The Cinque Ports & the Volunteers

Brief Notes On The Cinque Ports by Don Phillips  (Bexhill Museum – 1995)

The Confederation of the Cinque Ports has influenced the history of the south-east coast of Sussex and the south and east coasts of Kent for centuries.

No one is entirely sure of the inception of the confederation but it is significant that the main ports including Pevensey and Hastings are frequently referred to in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in the 111 century. The mention of these ports at this time shows the importance of the harbours (and the control of them) with regard to transport and trading with the continent. It was especially important to the monarch to have control as they firstly supplied the king’s navy and secondly provided either a means of escape in times of trouble or a haven for mercenary help to assist in any major domestic dispute.

In return for providing a standing navy and (hopefully) loyalty in times of trouble, succeeding monarchs gave the Cinque Ports virtual autonomy in laws, freedom of normal harbour taxes and processional rights at coronations. The ‘ship service’ as the service to the king was termed involved providing 57 ships with crews for 15 days a year. This is thought to have been initiated by King Edward the Confessor to discourage Danish invasions which usually happened once a year and therefore 15 days would be sufficient to locate and repel these raids. Any prolonged naval service beyond the 15 days was paid for by the king.

The original five (cinque) ports were Hastings, Romney, Hythe, Dover and Sandwich. But the head ports as they were called, had ‘corporate’ limb ports – Pevensey and Seaford forming limbs of Hastings. The corporate limbs ports enjoyed many of the privileges of the head ports including corporation status. Each head port also had non-corporate limbs, very much smaller places, most not much larger than manors but with some seafaring knowledge. Non-corporate limbs to Hastings were Hydney (Eastbourne), Northeye (Bexhill), Bulverhythe, Petit Iham (near Winchelsea), Bekesbourne and Grange (both near Canterbury in Kent).

In 1229 Hastings, including the corporate and non-corporate limbs, provided 21 ships, each crewed with 21 men and a `gromee (grome – serving man from which we get the word groom) which would have been a boy. The charter that gave this information is the first to mention Northeye and the manor of Northeye was probably at its height at this time. The only excavated building on the recognised site of Northeye being a chapel, documentation of this chapel suggests that it was built in 1262. There is no documentary evidence for a lost town or village. Only archaeological investigation would establish what settlement was ever built there. Unfortunately ploughing and turf cutting may well have already destroyed this evidence.

Bulverhythe was also a non-corporate limb of Hastings. In the 14th century there was a sizeable settlement here as the Earl of Richmond as owner of the manor was granted permission to hold a weekly market and a four day fair held once a year, in 1310. Today the remains of the settlement include the Bull Inn and the ruins of the substantial church. It has been suggested that Bulverhythe formed the harbour for the manor of ‘Buffington’. This settlement has an entry in the Domesday book noting 20 burgesses and Bul-wara-hythe could mean ‘landing place of the burgesses’. It has also been suggested however that the burgesses could refer to the town of Hastings.

During the medieval period the Cinque Ports were probably at their zenith, involved in numerous sea battles and encouraged to ravage the French coast (sparing churches) and interfering with foreign shipping. This the crews were especially renowned for – robbing not only French but English and all other nationalities ships – in fact piracy.

The Confederation of the Cinque Ports were organised by three different courts, firstly there was the Court of Shepway, this was presided over by the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports and met at Shepway Cross at Lympne near Hythe in Kent. The position of Lord Warden was extremely important, influential and powerful at the height of the Cinque Ports usefulness. Later it was given as a life-time achievement award, the current warden being Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother.

Two other courts dealt with lesser matters, the Court of Brodhull and the Court of Guestling. The Court of Brodhull is thought to have been named after a lost settlement near Dymchurch; it dealt with among other things, the special privileges of the Cinque Ports including holding an annual Herring Fair at Great Yarmouth. The Court of Guestling (named after the village near Hastings) dealt with the concerns of the western ports. These last two courts were amalgamated in 1572, called the Court of Brotherhood and Guestling and were held at New Romney in Kent.

Despite the declining importance of the Cinque Ports from the 14th century, the rights to their own laws and determination were fiercely protected by the ports. The decline in importance can be attributed to two main causes; firstly the changing patterns of warfare required a permanent and larger navy than the ports could sustain. Larger ships were required which the ports did not have, partly due to the second reason which was the changing coastline. Influenced by the longshore’ drift of shingle, this had rendered most of the ports useless and accessible only by small craft. Today only Folkstone and Dover are sizeable ports, but small fishing craft mostly drawn up on the beaches still use Hastings and Hythe, Rye’s harbour has moved nearer the Rother estuary.

Each port had a considerable area of land associated with it and within which the local and Cinque Ports Law applied as well as local taxes. These areas were known as Liberties. Various maps of the Northeye area refer to the Liberty of the Sluice and Cinque Port of Hastings. Boundary markers can still be seen around Northeye demarking the area. The manor of Northeye was later amalgamated with Southeye (Rockhouse Bank), Wrenhams and Sluice Farm (near the Star Norman’s Bay). Bulverhythe still returned two members of Parliament up to the reform act in the 1830s when such ‘rotten boroughs’ were disbanded.

The Cinque Ports Charter of 1668 (one of the last) lists the ports as:

Head Port Corporate Limb Non-corporate Limb
Hastings Seaford Hadneye
Pevensey Northeye
Seaford Petit Iham
New Romney Lydd Broomhill
Old Romney
Hythe West Hythe
Dover Folkstone Kingsdown
Faversham Ringwould
St Peters
St Johns
Sandwich Fordwich Walmer
Rye Tenterden



From “A Short History of the Cinque Ports” (1913) by Colonel E. A. C. Fazan (Author)

Come the Consul whenever he will —
And he means it when Neptune is calmer —
Pitt will send him a d d bitter pill
From his fortress the Castle of Walmer. (Peter Pindar.)

1803 IN MAY the short-lived Peace of Amiens came to an abrupt end when Napoleon Bonaparte, who in the previous year had been elected Consul for life, declared his intention of invading our shores. Having already subdued a great part of Europe, his boundless ambition promoted him

to complete its conquest: but he realised that to be impossible so long as Great Britain remained free. For over a year there had been training at Boulogne, and elsewhere, the so-called “Army of England” to invade our shores. Throughout the summer in every port and river from Ushant to Texel a vast flotilla was being built to transport them; close on a thousand craft had been collected at Boulogne by December. The whole British ration became so deeply alarmed that the Government took urgent measures to strengthen the coastal defences — and especially those nearest France.

In the Cinque Ports, as an obstacle against invasion, the Hythe Military Canal was excavated through the marshy shores between that Port and Rye.. At frequent intervals along their seaboard, from Hythe as far as Seaford in East Sussex, were erected over seventy of those strange round Martello Towers, of Spanish origin, armed with heavy cannon and constructed of massive brick and stone — many their ruins still stand out prominently along that coast today.

The flame of patriotic fervour was now fed by a passionate hatred of General Bonaparte himself — that ogre, “Boney'”, so often invoked in England to scare unruly children. Confident vanquishing such a mere “Nation of Shopkeepers” he took so little heed, however, of the power of the Royal Navy to frustrate him. By the end of July a Military Service Bill* was passed whereby citizens, from 17 to 55 years of age, became liable for Home Defence by ballot — from which, however, the rapidly growing Volunteer Force was exempt.

Pitt had resigned his office as Prime Minister in March of 1801 — hence he was free to devote himself to his various duties as Lord Warden. During July he made a verbal offer to the Secretary of War to raise within the Cinque Ports a Regiment of three battalions under his own command; while confirming that proposal in writing he added:

Six Companies more are expected to be raised in Rye, Winchelsea, Hastings, Lydd and Tenterdeen [sic] but the names cannot yet be specified. Each Company as before to consist of eighty rank and file. Besides these offers of Battalions, and in addition to the Volunteer Company of Artillery already approved of and raised at Dover, and that offered at Seaford, it is proposed to raise a Company at Sandwich to be trained in the use of field pieces and attached to the Second Cinque Ports Battalion.**

Pitt’s proposal was immediately accepted; the first commissions were dated from the 30th July. The Army List of 1804 shows that, besides his three battalions, within the Cinque Ports were also raised the Margate and the Ramsgate Riflemen, the Lydd Cavalry and various units of artillery. Although listed under Sussex, but within the Cinque Ports area, were local units of cavalry at Rye and Hastings — and of artillery at Rye; also, presumably raised by the Lord Lieutenant of Sussex, the Pevensey Legion (North), the Pevensey Battalion (South) and the Sussex Guides. Lord Sheffield had proposed that the Pevensey Legion should consist of two troops of cavalry, a battalion of eight companies, a company of Skirmishers and —”to be provided by the large parish of Rotherfield”, a company of Riflemen. Of the whole area he wrote:

This is the largest and wildest Division of the County. There is a bad breed of smugglers, poachers, foresters and farmers’ servants, who in the case of invasion are more to be dreaded than the march of a French Army, and unless some irremovable protection is afforded, no respectable person would abstain from removing to London.***

* 43 III, C. 96; commonly known as the General Defence or Levy en Masse Act.

** Home Office Military Entry Book (Volunteers), Vol. III, 27th July, 1803.

*** Home Office Alilitary Entry Book (Volunteers), Vol. III. I mrd Sheffield to Doke of Richmond, 24th July, 1803.

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