Origins of The Cinque Ports

Some historians have suggested that the Cinque Ports have their origins in a chain of coastal forts, possibly founded by the Emperor Constantine I early in the 4th century AD.

They were designed to defend the southern and eastern coasts of Roman Britain from the increasing threat of raids by barbarian tribes, including the Picts, Franks and Saxons.

These strongholds, which stretched from Hampshire to Norfolk, were under the command of the Count of the Saxon Shore (Comes Littoris Saxonici).

Early Royal Patronage

gen_charter-copyIt was probably the Saxon Kings of England, during the 11th Century, who first formalised the arrangement under which key coastal towns in Kent and Sussex were offered inducements for them to provide ships and men, in place of the mercenary vessels relied upon by their predecessors. However efforts by 19th century commentators to establish the existence of a pre-Norman conquest organisation, founded on a long-lost Saxon charter have generally been discounted.

The General Charter of Henry lll

The earliest known charter to the Cinque Ports collectively (a general charter) was granted by King Henry III in 1260, but there is much evidence of the Ports acting together from an earlier date. A general charter was widely regarded as less effective than one granted to an individual town and the Ports continued to seek their own charters long after the first collective grants.

Earlier Charters

It is known that Henry II granted similar charters to at least three of the ‘head ports’ in 1155-56; probably to secure the ships which he needed in connection with a planned visit to Normandy (which was part of his realm at that time) and for his intended conquest of Ireland. It is clear from the terms of those charters and from other evidence, including the Pipe Rolls of Henry II and from the Domesday Book (published in 1086), that the Ports had enjoyed common privileges in return for their service to the Crown since the 11th century and were already known collectively as the Cinque Ports.
This does not imply that a formal confederation with common institutions was already in place at that time, but the Court of Shepway was established by 1150 and would have provided a basis for the joint organisation which emerged fully over the next 150 years.