The coat of arms of the Cinque Ports first appeared in 1305, second amongst the earliest English known heraldic emblems, predating even the coat of arms of the City of London. +
The exact origins of the heraldic device are unclear, but it is widely assumed that it was derived from the arms of the English kings from the end of the 12th century, consisting of three golden lions. The suggestion is that these were joined with three ships hulls to denote the ship service rendered by the Cinque Ports to the English Crown. +
The Cinque Ports have exercised the right to use a coat of arms for many hundreds of years. Early common seals of the towns of Dover and Hastings suggest that the device of three lions passant guardant conjoined to as many ship’s hulls came into use between 1194 and 1305, possibly during the reign of King Edward I (1272 to 1307).
Cinque Ports halfpenny token
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Apart from the five ports and the two ancient towns, seven other members were added to the Confederation as 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).
The importance of Rye and Winchelsea and the decline of Hastings elevated them to become Cinque Ports and Head Ports in their own right in the 14th Century. +
Ongoing changes in the coastline along the south east coast, from the Thames estuary to Hastings and the Isle of Wight inevitably reduced the significance of a number of the Cinque port towns as port authorities. However, 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. +
more: The Cinque Port Limbs
Crossing the English Channel in Norman times
William I’s invasion force in the Bayeux Tapestry
3,379 × 2,245 pixels
In early times, the fishing fleets, maintained by the South Eastern coastal towns were frequently pressed into service to convey people, and armies, to and from the Continent, as well as to fight battles at sea. They formed the first Navy, and, in return for the use of their vessels, the ports received many privileges from the Crown. +
Anglo-Saxon period history
more about the Bayeux Tapestry Ships
The White Ship (French: la Blanche-Nef) was a vessel that sank in the English Channel near the Normandy coast off Barfleur, on 25 November 1120. There were only 2 survivors. Among those who drowned was William Adelin, the only surviving legitimate son and heir of King Henry I of England.
An after dark, alcohol-fueled attempt to overtake the first ship carrying the King lead to the White Ship striking a submerged rock and quickly capsizing. The king’s heir managed to scramble into a smaller boat, but was swamped by other passengers trying to save themselves.
After the king’s death, the fight for succession to the throne kicked off an 18 year period known as the Anarchy. A contemporary chronicler noted “… No ship ever brought so much misery to England.”
Till the 15th century England had no permanent navy to defend itself against sea-borne aggression. Thus, five ports in the South East – the region most vulnerable to invasion – contracted with the Crown to provide a defensive fleet when required. In return they enjoyed extensive privileges, rather like those of the Hanseatic Ports.
This Confederation of Cinque Ports (cinque is French for five) was formed probably in the early 11th century. The founding Members (‘Head Ports), later joined by Rye and Winchelsea, were Hastings, New Romney, Hythe, Dover and Sandwich.
above rt: seal of the barons of Hastings
The Lord Warden
left: Sir Arthur Wellesley, duke of WELLINGTON (1769-1852) Wellington was made Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports (1815)
The creation and appointment of the Lord Warden, once the most powerful appointment of the realm, by the Sovereign was instituted principally after the portsmen sided with the Earl of Leicester against King Henry III (1264–1267). The position of Lord Warden and Admiral of the Cinque Ports is the most ancient military honour available in England.
The Lord Warden also holds the office of Admiral of the Cinque Ports with a maritime jurisdiction extending to the middle of the English Channel, from Redcliffe near Seaford, in Sussex to Shoe Beacon in Essex.
In the 21st century the title “Baron of the Cinque Ports” is now reserved for “Freemen elected by the Mayor, Jurats, and Common Council of the Ports…” is solely honorary in nature.
A Royal Charter of 1155 established the ports to maintain ships ready for the Crown in case of need. The chief obligation laid upon the ports, as a corporate duty, was to provide 57 ships for 15 days’ service to the king annually, each port fulfilling a proportion of the whole duty.
In return the towns received the following privileges:
Exemption from tax and tolls; self-government; permission to levy tolls, punish those who shed blood or flee justice, punish minor offences, detain and execute criminals both inside and outside the port’s jurisdiction, and punish breaches of the peace; and possession of lost goods that remain unclaimed after a year, goods thrown overboard, and floating wreckage.
The leeway given to the Cinque Ports, and the turning of a blind eye to misbehaviour, led to smuggling (though of course common everywhere at this time) becoming more or less one of the dominant industries of the area.
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.
Standard of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports
This flag was flown when Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965) held this office.
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.
By the early 17th century the nation had a big enough permanent Royal Navy for the services of the Cinque Ports to be no longer required. The Confederation still exists, however, and fulfills various ceremonial functions.
The decline of the confederation of the Cinque Ports may be ascribed to a variety of different circumstances, but they were not so hampered by the raids from the Danes and the French to be removed by the numerous destructive impact of plagues, and survived the politics of the 13th century Plantagenets, and the subsequent War of the Roses.
Silting in and the 18th century development of the railway network across Britain dealt the death blow to many of the older ports.
read more on
The Rye Museum
Cinque Ports England
more: Coastal views in Great Britain
Head of the Cinque Ports in mediæval times. +
Hastings was, for centuries, an important fishing port; although nowadays much reduced, it still has the largest beach-based fishing fleet in England. The town became a watering place in the 1760s, and then, with the coming of the railway, a seaside resort.
There is Iron and Bronze Age evidence of human settlement (prior to when)the Romans arrived in Britain for the first time in 55 BC. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 1011 relates that Vikings overran “all Kent, Sussex, Surrey and Haestingas”.
In 1066, William the Conqueror landed on the coast between Hastings and Eastbourne at a site now known as Norman’s Bay. William defeated and killed Harold Godwinson, the last Saxon King of England, and destroyed his army; thus opening England to the Norman conquest.
By the end of the Saxon period, the port of Hastings had moved eastward near the present town centre in the Priory Stream valley, whose entrance was protected by the White Rock headland (since demolished). It was to be a short stay: Danish attacks and huge floods in 1011 and 1014 motivated the townspeople to relocate.
In the Middle Ages Hastings became one of the Cinque Ports; Sandwich, Dover, and New Romney being the first, Hastings, and Hythe followed, all finally being joined by Rye and Winchelsea, at one point 42 towns were directly or indirectly affiliated to the group.
In the 13th century much of the town was washed away by the sea. During a naval campaign of 1339, and again in 1377, the town was raided and burnt by the French, and seems then to have gone into a decline. As a port, Hastings’ days were finished. +
Dover’s has been inhabited since the Stone Age according to archeological finds; it’s strategic position has been evident throughout its history: artifact evidence reveals that the area has always been a focus for peoples entering and leaving Britain.
The Romans called it “Portus Dubris” (fortified port). The modern name has been in use since the time of Shakespeare.
Since the Bronze Age, the maritime influence has been strong. The site of its original settlement lies in the valley of the River Dour, making it an ideal place for a port, sheltered from the prevailing south-westerly winds.
Because of silting, the town has been forced into making artificial breakwaters to keep the port in being. These breakwaters have been extended and adapted so that the current port lies almost entirely on reclaimed land.
The English Channel, here at its narrowest point in the Straits of Dover, is the busiest shipping lane in the world. +
Rescue on the Goodwin Sands by the North Deal Lifeboat
by Edward William Cooke
Churchill visited Dover on 14th August 1946 in his office as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. The Naval Guard is forming up in Maison Dieu Road.
The Goodwin Sands is a 10-mile-long sand bank in the English Channel, lying six miles east off Deal in Kent, England. As the shoals lie close to major shipping channels, more than 2,000 ships are believed to have been wrecked upon it, and as a result it is marked by lightvessels and buoys.
Light Vessel 21 saw most of her service off the Kent Coast on the Varne and East Goodwin stations. The vessel is now in private ownership and is currently being transformed into a cultural facility on the River Medway, Kent.
The South Goodwin vessel was driven onto the Goodwin Sands and wrecked during a severe storm on 27 November 1954
Deal Boat Men on the Look out
Slide set: Heroes of the Goodwin Sands (35 images)
In the Great Storm of 1703 at least 13 men-of-war and 40 merchant vessels were wrecked in the Downs, with the loss of 2,168 lives and 708 guns. Yet, to their credit, the Deal boatmen were able to rescue 200 men from this ordeal.
In 1690, HMS Vanguard, a 90-gun second-rate ship of the line, struck the Sands, but was fortunate enough to be got off by the boatmen of Deal.
Several naval battles have been fought nearby, including the Battle of Goodwin Sands in 1652 and the Battle of Dover Strait in 1917.
see also: blog Journal of a Deal Boatman
This lithograph is by Rear Admiral J. N. Tayler. It shows a proposal for a moored ship to save people from shipwrecks on the Goodwin Sands. This was a notoriously treacherous stretch of sea on the east coast of Kent. Shifting sands make building lighthouses impossible and the area was prone to shipwrecks. The word ‘asylum’ means a sanctuary and a shelter from danger or hardship. This possibly guided Rear Admiral Taylor when naming his design. However, he may also have been satirising the number of ‘mental asylums’ being built during this period. This lithograph comprises a vignette of the moored asylum in use, plus a diagram of the vessel with explanatory captions. It was published by Standidge and Company in London; Science Museum, London.
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Dutch ship Brederode
(artist unknown; National Maritime Museum)
The naval Battle of Goodwin Sands (also known as the Battle of Dover), was fought on 29 May 1652, between the navies of the Commonwealth of England and the United Provinces of the Netherlands.
The English Parliament had passed the first of the Navigation Acts in October 1651, aimed at hampering the shipping of the highly trade-dependent Dutch. Agitation among the Dutch merchants was running high.
Both sides had begun to prepare for war, but conflict might have been delayed if not for an unfortunate encounter on 29 May 1652 (19 May in the Julian calendar then in use in England) near the Straits of Dover between a Dutch convoy escorted by 40 ships under Lieutenant-Admiral Maarten Tromp and an English fleet of 25 ships.
An ordinance of Cromwell’s required all foreign fleets in the North Sea or the Channel to dip their flag in salute. When the Dutch did not comply, the English flagship fired three warning shots. When the third hit (the Dutch) ship and wounded some sailors, the Dutch captain replied with a warning broadside from his flagship Brederode. The English replied in kind and a five hour battle ensued. War was declared by the Commonwealth on 10 July 1652. +
1802, Dover, Aug 20th: “Le Parfait Union, Captain Moscou arrived here from Calais bringing 62 passengers; the reason of her bringing such an extraordinary number was, that an order had been received at Calais from Paris that in future no persons shall be permitted to embark in an English Vessel. English packets had been permitted to take passengers from Calais and French packets to take passengers from hence but this is now done away, and persons returning to their native country must come in a French vessel or not at all. This is liberty with a vengeance.
The Cinque Port of Sandwich
Cinque Ports watercolours by Jack Merriot
On the banks of the River Stour, was once a major port, though now it is two miles from the sea. It still has many original medieval buildings and its historic centre is preserved.
The Port of Sandwich is no stranger to odd events in English history. It was here in 1255 that the first captive elephant was landed in England. Arriving at Sandwich quayside, it was delivered as a gift to the English monarch Henry III, from the French king.
The journey through Kent is reported to have proceeded without incident, except when a bull in a field adjacent to the roadside took umbrage to the great beast passing and attacked it. In one move the animal was thrown by the elephant and killed outright.
This was the landing place of the Roman invasion of Britain in AD 43. In 2008, an archaeological dig proved that this was a defensive site of a Roman beachhead, protecting 700 metres of coast. +
The ancient Saxon town of Stonar, located on the opposite side of the River Stour, was already well established. The ruins of the major Roman fort of Richborough are close by.
On 28 August 1457, after four years of uneasy peace in England, the king presided over a wasting realm, with feudal barons lording over the population of the north and the west of the realm. The French took advantage of the situation by sending a raiding party to Kent, burning much of Sandwich to the ground.
Map of New Romney to Dover 1953 1500 × 1092
New Romney, on the mouth of the River Rother, is an area of flat, rich agricultural land reclaimed from the sea after the harbour began to silt up. It was once a sea port, but is now more than a mile from the coast. A mooring ring can still be seen in front of the church.
The Rother estuary was always difficult to navigate, with many shallow channels and sandbanks. To make navigation easier two large rocks, one bigger than the other, were placed at the entrance to the main channel.
In the latter part of the thirteenth century a series of severe storms weakened the coastal defences of Romney Marsh, and the Great Storm of 1287 almost destroyed the town. The harbour and town were filled with sand, silt, mud and debris, and the River Rother changed course to run out into the sea near Rye, Sussex.
The mud, silt and sand were never entirely removed. The town’s importance declined rapidly during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries after the loss of the harbour. +
Romney Marsh; View across the marsh from Rye
There have been five lighthouses at Dungeness. At first only a beacon was used to warn sailors, but this was replaced by a proper lighthouse in 1615. As the sea retreated, this had to be replaced in 1635 by a new lighthouse nearer to the water’s edge known as Lamplough’s Tower. +
Hythe is a small coastal market town on the edge of Romney Marsh. The word Hythe or Hithe is an Old English word meaning Haven or Landing Place. Hythe once possessed a bustling harbour which, over the past three hundred years, has now disappeared due to silting. Hythe was once the central Cinque Port, between Hastings and New Romney to the west and Dover and Sandwich to the east.
According to Hasted, a French fleet approached Hythe in 1293 and landed 200 men, but “the townsmen came upon them and slew every one of them: upon which the rest of the fleet hoisted sail and made no further attempt”.
The Royal Military Canal runs across the northern edge of the marsh, to Winchelsea. Running under Stade Street, the canal, intended to repel invasion during the Napoleonic wars of 1804 to 1815, gives central Hythe its character.
Also built around the same time as a defence against possible invasion by Napoleon were the Martello Towers. In total 74 of these towers were built between Folkestone and Seaford. The walls were up to 13 ft (4 m) thick, and each tower held 24 men and had a huge cannon mounted on the top. They were named after a similar tower at Mortella Point in Corsica which the Navy had captured from the French.
A monumental cross now indicates what was from 1358 a meeting place of the confederation of the Cinque ports, several miles west of Hythe, known then as “the Shepway crossroads”. Francis Pettit Smith, inventor of the marine screw propeller, was born and raised in Hythe. +