Ports of power

PUBLISHED: 17:19 30 July 2010 | UPDATED: 16:12 20 February 2013

Ramsgate harbour

Ramsgate harbour

Kent's mighty Cinque Ports, their historic importance and present-day appeal...

The original force behind England's maritime power, the confederation of the Cinque Ports is led by Kent coastal towns that helped shape and defend our ancient county

For more than 500 years, from the 11th century to at least the 16th, the Confederation of the Cinque Ports protected southern England from marauding pirates, invading armies and unscrupulous foreign shipping.

Forming a protective chain along the coastline of the English Channel, the Cinque Ports wielded enormous military and mercantile power. As the name suggests - 'cinque' is the Norman French for 'five' - the confederation was originally made up of five ports, namely Hastings, Sandwich, Dover, Romney and Hythe.

Under the system of ship service, the ports were required to supply the king with 57 ships, each with a crew of 21men and a boy, for 15 days each year. The ships could be used for anything the king needed, from transport to the continent to naval warfare.

In return, the king granted the ports extensive rights, including freedom from central taxation and exemption from the jurisdiction of courts other than their own.

Over the years, the number of ports included in the Confederation increased, but it retained its ancient title and today, French visitors are understandably confused when they learn that the Cinque Ports actually number 14.

They are also distressed by the English pronunciation: appropriately, the name of the ports is pronounced 'sink', as it would have been in medieval times, rather than 'sank' as the French would pronounce it today.

The former, with its connotations of basins, harbours and anything which holds water, seems much more appropriate for what were once the premier ports of England than the latter, which is unfortunate to say the least for anything to do with shipping.

To assist in the provision of ships for the king, the Cinque Ports sought the help of neighbouring towns and villages, those on the coast to provide men and lookouts, those further inland to help with money. The assistant satellites were known as 'limbs' to their particular 'head' port. At one time there were 23 limbs covering the area from Seaford in East Sussex to Brightlingsea in Essex.

With no permanent navy, the king relied heavily on the Cinque Ports, and they knew it. The Confederations coat of arms alone - which incidentally predates the College of Arms, the official repository of such devices - reveals the ports' close association with the king.

Blazoned as 'three lions passant guardant conjoined to as many ship's hulls', the Cinque Port coat of arms shows the head, forepaws and bodies of the three lions of the coat of arms of the English kings, joined to the stern of three mediaeval ships.

Freemen of the Cinque Ports were entitled to call themselves Barons and were also granted the huge honour of carrying the canopy over the head of the sovereign during the coronation procession and to dine at his or her right hand during the subsequent feasting. After the ceremony, the barons could keep the heavy silk canopy, bells and poles, much of which would be decorated with silver.

The last time a processional canopy was used was at the coronation of George IV in 1821, but even today Barons of the Cinque Ports, now elected by the mayor and council, are accorded places of honour at Coronations.

As the ports closest to the continent, merchants, noblemen visiting their lands in France, soldiers en route to the crusades and sailors defending the shores of England would all have come, gone or originated from, one or other of the Cinque Ports.

The closest modern equivalent would be a combination of major airport, finance centre and luxury shopping mall: rich, busy and cosmopolitan, the Cinque Ports were vitally important to the wealth and security of the nation

"I often go into schools to talk to the children, and the stories about the Cinque Ports bring history alive to them - they're fascinated," says Councillor 'Joe' Trussler, Right Worshipful the Town Mayor of Sandwich, who feels that its status as one of the Cinque Ports enriches his town.

He adds: "Continuing the old traditions gives people an insight into what England was like in medieval days, but also ensures that the history and heritage remain as a living part of Sandwich. Shops benefit from the tourism and the local museums help the next generation learn about their town."

Overflowing with history the Cinque Ports may be, but their heritage continues to be important for the towns today. As Amanda Cottrell, Chairman of Visit Kent, says: "In this time of increasing globalisation, people need to retain a sense of belonging, thus the innate need to build on our unique local history.

"The towns that make up the Confederation of the Cinque Ports retain this sense of belonging in modern times. The great processions and ceremonies surrounding the Installation and Office of the Lord Warden, as well as Speaker's Day, are a modern declaration of community and shared vision, the sense of unity palpable."

Mayor Trussler uses his own role to bring history alive in schools. He says: "I explain that the Mayor of Sandwich is the one of the very few English mayors to wear a black robe rather than a red one.

"The robe commemorates the death of Mayor John Drury in the Battle of Honfleur in 1457 and since then, the mayor has only once worn red, and that was when Queen Elizabeth I visited the town. The Queen flatly refused to sit and eat with the mayor when he was dressed in black, so it's said that a red robe was hurriedly borrowed for the occasion." The mayor still wears black, but relations with Honfleur have improved in the last 550 years;

it is now twinned with Sandwich.

Local government reforms and Acts passed in the 19th and 20th centuries may have removed the last remnants of the Cinque Ports' special judicial and administrative powers, but their pride and sense of history remains.

Cllr Ted Wilcox, Mayor of Faversham adds: "For many people in Faversham, being one of the Cinque Ports is very important. We are proud of our history and although none of the ancient laws are still in force, the past still reaches into the future. For example, in 1588 Faversham sent a ship to the defend England against the Spanish Armada; the ship was Hazard and we still have a building by the creek called TS Hazard which is used by the sea cadets for training."

Trade has always been vital to the Cinque Ports, and much of today's trade comes from visitors. Deal's town motto is adiuvate advenas or 'befriend the stranger' and the sentiment is one shared by all the Cinque Ports.

From Ramsgate's Royal Harbour to Folkestone's literary festival, from Hythe's independent shops and Farmers Market to Lydd's golf course and international airport, visitors are offered a huge range of possibilities.

As Amanda says: "With tourism and the local food initiatives forging ahead, first-class restaurants opening up, the Turner Contemporary Gallery being built at Margate, plus many other initiatives, the future looks bright and the ancient Cinque Ports will once again take on a life of their own."

What are the Cinque Ports?

Five head ports: Hastings, Sandwich, Dover, New Romney and Hythe

Two antient towns [sic]:

Rye and Winchelsea

Seven corporate members: Deal and Ramsgate (limbs of Sandwich) Faversham, Folkestone and Margate (limbs of Dover) Lydd (limb of New Romney) Tenterden (limb of Rye).

Of the 14 towns, only Hastings, Rye and Winchelsea are not in Kent.

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