22nd August 2019

Cinque Ports
Sandwich, Dover, Hastings, Hythe, New Romney

by Enza Ferreri, Editor

Walmer Castle near Deal with the flag of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports

Walmer Castle

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The Cinque Ports (pronounced "Sink Ports", from the Norman French for "five ports") is a historical group of five coastal towns,

four in Kent:

1. Sandwich

2. Dover

3. Hythe

4. New Romney

and one in East Sussex:

5. Hastings.

History of the Cinque Ports

The Cinque Ports importance in history lies in their defensive role as a barrier along the English Channel against possible invasions, in the most vulnerable, open to attack stretch of coast where the crossing to continental Europe is at its narrowest and where it is easiest to control important sea routes.

Although the details are still debated among historians, it is believed that the Portsmen, inhabitants of the Cinque Ports, first came together informally in the 11th century to regulate their common trade interests like the Yarmouth annual herring fair in Norfolk, and that this economic union was reinforced by the strategic position of the five ports.

According to evidence it is thought that the Confederation of the Cinque Ports was instituted during the reign of the Anglo-Saxon king Edward the Confessor (1042-1066), who first replaced the Saxon mercenary fleet with the fishing fleets drawn from the Ports, which formed the first Navy.

Cinque Ports Map

Cinque Ports Map

In return for these military services of supplying English kings with ships and men in case of need and war, the five towns were granted special privileges, for example that of not paying import duties for goods brought into the country, the right to hold their own judicial courts and the freedom to trade. These privileges were established in a series of Royal Charters, of which the earliest is believed to date from 1155 and the last, which can be seen in the Guildhall in Sandwich, was granted in 1668 by Charles II.

Other nearby coastal villages and towns assisted the original Cinque Ports in maintaining defence ships for the Crown, most notably "the Antient Towns" (often spelt that way) of Rye and Winchelsea, as well as Deal, Ramsgate, Faversham, Folkestone, Margate, Lydd and Tenterden, which became Limbs.

The Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, a position which was once of great importance but is merely honorary today, has his official residence at Walmer Castle near Deal, another coastal fort commissioned by Henry VIII, flying the flag of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, three half lions joined to the backs of three ships (see top picture).


Old Romney, New Romney, Rye

Rye is no longer one of the Cinque Ports, but was a major member of what was known as "The Confederation of the Cinque Ports and the Two Ancient Towns of Rye and Winchelsea” in the Middle Ages, during which time it was at the head of a vast bay named the "Rye Camber" and nearly completely surrounded by the sea. It was then a good and safe coastal port, which had probably started to exist in Roman times, exporting iron to continental Europe.

Rye's history is connected to that of New and Old Romney, both of which are today inland towns. Old Romney, as can be expected, was the original village on the Romney Marsh and the first port of Romney, stretching along the River Rother in the direction of the sea.

When Old Romney harbour was made useless by the withdrawing of the sea from it and the Rother's failing in its course, the town fell into decay as well, and its role was taken over by New Romney, which became an important Cinque Port.

New Romney was once a sea port in the Bay of Romney at the mouth of the River Rother, and its harbour was next to the church.

Towards the end of the 1200s terrible storms weakened the town, which was nearly destroyed by the flood of 1287. In that year the severe storm caused New Romney and its harbour to be filled with mud, silt, sands and debris, which were never completely removed from the town. Mud blocked the River Rother, which changed course and flowed into the sea near Rye instead.

That meant the success of Rye while New Romney never recovered, although it maintained some importance as a meeting place due to its location between the Kent and Sussex ports.

Today New Romney is over a mile from the sea. Romney Marsh, on the edge of which it stands, is an area of agricultural land reclaimed from the sea after the silting-up of the port. Romney Marsh is home to the giant wind farm at Little Cheyne Court, a highly controversial structure.


Rye and Rye Maritime Festival

Rye Harbour

Rye Harbour

When New Romney finally deteriorated, Rye, originally its subsidiary, took New Romney's role and became one of the Cinque Ports.

As we've seen, the River Rother changed course to run into the sea near Rye rather than New Romney. But even Rye necessitated continuous work in order to stop the gradual silting-up of its river and harbour. Rye was still a major port when Henry VIII built Camber Castle near the town, and continued to be important for iron storage and shipment and to supply ships for the defence of the Realm for a few hundred years.  

Eventually, though, the same fate befell Rye: the town was separated from the sea, the harbour kept silting up and, from a coastal port, Rye was transformed into a river one, causing loss of trade and decline.

Rye is an attractive, historic town in East Sussex, well known for its pottery, cobbled streets, interesting local shops, lovely tearooms, and for its castle.

Visit the Rye Heritage Centre for a 20-minute sound-and-light show introducing the town, then you may try to arrange a guided walking tour of the town and harbour.

One of the things Rye is famous for is its annual Rye Maritime Festival, a celebration of Rye's nautical heritage and seafaring history taking place in August on the Strand Quay, a free event for all the family.

Attractions at the Festival include beer tent, hot food, non-stop live music, Hastings Sea Shanty Singers, the RNLI, Sea Cadets, children's entertainment, maritime exhibitions, demonstrations and live entertainment. Boats of all types will be moored on the quay dressed and decorated for the occasion.

Other places to visit in Rye are the earliest remaining fortification Ypres Tower, dating from 1249, with the Ypres Tower Museum, and the Rye Castle Museum. Climb the tower at St Mary's Church for good views across the area. There are entrance charges for these, but each is only a few pounds.

If the weather is fine, walk along the river bank and sand dunes to Camber Sands, about 4 miles/6 km away.


Winchelsea, Dover, Hythe

White Cliffs of Dover

White Cliffs of Dover

Similarly to Rye, during the Middle Ages Winchelsea and Tenterden became completely isolated from the coast when the sea retreated and the rivers silted up.

Winchelsea is, like Rye, a fortified town just two miles from it. Three gateways still exist: Strand, Pipewell and New Gates.

Dover and Folkestone are dominated by the famous White Cliffs celebrated in poetry and songs, a symbol of England for war-time Vera Lynn as well as for today's homecoming travellers arriving on a ferry from the continent: to see the cliffs, especially after a long time away, is an emotional moment which may ven prompt some of them to sing Jerusalem.

The cliffs appear higher and mightier from the sea than when you are near them. Railway tunnels are cut into the chalk of the cliffs.

Dover Castle was built on a Roman fort, and part of the original Roman fort still remains.

Folkestone town is larger than Dover, although the Port of Dover is bigger than that of Folkestone: not so many ferries to and from continental Europe, and now even less because of the Eurostar train.

In fact, Dover is now the only Cinque Port to still have an important port.

Hythe, the other remaining Cinque Port, is still on the sea, but its natural harbour has also ceased to exist due to centuries of silting.


Sandwich, Hastings

For the other two Cinque Ports visit Britain Gallery's dedicated pages:





Enza FerreriEnza Ferreri is an Italian web editor and journalist living in London since 1984.




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