From the 11th to the 16th century, each of the Five Ports was required to provide the Crown with a specified number of ships, for 15 days every year; each crewed by 21 men and a boy.
If their service was required for longer than 15 days in any year, they were entitled to payment for the additional period. Initially, Hastings and Dover each furnished 20 ships and the other three ports, five each but, in the 13th century, the Hastings and Dover requirement was increased to 21 ships each, making a total of 57 ships for all five ports.
Sharing the Burden
Ship service was a heavy burden for relatively small fishing communities and so the five head ports of Hastings, Romney, Hythe, Dover and Sandwich turned to their neighbouring towns and villages for help in providing ships, equipment and men. These limbs or members, as they were known, did not at first share in the privileges granted to the head ports: so why, you may ask, did they contribute?
The answer probably lies in the fact that they were accustomed to the fyrd, an Anglo-Saxon arrangement under which each community was required to raise a local militia to counter the threat of Viking raids and invasion. During the 12th century however, the larger limbs began to demand their own charters, so that they too could share formally in the privileges enjoyed by their head ports.
A Century of Change
As the fortunes of the head ports changed over the centuries, so the contributions of their limbs varied. Coastal erosion, silting-up of harbours, foreign raids and the Black Death took their toll on all of the ports at different times and to varying degrees. Hastings was particularly affected.
During the 13th century, Rye and Winchelsea went from contributing just two ships between them, to a total of 15 out of Hastings’ quota of 21. By the middle of the following century, they were both formally recognised as ‘ancient towns’ and henceforth enjoyed equal status to the five original head ports.
The Confederation at its Peak
At times, some 30 limbs were attached to the head ports, ranging in size from small hamlets to substantial towns and stretching from Seaford in the west to the Essex port of Brightlingsea, in the north. For a full list of current and former limbs, click here.
The Beginning of the End
Early naval engagements usually consisted of ramming and/or boarding opposing vessels, but changing methods of naval warfare and especially the introduction of naval artillery led to the need for ever larger ships. From the 14th century, the Ports were allowed to provide fewer ships on condition that each was manned by a crew of 42 and was capable of carrying double the amount of goods and equipment. This involved negotiations, not just between the head ports and their own limbs, but also between different head ports, for the sharing of their individual obligations. The Lord Warden became the final arbiter of these re-allocations. Eventually, the size of ships required and the replacement of fishing vessels by purpose-built warships, rendered obsolete the harbours and vessels of the Cinque Ports.
Founding of the Royal Navy
Although Henry VIII is widely credited with being the Father of the English Navy, it was his father, Henry VII (1485-1509), who first set about creating a purpose-built fleet of warships. Increasingly the focus of naval strength shifted from the tidal creeks of the Kent and Sussex coast, to specialist dockyards at Deptford (on the River Thames) and Portsmouth (in Hampshire).
Having been mobilized at short notice to help defend against the Spanish Armada, in 1588, the last recorded occasion on which the Cinque Ports fleet saw action was in 1596, when the Spanish again threatened to invade. 5 ships joined the English fleet and it is likely that they took part in the successful, pre-emptive raid on Cadiz.
The Ports and the Royal Navy of Today
Ship service may have been consigned to the history books but, as the Cradle of the Royal Navy the Cinque Ports remain proud of their historic relationship with the Senior Service. Since 1953, there has been a formal affiliation between the Confederation and one of Her Majesty’s ships. Formerly the link was with the aircraft carriers HMS Albion and HMS Illustrious. Currently the Cinque Ports are affiliated with HMS Kent , a Type 23 Frigate, launched in 2000.