The Confederation of the Cinque Ports has its origins in the reign of King Edward the Confessor. In 1049-51 he disbanded the fleet that had existed for some forty years and instead entered into agreements with ports in Kent and Sussex to provide ships when necessary, in return for certain privileges.
The Confederation became firmly established in the reigns of the Norman and Angevin Kings. There were five head ports – Sandwich, Dover, Hythe, Romney and Hastings – together with members (limbs), who were attached to one or other of the head ports and who helped fulfil the obligation to provide ships in return for certain privileges at the port to which they were attached.
The first firm evidence that the ports acted together rather than separately is in a charter of King Henry II in 1155. Winchelsea and Rye, limbs of Hastings, became full members of the Confederation in the 14th century. They are the two ancient towns in the new title of the confederation of the Cinque Ports and Two Ancient Towns.
Not only did the Kings have to hand over jurisdictions and bestow privileges to get the ships they needed, but they also had to turn a blind eye to the acts of piracy carried out by the sailors of the ports.
By the time of the Hundred Years’ War the Cinque Ports were past their prime. The ports were silting up or had had their coastlines drastically changed by storms, while Great Yarmouth was a better provider of ships and much further from the reach of French raiders bringing fire and destruction.
All the jurisdictions were abolished in 1855, except for that of Admiralty (matters to do with ships), which survived until 1914. When the legislation for creating county councils was being considered in 1888 a case was made out for the Cinque Ports collectively to become a county borough, but it was not pressed to a successful conclusion. One of the Ports, Hastings, did itself become a County Borough.
In 1949 the special provisions for the appointing of justices disappeared. The office of Lord Warden remains, an office of dignity filled by some eminent public person. In 1995 the one remaining active port, Dover, appealed to the Warden, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, when proposals to privatise the publicly owned harbour led to the port of Calais expressing an interest.
The wheel thus came full cycle, for the Cinque Ports began when Edward the Confessor, so to speak, privatised his navy.