Cinque Ports


Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1386-1421, ed. J.S. Roskell, L. Clark, C. Rawcliffe., 1993
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Since the 13th century the confederation of the Cinque Ports had been made up of the five 'head ports' of Dover, Hastings, Hythe, New Romney and Sandwich, and the two 'ancient towns' of Rye and Winchelsea. They had originally come to be linked together for the performance of a common duty, namely, to supply ships for the service of the Crown both in defence against invasion and in the protection of cross-Channel traffic. The provision of 57 ships for 15 days' service to the King every year was treated as a corporate duty, each Port being assigned a proportion of the whole. In return they enjoyed in common the privilege of exemption from payment of the fifteenths and tenths regularly granted by Parliament.

An important matter of common interest to all the Ports arose out of their successful participation in the herring trade, and the fact that many of their boats sailed every autumn to the Norfolk coast, where the Portsmen claimed immemorial rights of 'den and strand' on the sandbank at the mouth of the Yar. In the course of time, their instistence on rights of jurisdiction at Yarmouth created such friction with the local inhabitants that a number of royal awards imposing regulations were deemed necessary in the 13th and 14th centuries, and yet, despite all this, disputes between the men of the Ports and those of Yarmouth never ceased to recur. Under those awards the Ports were allowed to send bailiffs to Yarmouth to administer justice and collect certain profits for the duration of the 40-day annual herring fair. The election of these bailiffs and the herring fair. The election of these bailiffs and the hearing of their reports formed a substantial part of the business at the routine meetings of the Brodhull—the assembly where delegates from all the Ports gathered together to deal with matters of general concern. Indeed, the royal settlement made between the Ports and Yarmouth in 1357 seems to have prompted the decision that henceforth meetings of the Brodhull should be convened twice yearly on fixed dates in July and December, the first so that the bailiffs being sent to Yarmouth could be approved and briefed, the second to discuss their reports. Within a few years it was decided among them that the Ports would dispatch only four bailiffs to Yarmouth (instead of one from each Port as hitherto), and for this purpose the towns formed themselves into four groups, each of which would provide a bailiff (Hastings alone, Rye and Winchelsea, New Romney and Dover, and Sandwich and Hythe). These groupings, founded on traditional links, are evident in many of the dealings of the Ports in our period, including on occasion personal connexions between the parliamentary barons. The business of the Brodhull included handling disputes with the Exchequer over allowances for exoneration from payment of fifteenths and tenths, and proceedings against other towns concerning infringements of liberties over legal suits involvings Portsmen as defendants outside the jurisdiction of the Ports. Less weighty matters came in later times to be dealt with at Guestlings, although in our period these were meetings only of delegates from the most westerly Ports (Hastings, Rye and Winchelsea).

The warden of the Cinque Ports was a royal appointee, answerable to the Crown. Officially, he was the sole channel of communication between the central government and the Ports, being responsible for the return of writs, including parliamentary writs of summons, and performing the other duties of a sheriff. His powers were considerable, for as well as holding office as constable of Dover castle, with authority over the Crown's other coastal fortifications in the region, he exercised admiralty jurisdiction from Dungeness to the Naze. Nevertheless, in his dealings with the barons of the Cinque Ports his authority was not entirely unrestricted: each new warden was required to swear to uphold the liberties of the Ports at a special ceremony of the court of Shepway (over which he presided). In return, the barons made him a gift of money or plate. Clashes over jurisdiction meant that the warden and the barons might be sometimes at varieance—at least, this was the case both earlier in the 14th century and later in the 15th. However, during the period 1386 to 1421 there is no sign of conflict caused either by overbearing wardens or by independently inspired Portsmen; nor is there any evidence to suggest that the wardens or their lieutenants ever sought, in this period, to influence the Ports' choice of parliamentary representatives, let alone succeeded in doing so.1

The term 'baron' used for freemen of the Cinque Ports, and hence for their Members of Parliament, reflected an early concept that military service at sea constituted a tenure by barony. In the 13th century the Portsmen had displayed a marked tendency to form an independent political and social group, claiming, indeed, to be the peers of earls and barons. Such aspirations were encouraged by their long-held privilege of bearing the canopy over the King at his coronation (a privilege already deemed 'ancient' by the reign of Richard I). Accordingly, the early 14th-century treatise, Modus Tenendi Parliamentum, gave the barons of the Ports a place next after the lay magnates and above the representative of the shires and boroughs. It would seem that for much of the century the Ports even made their returns to Parliament in a different way from the other communities. The writs of summons for representatives from the Ports were directed to their warden in the same terms as those sent to the sheriffs for the election of knights of the shires and parliamentary burgesses, yet althoguh such writs are recorded as being sent regularly from 1322, no returns were actually made until 1366. Nevertheless, between these dates there is ample evidence from local records to show that barons of the Ports did attend Parliaments.2

During our period the usual practice was for parliamentary elections to be held in general assemblies meeting in each of the Ports, and for messengers to be sent to Dover with news of the outcome. In August 1388, for example, a single messenger rode to Dover to supply the names of the Members for Winchelsea and Hastings in the forthcoming Parliament. In 1399 it was stated that these reports might be delivered alternatively to Dover castle, the court of Shepway, or the warden's court at St. James's church. Once they were received, the warden, or more usually his lieutenant, made a composite return, listing the Members from all the Ports on a schedule, and this he sent to Chancery with the writ of summons, suitably endorsed. On occasion two mainpernors were named as guarantors for the appearance of all 14 barons. As required by the writs of summons each Port sent its representatives off with a commission giving them 'pleyn power de fere ordeyner et asentir en notre noum quantque notre seigneur le Roi et soun consail faire ordeyner et treter de par nous plera en ceo parlement'.3

Wages for attending Parliaments as allowed to the barons of the Ports were generally higher than those paid to the representatives of towns elsewhere (for whom the prescribed rate was 2s. a day). But although Dover sometimes paid its Members at the daily rate of 3s.4d. and the other Ports usually provided 2s.6d. a day, during the 1420s reductions were made across the board, and there are clear signs that later in the century all the Ports found it difficult to raise even 2s. a day for the barons. The financial strain of paying MPs was probably alleviated to a certain extent by the practice, by no means uncommon in our period, for one or other of the representatives from the Cinque Ports to double up for certain of his companions, particularly if a Parliament looked likely to continue for longer than a few weeks. Thus, it sometimes happened that the Members for Dover and New Romney stood in for each other, anyone staying on in the Commons being paid at the daily rate of 1s.8d. by each Port, so that he received 3s.4d. per day altogether, while overall expenditure was reduced. The westerly Ports shared Members in the same way: for instance, Edward Martham attended the second session of the Merciless Parliament in 1388 as representative not only for Hastings (for which place he had been returned), but also for Winchelsea. This practice was to be regularized by an ordinance made by the Brodhull in 1444 staing that

all those that be chose by common assent to the parlyament ... from hence forward that they after their abydynge iiij wekes shal labour to our warden of the V ports for Lycence to be had that certeyne of them maye abyde there and others to come home as it was used by olde custome.4

In this, as in other respects, the barons of the Ports manifested a corporate identity and identification of interests which, at least to that extent, set them apart from their fellow Members of the Commons.


  • 1. Cf. the introduction to White and Black Bks. of Cinque Ports (Kent Rec. Ser. xix) and K.M.E. Murray, Const. Hist. Cinque Ports. See also W. Boys, Sandwich, ii. 560-1.
  • 2. Murray, 30-31, 84-85; Parl. Texts ed. Pronay and Taylor, 68-69; Reg. Daniel Rough (Kent Rec. Soc. xvi), 49-50.
  • 3. Add. Ch. 16431; Murray, 118; Reg. Daniel Rough, 49-50.
  • 4. White and Black Bks. 18.