Cinque Ports


Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1558-1603, ed. P.W. Hasler, 1981
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The Cinque Ports formed a separate group of constituencies whose Members were known as 'barons' of the Cinque Ports. The Ports had their own assembly, the brodull. The lord warden of the Cinque Ports, whose administrative headquarters was at Dover castle, was a royal official with interests for the most part opposed to those of the Ports themselves. One of his duties was to collect the returns from the separate Ports at the time of a parliamentary election and send them into Chancery in one batch, which of course was bound to lead sooner or later to his intervention in the choice of Members. The first warden to interfere systematically was Sir Thomas Cheyne, who held the office from 17 May 1536, the date of the execution of his unfortunate predecessor, Lord Rochford, brother of Anne Boleyn, until his own death on 16 Dec. 1558, a month after Mary's. Cheyne's successor, William Brooke alias Cobham, 10th Lord Cobham, was appointed on 28 Apr. 1559 (though his salary was backdated to the day of Cheyne's death) and he died in March 1597, so that he was able to intervene in the elections of 1563, 1571, 1572, 1584, 1586, and 1593. His successor was his son Henry Brooke alias Cobham II*, 11th Lord Cobham, who held the wardenship during the election of 1597 and 1601. It will be apparent from individual constituency accounts that the Ports did not submit to pressure from the lord warden without resistance. In 1572 the brodhull attempted to assert its control over the choice of MPs by resolving that

no baron shall be chosen for the parliament out of the Five Ports and two ancient towns, only such persons as are freemen resident and inhabiting the said ports and two ancient towns, except such persons as are of counsel with the ports.1

In itself ineffective, this resolution has been seen2 as preventing the formalization by the lord warden of any claim to nominate one of the two barons in each port, a claim implicity recognized by Sandwich in 1571, when the town assembly wrote to the warden

by all Sir Thomas Cheyne's time and in all your lordship's time also, we have had both, or one at the least of our own inhabitants, according to the Queen's writ and our liberties, and ... one at least must be such as was sworn to our liberties.3

Another point of interest is the warden's use of his deputy, the lieutenant of Dover castle, as his election agent. Such a man was Thomas Fane, who, at any rate in 1593 and 1597, may well have secured his own return for Dover without authority from his master, a trick at which election agents were adept in succeeding centuries, and a neat illustration of the electoral patronage merry-go-round.

At the end of the day the most generous assessment of the lord warden's influence in this period shows him to have put his men into the Commons on 32 occasions out of a possible 146, i.e. he nominated successfully on 22% of occasions. Ignoring the 1559 election, when there was no lord warden and the Ports elected their own men, the number of available seats becomes 132 and his 32 successful nominations becomes 24%. In general terms, therefore, the lord warden nominated on less than a quarter of the total possible occasions in this period, a far cry from the claim made in 1624 that 'the lord warden doth commonly recommended 14 burgesses [i.e. 100%] to Parliament, seldom or never denied him, unless it be upon some great distaste betwixt him and the Ports'.4

Author: P. W. Hasler


  • 1. Cinque Ports black bk. f. 3.
  • 2. K. M. E. Murray, Const. Hist. Cinque Port, 97.
  • 3. Ibid. 96.
  • 4. Ibid. 96.