Cinque Ports


Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, ed. S.T. Bindoff, 1982
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The Cinque Ports consisted of a group of towns on the south-east coast originally associated to supply ships for the service of the crown both in defence against invasion and in the protection of cross-Channel traffic. By the 13th century the confederation was made up of the five 'head ports' of Dover, Hastings, Hythe, New Romney and Sandwich, the two 'ancient towns' of Rye and Wichelsea, and outliers known as 'limbs' or 'members' stretching from Seaford in Sussex to Brightlingsea in Essex. Their corporate duties and privileges made it desirable for the ports to consult together, and from the reign of Henry III they sent representatives to the Brotherhood or Brodhull which met twice a year at New Romney; less important business was dealt with at Guestlings summoned and attended according to need. Among its many functions the Brotherhood determined the size of the deputations sent to hear the lord warden of the Cinque Ports swear to uphold their liberties at his 'solemn serement' at the court of Shepway; it also collected the money given to the lord warden on that occasion. The lord warden was a royal appointee answerable to the crown and responsible for the return of writs. As well as being constable of Dover castle with authroity over the crown's other coastal fortifications in the area, he exercised admiralty jurisdiction from Dungeness to the Naze. Clashes over jurisdiction meant that the lord warden and the ports were often at variance. The term baron used for freemen in the Cinque Ports, and hence for their Members of Parliament, reflected the similarity of their position of that of tenants-in-chief by knight's service.1

Parliamentary writs of summons were delivered to the lord warden at Dover castle, or in his absence to the lieutenant of the castle. The clerk of the castle, in the 1550s Joseph Beverley*, then issued precepts addressed to each of the ports and borne by a messanger called a 'boderer' whom the ports paid on delivery. The results of the elections were sent to Dover, where the clerk made a schedule of the names for despatch to Chancery, while himself keeping the indentures from the ports. Schedules are extant for the Parliaments of 1542, November 1554 and 1555, the first of these being in poor condition, but no indentures survive from the early 16th century, although a copy of the indenture for a by-election held at New Romney in 1552 is preserved in the town's court book. The summons which was issued on the eve of Edward VI's death for a Parliament to meet in September 1553, and which was communicated from Dover to the ports four days after the King's death, is preserved at the public Record Office.2

An ordinance passed by the Brotherhood in 1451 that only men with municipal experience should be Members was still largely adherred to in the reign of Henry VIII, although it was twice broken by New Romney, in 1512 with the election of Sir John Scott, a local gentleman connected with the lord warden, Sir Edward Poynings*, and a son of Poyning's precursor Sir William Scott, and in 1535-6 with the by-election if John Marshall, a Nottinghamshire man connected with Archbishop Cranmer. In 1532-3 Cromwell assigned the nomination for a vacancy at Hastings to the lord warden, but otherwsie the extent of interference from Dover castle in elections before 1547 is a matter of surmise. Thus the return of Richard Gibson, the serjeant of the tents, for New Romney in 1529 may be attributed to the two Guildford brothers, Sir Edward* as lord warden and Sir Henry* as comptroller of the Household, and Philip Chute's return for Winchelsea in 1542 and 1545 to his kinship with Sir Thomas Cheyne*, lord wardem since 1536.3

In 1547 less than half the ports complied with the ordinance regulating Membership, and of these Sandwich only did so after referring the matter to the Privy Council; two of the ports each returned one resident and one non-resident, two others each returned non-residents with local connexions or affiliations. The delay in holding the by-election at New Romney in the winter if 1551-2 suggests that it gave rise to contention, although in what form is unknown: a sum of 2s. was later paid 'for the reform of the writ for the burgess to the Parliament and other things'. A year later Sir Thomas Cheyne nullified the election at New Romney, returning Members of his own choice; he also intervened at Dover, Rye and Sandwich. When the ports complained, Cheyne warned Sandwich that 'they should look for themselves for they should get no aid and help at his hands'. With perhaps the single exception of Henry Crispe the men brought in by Cheyne on this occasion were paid wages, but not all those who followed then during the next five years were paid; those who lost their places to the lord warden's nominees received compensation.

Under Mary the lord warden's right to act as he did at election time was regularly challenged, but only Sandwich did so with any success. In the autumn of 1553 Cheeyne got at least one nominee accepted by each port and a year later he made the same demand. In 1555 Dover tried to save the principle by giving him one nomination 'for the time', but in 1558 it accepted two nominees. Although the prescence of the castle made Dover susceptible to outside influence, the townsmen felt it necessary to ask Cheyne in September 1553 to indemnify them against any penalty to which they might be liable for electing outsiders contrary to the law. When naming his candidates late in 1554 Cheyne disregarded both that provision and the Queen's general request for the return of townsmen. Perhaps the most telling memorial to his bahaviour is the schedule for November 1554, on which the names of all his nominees are entered in blank spaces left when the schedule was made up from the returns: the series of transpositions and discrepencies between the names of those known to have been elected and those returned shows how cavalierly he exercised this branch of his patronage.

Most of the non-residents thus inflitrated were local men, but a member of them, particularly those from further afield, seem to have owed their nominations to the Privy Council, officers of state, magnates and others whom Cheyne either needed or wished to accommodate. Service in the customs or in the defence of the Kent-Sussex seaboard appears to have played a part in the choice. As constable of Dover castle and with general responsibility for the defence of the area, Cheyne was presumably behind most of these men, but the Admiralty could have imposed some of them upon him.

The Brotherhood often gave the Members instructions touching legislation of interest to the ports. They were also required to obtain the traditional exemption from subsidy pavements, although in this they were not always successful. Acts with provision for the ports or for the warden include those for the maintenance of bridges and roads (22 Hen. VIII c.5), for punishing vagrants (22 Hen. VIII, c.12), to reduce piracy (27 Hen. VIII, c.4 and 28 Hen. VIII, c.15) for the navy (32 Hen. VIII, c.14), confirming liberties (32 Hen. VIII, c.2) and for the better administration of justice (33 Hen. VIII, c.8). Bills for levying fines in the ports twice passed both Houses in the Parliament of 1547 but did not receive the royal assent. The Brotherhood also expected the Members to buy copies of Acts 'at the common charge' for inclusion in the register book of New Romney.4

Author: A. D.K. Hawkyard


  • 1. Acknowledgments to K.M.E. Murray, Const. Hist. Cinque Ports, the introduction to Cinque Ports White and Black Bks. (Kent Arch. Soc. recs. br. xix) and the relevant municipal record.
  • 2. C218/1/6; 219/18B/145, 23/184, 24/224.
  • 3. Cinque Ports White and Black Bks. 28; LP Hen. VIII, vii. 56 citing SP1/82, ff. 59-62.
  • 4. CJ, i. 4, 11, 12; LJ, i. 323, 326, 327, 332, 355, 356; Cinque Ports White and Black Bks. 94.