Cinque Ports and Great Yarmouth

Cinque Ports Flag showing the Coat of Arms, Maison Dieu. LS 2009

Cinque Ports Flag showing the Coat of Arms, Maison Dieu. LS 2009

The Confederation of the Cinque Ports was formed in the reign of Edward the Confessor (1042-1066) and is made up of the towns of Dover, Hastings, Sandwich, Hythe and Romney and the two Antient towns of Winchelsea and Rye. Each of the towns had Limbs, towns and villages that came under the jurisdiction of an individual Cinque Port.

Originally, there were more that 30 towns and villages, stretching from the Manor of Grange, near Chatham, Kent, to Pevensay in Sussex, attached to the heads ports as members or ‘Limbs’. Some were corporate members, their membership conferred by Royal Charter; the others were associated to their head port by private agreement.

The main function of Limbs was to help the Head ports discharge ‘Ship Service.’ According to the Cinque Ports Charter of 1155, this meant the provision of 57 ships crewed by 21 sailors apiece for 15 days a year to defend the realm and to maintain the ships ready for the Crown in case of need. In return, the Cinque Ports and their Limbs received many rights and privileges that were encompassed in the Charter.

One of these privileges allowed the Portsmen to fish for herrings off the River Yare, East Anglia. As this was a considerable distance away instead of returning to the south coast, the fishermen would set up camp on the banks of the Yare estuary. As this became a regular habit, the Portsmen built themselves huts to live in during the fishing season.

One of the main problems that the Portsmen faced was following the river in the estuary, when visibility was poor, to where they had set up camp. To deal with this they built beacons but these needed maintaining. Locals under the supervision of the Portsmen undertook this job.

Slowly, around the Portsmens encampment, a village started to grow. Not only was this made up of locals who helped to maintain the beacons but also those who sold goods at a makeshift market set up in the encampment. The Portsmen encouraged the growth of the market where they also sold their herrings. Before long it had become an annual fair – the Michaelmas Free Fair, that ran from 29 September to 11 November each year.

circa 13th Century Cinque Ports ship

circa 13th Century Cinque Ports ship

The Portsmen appointed ‘Portreeves’ or bailiffs who enforce stringent regulations that they had compiled undertook administering and the policing of the Fair. For instance, the Portsmen dictated who could have stalls, charges, opening hours, the weight of beer and bread sold and many other things. They also used the Fair to raise money to pay for the beacons as well as levying an ‘Oar Pence’ on locals. The latter was one-penny for every oar that the local used in their boats, and four-pence for each boat.

By 1109 the settlement besides the Yare had grown into the town of Yarmouth and Henry I (1100-1135) extended the bailiffs duties to include the dispensing of justice and the collecting the King’s customs. The locals petitioned the King asking for the town’s independence from the Portsmen saying that unlike the Cinque Ports Limbs, they did not receive any of the rights and privileges.

The Portsmen reminded Henry I that by royal prerogative they were given the right to fish off the River Yare and it was they who had founded the town. As for the locals, if it weren’t for the Portsmen, they argued, the locals would not have a town. Further, the locals had never provided Ship Service so were not privy to the rights and privileges of the Cinque Ports and their Limbs. The Portsmen won the case but the people of Yarmouth made their anger felt and the result was the loss of life and property.

King John, Council Chamber, Maison Dieu (former Town Hall)

King John, Council Chamber, Maison Dieu (former Town Hall)

In 1208, King John (1199-1216) was on the throne and the Yarmouth locals again petitioned. The King came down on their side; his only caveat was that the town was to send to the sheriffs of Norwich every year, ‘one hundred herrings, baked in twenty-four pasties.’ The Norwich sheriffs were then to take the pies to the lord of the manor of East Carlton who would convey them to the King!

However, within a year John, faced with possible invasion from France, was building up a navy and needed the loyalty of the Portsmen more than he needed the Yarmouth fish pies. He therefore, allowed the Portsmen to retain their rights over the Yarmouth fishing trade, which  meant that the town was under dual control. The result was an increase in the number and ferocity of clashes between the locals and the Portsmen.

John died in 1216 and was followed by the infant Henry III (1216-1272), who was under the protection of Hubert de Burgh (1160-1243), the Constable of Dover Castle from 1202 to 1232, amongst his many responsibilities.  Although de Burgh fell out of favour in 1232, Henry needed the Portsmen as did his successor, Edward I (1272-1307). With all their power the Portsmen had little time for what was perceived by the locals in Yarmouth as their rights.

Edward I, Council Chamber, Maison Dieu (former Town Hall)

Edward I, Council Chamber, Maison Dieu (former Town Hall)

Things came to a head in 1296 over the payment to locals for looking after the beacons when the Cinque Ports increased their charges to locals for using the river. As always, the Portsmen collected the charges out of which they paid the locals to maintain and light the beacons. However, if the bill came to more than the Portsmen collected, then they made the people of Yarmouth pay the difference, if it was less, then the Portsmen kept the profits.

The altercation that year was fierce with the Portsmen burning twenty-five Yarmouth ships. 171 men were killed and goods to the value of £46,360 despoiled. To settle the difference, King Edward issued an edict that gave the Portsmen the right to collect the money but they also had to maintain all the beacons. The animosity, however, did not go away, at the Battle of Sluys, in June 1340, the Portsmen and the men from Yarmouth fell upon each other instead of the enemy and over 200 men were killed or drowned.

Fishermens Cottages Great Yarmouth - Great Yarmouth Tourist Information

Fishermens Cottages Great Yarmouth – Great Yarmouth Tourist Information

The locals of Yarmouth continued to strive for their independence but to no avail until 1635, when the Portsmen tried to issue licences to a Dutch fleet that wanted to fish off Yarmouth. The Dutch refused to pay and the Portsmen tried to attack them but were no match. The Portsmen sought the help of the Admiral of the Fleet and the Dutchmen agreed to pay a yearly tribute of £30,000. However, they only paid it for that one-year.

This gave the people of Yarmouth the confidence to stand up to the Portsmen and their rule over Great Yarmouth gradually diminished. Although the relationship between the Cinque Ports and Yarmouth was never formally dissolved, it was allowed to quietly terminate.

  • Published: 
  • Friends of Dover Castle Magazine Autumn 1999
  • Dover Mercury 30 April 2006

About Lorraine

I am a local historian, whose love of Dover has lead to decades of research into some of the lesser known tales that this famous and beautiful town has to tell.
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