In the 11th century five ports in the south east of England (‘cinque ports’ in Norman French) banded together in a confederation designed for mutual protection, for coastal defence, and for the furtherance of their trade. They were Hastings, Romney, Hythe, Dover and Sandwich.
Monarchs offered them rights and in return the ports supplied ships and sailors. They provided a packet boat service – perhaps even as early as the reign of Edward the Confessor – for which they were paid not in cash but by the granting of certain privileges, most of which had a financial value. The duties and the privileges of the five ports grew with the years and their heyday came in the 13th century, by which time the ‘Ancient Towns’ of Winchelsea and Rye had been added to their number. The title ‘Cinque Ports’ remained although there were now seven of them.
The first Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports and Constable of Dover Castle was appointed in 1150. Subsequent notable holders of this office include the Duke of Wellington, Sir Winston Churchill and Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother.
By the 1200s King John was able to start using a ready-formed Cinque Ports fleet. In return for more and more privileges, the ports provided an agreed number of ships each year, fully manned and maintained for an agreed period.
At first alone, and later in conjunction with growing naval forces, this fleet kept control of the English Channel. They may have had successes and failures. They certainly loved piracy and private wars, and feuded with the ships of other English towns. Nonetheless, the Cinque Ports fleet filled a vital gap in the kingdom’s defences for many decades.