore, found it

necessary to adopt retaliatory measures. All men capable of bearing arms

were ordered to assemble at Dover "for the defence of the king's and

their own heads, and the land of England," and the bailiffs of all the

ports were forbidden to suffer any ship to sail without the king's

express authority. The French king entered Flanders to punish the count,

who had refused to join the expedition against John, and despatched all

the ships which he had collected to the port of Damme, the harbour of

which, though of "wonderful size," could not contain all the French

ships, which are said to have numbered one thousand seven hundred sail.

Thither the English fleet, of five hundred sail the greater portion

consisting of ships from the Cinque Ports, under William Longsword,

proceeded at the urgent summons of the count. On the arrival of the

English they found that the French had landed and were ravaging the

surrounding country, whereupon they attacked the fleet in the harbour,

and three hundred vessels laden with corn, wine, and arms, fell into

English hands. The cables of the captured vessels were cut, and the wind

being off the land, they were soon on the passage to England. About a

hundred others were burnt, and the first great naval victory recorded in

English annals was complete.

The attitude of the Cinque Ports during the period immediately preceding

the granting of the Great Charter of English Liberties is obscure. They

are mentioned as guaranteed in their franchises when the Charter took

its final shape under Henry III., and it is clear that, when the

baronage invited Louis of France to depose the faithless King of

England, the ports resolved to stand by the House of Plantagenet. John's

unexpected death in 1216, at a time when London and a great part of Kent

were in the power of Louis, found the Cinque Ports--though Sandwich had

been burnt by the French--staunch to the loyal Earl of Pembroke--marshal

of the kingdom, and supporters of the boy-king, Henry III.

The following year, however, was destined to become memorable in the

history of naval warfare, for in August, 1217, the French fleet of one

hundred vessels put to sea with a view to a descent upon the Thames.

Hubert de Burgh, with the seamen of the Cinque Port ships, assembled in

Dover Harbour, and as the hostile fleet was descried from Dover Cliffs,

on the 24th forty ships dashed out of the harbour to challenge French

supremacy in England by engaging in the first regular sea-fight of

modern history. "It appears," says Sir W. H. Nicholas, "that the wind

was southerly, blowing fresh; and the French were going large steering

round the North Foreland, little expecting any opposition. The English

squadron, instead of directly approaching the enemy, kept their wind as

if going to Calais, which made Eustace, the French commander, exclaim,

'I know that those wretches think to invade Calais like thieves; but

that is useless, for it is well defended!' As soon as the English had

gained the wind of the French fleet, they bore down in the most gallant

manner upon the enemy's rear; and the moment they came close to the

sterns of the French ships they threw grapnels into them, and, thus

fastening the vessels together, prevented the enemy from escaping--an

early instance of that love of close fighting for which English sailors

have ever since been distinguished. The action commenced by the English

cross-bowmen and archers pouring volleys of arrows into the enemy's

ships with deadly effect; and to increase their dismay, the English

threw unslaked lime, reduced to a powder, on board their opponents,

which being blown by the wind into their eyes, completely blinded them.

The English then rushed on board; and cutting away the rigging and

halyards with axes, the sails fell over the French 'like a net over

ensnared small birds.' ... Thus hampered, the enemy could make but a

feeble resistance; and after an immense slaughter were completely

defeated. Though the French fought with great bravery, very few among

them were accustomed to naval tactics; and they fell rapidly under the

lances, axes, and swords of their assailants. In the meantime, many of

their vessels had been sunk by the galleys, which, running their own

prows into them, stove their sides.

"Of the whole French fleet, fifteen vessels only escaped; and as soon as

the principal persons had been secured, the English taking the captured

ships in tow, proceeded in triumph to Dover, 'victoriously ploughing the

waves,' and returning thanks to God for their success.... The battle was

seen with exultation by the garrison of Dover Castle, and the conquerors

were received by the bishops and clergy in full sacerdotal habits,

bearing crosses and banners in procession." Though the ships, compared

with those of the present age were small, yet the mode of attack, the

bravery displayed, and the great superiority of the enemy render the

event worthy of an honourable place in the list of our naval victories.

It was actually a hand-to-hand fight against double the number of ships,

and probably four times the number of men. The political effect of the

battle was that Louis relinquished all hopes of the English crown.

England was saved. "The courage of the sailors who manned the rude boats

of the Cinque Ports first made the flag of England terrible on the

seas." For this celebrated action, which saved England from the

domination of France, the Cinque Ports obtained further privileges,

amongst which was liberty to "annoy the subjects of France"--in other

words, to plunder as they pleased the merchant vessels of that country.

Few naval events of any importance occurred for many years after the

signal victory off Dover. The Cinque Ports were at their highest tide of

prosperity during the reign of Edward I., who, in 1300, took thirty of

their ships with him in his expedition against Scotland. During the

reign of Edward II. the ports did not lack employment on the king's

service, though they acted merely as coast-guards. The sovereignty of

the Channel was gradually challenged in this reign by the French, who

were encouraged by the revolutions and disorders of the time, and Edward

III. had not been many years on the throne before it became evident that

the nation must bestir itself in view of the increasing power of the

French fleet. A formal proclamation declaring England's sovereignty of

the seas was issued. A new spirit at once declared itself, but not a

moment before it was necessary; for in 1339 the French fleet burnt

Portsmouth, inflicted severe disaster upon Southampton, threatened

Sandwich, and, diverging to Rye, landed and ravaged the immediate

neighbourhood. On the approach of the English fleet the French took to

flight and were chased into Boulogne. The English gallantly entered the

harbour, captured several French vessels, hanged twelve of their

captains, burnt part of the town, and returned with their prizes to


Towards the end of 1339 a new invasion was planned. The French ships and

galleys assembled off the town of Sluys, in Flanders, and their crews

solemnly vowed not to return to their own ports till they had taken one

hundred English ships and five hundred English towns. In view of this

invasion parliament was summoned in January 1340 "to adopt various

measures relating to the navy." The sailors of the Cinque Ports

undertook to have their ships ready, and in due course a fleet of two

hundred vessels was formed, and more soldiers and archers assembled than

could be employed. On his arrival on the coast of Flanders, Edward found

that the various sections of his fleet had met, and discovered the

French fleet of one hundred and ninety ships, manned by thirty-five

thousand Normans and Genoese, lying at anchor off Sluys. The French

fleet was in four divisions, their ships being fastened to each other by

iron chains and cables. To the masts a small boat was suspended, filled

with stones, which were to be hurled by the soldiers stationed on the

tops. Trumpets and other martial instruments resounded from the French

ships. The fight was long and fierce, for "the enemy defended themselves

all that day and the night after." In one French ship alone four hundred

dead bodies were found, the survivors leaping headlong into the sea.

Only twenty-four of the French ships escaped, and no less than

twenty-five thousand French and Genoese perished. The English loss was,

perhaps, four thousand men, and all writers agree that it was one of the

most sanguinary and desperate sea-fights recorded in the pages of

history. Edward's modest letter regarding this victory is the earliest

naval despatch in existence. Though the annihilation of the French fleet

at Sluys did not surpass in importance the victory off Dover in the

preceding century, it established the maritime supremacy of England.

To supply a covering force for the army which was besieging Calais in

1347 and to guard the Channel, England made a general demand for ships

and seamen. The total number of ships mustered was seven hundred and

ten; these were equipped with a full complement of fighting men. The

"five Cinque Ports and two Ancient Towns," together with Seaford,

Faversham, and Margate, contributed one hundred and five ships; London

sent twenty-five ships, Fowey forty-seven, and Dunwich six. Three years

later on August 29th, 1350, the battle known as "Lespagnols-sur-mer" was

fought off Winchelsea, when Edward defeated a Spanish squadron of forty

sail which had plundered several English ships, capturing twenty-six

large vessels, the crews of which were put to death. This action firmly

established the reputation of Edward III. as the King of England, whose

name is more identified with the naval glory of England than that of any

other sovereign up to the sixteenth century.

But reverses of fortune clouded the end of what had promised to be a

glorious reign. In 1371 an engagement with the Flemings resulted in the

capture of twenty-five ships by the English, but in June, 1372, the

Spaniards completely defeated the English fleet of forty sail under the

Earl of Pembroke off La Rochelle; the Spaniards not only having the

advantage of size and numbers in their ships, but also in being provided

with cannon, said to have been first used at sea in this battle.

Immediately upon Edward's death an overwhelming fleet of French and

Spanish ships swept the Channel, and Winchelsea, Rye, Hastings,

Plymouth, Portsmouth and other ports suffered from the fury of the


The reign of Richard II. was redeemed from absolute barrenness in naval

affairs by the victory of the Earl of Arundel in 1387. Taking advantage

of the absence from England of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, who had

sailed the year before to enforce his claim upon the crown of Spain, the

French raised a powerful armament with a view to invading the British

Isles. These preparations were made upon a most extensive scale, and

were said to have included an army of a hundred thousand men and a fleet

of ships which, if laid side by side, would have reached from Calais to

Dover. The news of this terrible armament caused great excitement in

England, and various preparations were made to receive it. The Earl of

Arundel was made high admiral and was dispatched to sea with

instructions to destroy the ships of the enemy as they disembarked;

while the people on shore laid waste the country, and dealt with them as

opportunity served. The winds and the waves, however, fought on

England's side, and under stress of weather the army was disbanded and

the enterprise abandoned. The Earl of Arundel, taking advantage of the

situation, attacked the French fleet with great vigour, captured a

hundred and sixty vessels, and proceeding to the Port of Sluys,

destroyed the ships that had taken refuge there, and laid waste the

country for ten leagues round.

The reign of Henry IV. was likewise characterised by abortive invasions

on the part of the French. In 1403-4, La Marche, a young French prince,

made a descent upon Falmouth with a view to helping Owen Glendower, the

leader of the Welsh rebellion; but the attempt was an entire failure. In

the spring of 1405, however, a second French fleet, consisting of a

hundred and twenty sail and carrying large numbers of cavalry, bore down

upon our southern coast. Once more our old allies, the winds and the

waves, did us good service; for most of the horses fell victims to the

rigours of the journey, and no sooner were the ships moored off Milford

Haven than they were attacked by the squadron of the Cinque Ports, which

burnt fifteen ships, captured six transports laden with food and

ammunition, and cut off all supplies at sea. The French were rather more

successful on land, but before the end of the year they were glad of an

excuse for sailing back to France.

But the corporation of the Cinque Ports had practically fulfilled its

purpose, and was now to give way to other organisations better adapted

to the requirements of the times. Even at this early date some of the

ports had begun to suffer from "the sea change," which eventually caused

the majority of them to be deserted by the routes of commerce; and Henry

V., finding that their harbours were no longer capable of building or

sheltering the large ships which were required in his time, determined

to establish a King's Royal Navy. So successful was he, that in his

fleet which invaded France in 1415, and which consisted of one thousand

four hundred vessels, carrying about six thousand men-at-arms and

twenty-four thousand archers, were twenty-seven royal ships, some

perhaps of the size of five hundred tons. After the return of Henry V.

from the Battle of Agincourt, and during the negotiations which were to

settle the relationships of England and France for the future, the Count

of Armagnac, who had succeeded D'Albret, slain at Agincourt, as

Constable of France, determined to attempt the recapture of Harfleur,

held for the king by the Earl of Dorset, and with this view laid siege

to the town by land, and sent the French fleet with a number of Genoese

caracks and Spanish ships hired for the occasion to blockade the port

from the sea. Henry V. in a great rage dispatched his brother, the Duke

of Bedford, to deal with this formidable armament. The Duke assembled

his ships at Rye in August 1416, and on the 14th of the same month

reached the mouth of the Seine, at the head of a fleet said to number

four hundred sail and to carry twenty thousand men. He found the Genoese

galleys so tall that the largest of his ships could not reach to their

upper decks by a spar's length, while the Spanish ships far out-matched

his own for size and for the number of their crews. Notwithstanding the

disparity of the forces the duke determined to attack the enemy on the

following day; and on the morning of August 15th, 1416, taking advantage

of the wind, he engaged the combined fleets with such vigour that he

succeeded in capturing or destroying nearly five hundred ships, his men

clambering up the Genoese galleys like so many squirrels and boarding

them in gallant style. Having destroyed the fleet, the duke joined his

forces with those of the garrison in repelling the attacks on land and

sea, and compelled the Count of Armagnac to raise the siege and retire.

The duke remained long enough to see the town placed in a state of

defence and then returned to England.

In 1417 the Earl of Huntingdon being sent to sea with a strong

squadron, met with the united fleets of France and Genoa, which he

fought and defeated, though they were much superior to his--not only in

number, but in the strength and size of their ships--taking the French

admiral prisoner, and capturing four large Genoese ships, containing a

quarter's pay for the whole navy.

The reign of Henry VI. added but little to the naval glory of England.

In August 1457 a fleet fitted out in Normandy made a descent upon the

coast of Kent and landed nearly two thousand men about two leagues from

Sandwich, with instructions to attack the port by land while the fleet

engaged it from the sea. In this case the English were taken by

surprise, and the town pillaged and burnt, with great loss on both

sides. Other attempts of the kind were also made at other parts of the

coast. In the following year, Warwick, the King Maker, having been made

admiral, caused several squadrons to be put to sea, to the officers of

which he gave such instructions as he thought proper.

On Trinity Sunday, 1458, one of these squadrons fell in with the Spanish

fleet and quickly came to hostilities; with the result that the English

captured six ships laden with iron and other merchandise and destroyed

twenty-six others. A year later Warwick himself put to sea from Calais

with fourteen sail, when he encountered five large ships in the English

Channel, three of which were Genoese and two Spanish, all of them being

richly laden with merchandise. After an engagement which lasted two days

he succeeded in capturing three of these, which were hauled into Calais,

where their cargoes realised L10,000. It is said that in this engagement

Warwick lost fifty men and the enemy nearly a thousand.

Jealous of the successes of Warwick, the French queen of Henry VI. sent

Lord Rivers down to Sandwich to seek the assistance of the Cinque Ports

in depriving the earl of the government of Calais; but when the ships

were almost ready, Warwick sent a squadron under Sir John Dineham, which

captured the whole fleet, carrying away Lord Rivers and Anthony

Woodville, his son, who long remained prisoners in Calais. After this,

one Sir Baldwin Talford undertook to burn the earl's fleet in the haven

of Calais; this, however, proved but a vain vaunt. At last the Duke of

Exeter, who had been made admiral, received information that the Earl of

Warwick had set sail for Ireland, and stood out to sea to intercept him;

the sailors in the king's ships, however, showed so much coldness in the

cause, that it was not judged safe to risk an engagement, and Warwick,

not wishing to destroy the king's fleet, passed by without molesting it.

Later, Warwick, on an invitation from Kent, made a descent upon the

country and encountered Sir Simon de Montfort, then warden of the Cinque

Ports, with his squadron off Sandwich, which he attacked, defeated and

destroyed, Sir Simon being killed in the engagement.

Thenceforward the decline of the Cinque Ports fleet as a fighting force

was sure. It was called out occasionally for the transport of royal

personages and was employed by Henry VII. and Henry VIII. to transport

troops to France; it furnished some of the ships which harassed the

Armada in its passage up the Channel; but that was its final effort. The

King's Navy with difficulty survived the chaos of the reign of Henry

VI., but it never wholly disappeared. The revival of commerce in the

reigns of Edward IV. and Henry VII., both of whom were engaged largely

in mercantile speculations, created additional interest in maritime

affairs; but it was left to Henry VIII. to make the vital change which

firmly established the Royal Navy as an organisation independent of the

merchant service.

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