Yarmouth Herring Fair

An important catalyst in the development of common institutions and a more formal confederation was the need to regulate the lucrative Yarmouth Herring Fair. At that time, the herring was a staple food throughout Europe and the economic significance of controlling a substantial element of this important trade should not be underestimated.

The fishermen of the Cinque Ports had been accustomed, from at least Saxon times, to follow the herring shoals, on their annual migration through the English Channel and southern North Sea.

Yarmouth horn
The 16th century “brasen horne of saylence” was sounded at the opening of the Yarmouth Fair. It is now kept at New Romney

Early royal charters confirmed their customary right to land and dry their nets (den and strand) on the shore at Yarmouth, in Norfolk. The Portsmen also assumed responsibility for the administration of justice at the Fair, much to the consternation of their Norfolk counterparts. It was the need to defend and manage this vital economic interest which led directly to the development of the Court of Brodhull, which assumed responsibility for the appointment of bailiffs (magistrates) from the Ports to keep order at this often unruly gathering.

Honours at Court

Another factor in the development of a more formal collective organisation would have been the need to make the detailed arrangements for the infrequent but no less important exercise of ‘honours at court’. These are known to have been in existence since at least 1141.

In common with the citizens of London, Oxford and Canterbury, the barons of the Cinque Ports were granted the distinction of performing specific services at coronation ceremonies. In their case this comprised the duty of supplying and carrying an ornate canopy over the heads of the King and Queen, in the procession to Westminster Abbey.

They were also given the honour of dining at the King’s right hand during the subsequent banquet in Westminster Hall. Although the coronation procession on foot and lavish banquets have long since been consigned to the history books, barons of the Cinque Ports continue to serve at coronations by receiving and bearing standards formally presented during the course of the ceremony. Honours at Court have been re-affirmed at the last four coronations, after a lapse during the 19th century.


Other Rights and Liberties

The Portsmen enjoyed other rights and privileges in return for their ship service. These varied over time and from one port to another, according to the particular charter, but the rights and liberties most commonly granted were:-

Freedom from pleading ‘otherwise than as the barons of … the Cinque Ports plead’, that is to say, in their own courts of law.

Freedom from a wide range of taxes which were payable in the course of travel and trade during medieval times; including custom, toll, lestage, passage, rivage and sponsage.

Freedom from fifteenths and tenths (national taxes levied by the Crown).

The right of withernam – if a Portsman was owed a debt by a resident of another town or if he was unjustly charged a toll or levy elsewhere; a warning letter would be sent to the offending town demanding (re-) payment within 15 days. If redress was not forthcoming, the next visitor from that town would be arrested and, after a hearing, sent home with notice of the judgement against his townspeople. If that failed, the next traveller from the defaulting town was liable to be detained and his goods confiscated and sold to cover the outstanding amount.

Sometimes the Court of Brodhull would issue a general withernam, so that sums could be collected in this way across the whole territory of the Cinque Ports.

© Confederation of the Cinque Ports 2023