The Confederation of Cinque Ports is a historic series of coastal towns in Kent and Sussex, at the eastern end of the English Channel where the crossing to the continent is narrowest. It was originally formed for military and trade purposes, but is now entirely ceremonial.
The name is Norman French for "five ports" – the five being Hastings, New Romney, Hythe, Dover, and Sandwich. They are supported by the two ancient towns of Rye and Winchelsea, whose councils traditionally maintained defence contingents for the realm of England.
Apart from the five ports and the two ancient towns, there are seven other members of the Confederation, which are considered to be Limbs of the other towns. These are Lydd (Limb of New Romney), Folkestone, Faversham and Margate (Limbs of Dover), Deal and Ramsgate (Limbs of Sandwich) and Tenterden (Limb of Rye).
There are in addition some 23 towns, villages and offices which have varying degrees of connection to the ancient Liberties of the Cinque Ports. Pevensey was once a Limb of Hastings, and the coastal confederation and during its mediæval period consisted of a confederation of 42 towns in all.
In other words, the authorities would turn a blind eye to ships and sailors from these ports. This led to smuggling becoming a major local industry.
A significant factor in the need to maintain the authority of the Cinque Ports by the King was the development of the Royal Navy. With the advance in shipbuilding techniques came a growth in towns such as Bristol and Liverpool and the wider development of ports such as London, Gravesend, Southampton, Chichester, Plymouth and the royal dockyards of Chatham, Portsmouth, Greenwich, Woolwich and Deptford. A further reason for the decline of many older ports may be ascribed to the development of the railway network across Britain, and the increased quantity of overseas trade it could distribute from the new major ports developing from the 18th century.
King Edward I of England granted the citizens of the Cinque Ports special privileges, including the right to bring goods into the country without paying import duties; in return the Ports would supply him with men and ships in time of war. The associated ports, known as 'limbs', were given the same privileges. The five head ports and two ancient towns were entitled to send two Members to Parliament. A Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports was appointed, and also held the title of Constable of Dover Castle, and whilst this office exists today, it is now a purely honorary title, with an official residence at Walmer Castle. The town of Hastings was the head port of the Cinque Ports in mediæval times.
The towns also had their own system of courts, and the right to send barons to hold the canopy above a new monarch in the coronation ceremony. While this custom no longer continues, the barons still have the right to attend the ceremony.
As time went by and some ports declined or silted up, others were added. Rye and Winchelsea were attached to Hastings as "Antient Towns" in the 12th century, and later became members in their own right.
Lydd, Faversham, Folkestone, Deal, Tenterden, Margate and Ramsgate were all added as "corporate limbs" in the 15th century. Other places associated with the Cinque Ports and sometimes described as "non corporate limbs" included Bekesbourne, Birchington, Brightlingsea, Fordwich, Pevensey, Reculver, Seaford, Stonor and Walmer. At one time there were 23 limbs.
Although by the 14th century the confederation faced wider challenges from a greater consolidation of national identity in the monarchy and Parliament, the legacy of the Saxon authority remained. Even after the 15th century, the 'antient towns' continued to serve with the supply of transport ships.
During the 15th century, New Romney, once a port of great importance at the mouth of the river Rother (until it became completely blocked by the shifting of sands during the great storm of 1287), was considered the central port in the confederation, and the place of assembly for the Cinque Port Courts, the oldest such authority being vested in the 'Kynges high courte of Shepway', which was being held from at least 1150. It was here that from 1433 The White (1433-1571) and Black (1572-1955) Books of the Cinque Port Courts were kept.
Ongoing changes in the coastline along the south east coast, from the Thames estuary to Hastings and the Isle of Wight did undoubtedly influence the significance of a number of the Cinque port towns, as port authorities, but ship building and repair, fishing, piloting, off shore rescue and sometimes even 'wrecking' continued to play a large part in the activities of the local community.
By the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the Cinque Ports had effectively ceased to be of any real significance, and were absorbed into the general administration of the Realm. Local Government reforms and Acts of Parliament passed during the 19th and 20th Centuries (notably the Great Reform Act of 1832), have eroded the administrative and judicial powers of the Confederation of the Cinque Ports, when New Romney and Winchelsea were disenfrachised from Parliament, with representation provided through their Counties alone, while Hythe and Rye's representation was halved.