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The Story Of The Cinque Ports

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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