Amongst their privileges, the Portsmen enjoyed freedom from the jurisdiction of external courts of law. Apart from their own local courts for dealing with criminal offences and civil disputes between their townsfolk; increasingly courts developed with jurisdiction across the territory of the Cinque Ports.
Often reckoned to be the earliest of these common courts, the ‘King’s High Court of Shepway’ is known to have been in existence by 1150 and developed further during the following century.
As a royal court, it was primarily intended as a means of bringing the Portsmen under the control of the King’s representative, the Lord Warden. The Lord Warden presided over the court, which also included representatives of the Ports as judges.
The Court dealt with both civil and criminal cases as well as certain administrative functions including, in later years, matters relating to Ship Service.
For many years now, the main business of the Court of Shepway has been the formal installation in office of new Lord Wardens.
Court of Shepway in Session for the Installation of the Lord Warden – 2005
Reputedly, the Court of Shepway used to meet on Lympne Hill, to the west of Hythe and the site is marked by the Shepway Cross. Erected by the then Lord Warden, Earl Beauchamp in 1923, the Cross was dedicated to the memory of the ‘historic deeds of the Cinque Ports’; not least their contribution to the defence of the Realm during the Great War, which had ended 5 years before.
Throughout most of the 17th and 18th centuries, new Lord Wardens were installed at the Bredenstone or ‘Devil’s Drop of Mortar’, on the Western Heights overlooking Dover. This was all that remained of a 1st century Roman lighthouse, similar to the eastern pharos which can still be seen in DoverCastle.
Most of the Bredenstone was destroyed during the construction of Drop Redoubt in 1779, but a small piece of the foundations was excavated and preserved, some 80 years later, during further building work at the Redoubt. Three further installation ceremonies were held at the Bredenstone, the last being that of Earl Beauchamp in 1914.
Since then, the Court of Shepway has met on the site of the ancient Priory of St Martin, in the grounds of DoverCollege.
The cumbersome rules for summoning the Court of Shepway and its procedure meant that this was an increasingly unsatisfactory means of administering justice.
During the 13th century, the Lord Warden attempted to remedy these deficiencies by using his position as Constable of Dover Castle to extend the jurisdiction of the Court of Castle Gate, which had originally been established to deal with cases concerning the Castle garrison. Strictly, the Castle was outside the liberty of the Cinque Port of Dover and the Portsmen complained that they were being subjected to the jurisdiction of a ‘foreign’ court.
Thus, during the 14th century, the Lord Warden established a new court sitting in the Church of St James, which was within the town of Dover but conveniently close to his Castle. Progressively, the Court of St James took over the caseload of the older Court of Shepway. By the 16th century, the jurisdiction of the latter was effectively restricted to special royal cases, such as treason, treasure trove and counterfeiting; as well as hearing appeals from local town courts.
The jurisdiction of the Court of St James was finally abolished by the Cinque Ports Act 1855, just a few years before the old St. James’s church was replaced by a larger, more modern building. The old church, which stood at the eastern end of St James’s Street, once the main access to the town from the north, was badly damaged by shelling during the Second World War, but the ruins have been left as a memorial to the suffering of Dovorians during the conflict.
The Admiralty Court of the Cinque Ports, which dealt with a range of crimes, including piracy, as well as disputes arising from collisions at sea and claims for salvage etc, usually sat in the town where the case arose. Often this took place in the open air on the seashore or, in case of bad weather or a lengthy sitting, in a local church. For example, the Admiralty Court sat in St Lawrence’s Church, New Romney for two and a half days in 1381.
In Dover, the Admiralty Court sat either on the ‘Penniless Bench’ on the seashore, or in St James’s church which led to considerable confusion between this and the Court of St James; to the extent that records of the two separate courts came to be entered in the same book!
The Dover Admiralty Court also had a wider role, across the Ports, of receiving returns from other local inquests by the Admiralty Court; punishing offenders presented by the local courts and handling special enquiries of more general scope.
Within the area of the Lord Warden’s Admiralty which stretches from ‘… Shore Beacon in Essex to Redcliffe (near Seaford) in Sussex, from low-water mark, half sea over…’ the Court continues to enjoy concurrent jurisdiction with the High Court in London, over a wide range of maritime causes, including salvage. The Court continued to sit regularly until around the time of the First World War (1914-18).
The traditional symbol of an Admiral’s authority is a ceremonial mace in the form of an oar. Such oar-maces probably represent the steering oar of an early vessel like the one pictured in the model of a 13th century cog. The Latin for such a tiller is gubernaculum and it came to represent good governance. The original admiralty oar of the Cinque Ports (pictured above) was made by a London goldsmith around 1660 and was one of the earliest surviving examples. Like others of its type, it was placed before the judge while the Admiralty Court was in session.
However, the 17th century oar was stolen during the 1960’s and never recovered. A modern replacement was commissioned by the Confederation of the Cinque Ports, for the installation of HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother as Lord Warden, in 1979. The new oar is still used on ceremonial occasions.
The Court of Lodemanage was responsible for the regulation of pilotage in Dover. This dated from at least the 15th century and, in effect, the Lord Warden acted as chairman of a sort of guild, originally formed by the local Dover pilots, to protect and regulate their profession.
Again the Court met in St James’s Church and eventually extended its jurisdiction to the whole of the East Kent coast. As Lord Warden from 1828 to 1852, the Duke of Wellington took a particular interest in the Cinque Ports’ Pilots and resisted proposals to transfer their regulation to Trinity House of Deptford Strond. Responsibility was eventually transferred shortly after his death, in 1853.
Finally, there were the Courts of Brotherhood and Guestling. The Brodhull or Brothereld (as the Brotherhood was formerly known) comprised representatives of the five head ports. It was established by the Ports themselves, independently of the Lord Warden and presided over by the Speaker of the Cinque Ports.
It is believed that the Brodhull is of similar antiquity to the Court of Shepway, but it only assumed it’s significance as the main decision-making assembly of the Ports during the 14th century, when it sat in New Romney. Brodhull is believed to be the name of the place (near modern Dymchurch) where the court originally met and Brotherhood is probably a corruption of this earlier name. The main business of the Brodhull was administrative; defending the common privileges of the Ports when these were under threat; the appointment of bailiffs to supervise the Yarmouth Herring Fair; making arrangements for the exercise of Honours at Court, as and when required and, from the 14th century, the apportionment and allocation of ship service obligations between the various ports.
The Guestling was certainly in existence by 1388 and may have originated as early as the 12th century. Originally it was a meeting of the three Sussex ports (Hastings, Winchelsea and Rye) to consider matters of mutual interest. The name is probably derived from that of the original meeting place, the village of Guestling between Hastings and Rye, which exists to this day.
The advantages of this arrangement eventually became apparent to the Kentish ports and, from the 15th century, they too held regular meetings with their limbs. By the end of the 16th century, these two Guestlings (as both meetings had become known) were combined into a single gathering, which met later on the same day as the Brodhull.
From the latter part of the 19th century, the two meetings were combined as a single Court of Brotherhood and Guestling and so it continues to the present day when all member towns of the Confederation, including the surviving limbs. have equal voting rights.
The Court of Brotherhood and Guestling is now convened infrequently, for largely ceremonial purposes. The last occasion was in 2002, when the Court marked the death of the previous Lord Warden, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and the Golden Jubilee of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Since 1902, the routine administrative business of the Confederation has been handled by a Standing Joint Committee, which meets at least once a year and on which all member towns, including the surviving limbs, have equal representation and voting rights.
The surviving minutes of the Courts of Brotherhood and Guestling from 1432 to 1955, known as the “White and Black Books of the Cinque Ports, are preserved in the Kent County Archives at Maidstone. The current volume (1955 onwards) is held, on behalf of the Confederation, by New Romney Town Council.
© Confederation of the Cinque Ports 2023