The Cinque Ports were an association of towns on the southeast coast of what is now England. Beginning with five original villages (thus the name) Hastings, Romney, Dover, Sandwich and Hythe, the confederation was formed some time before 1275 CE. These ports were soon joined by others from Essex to Sussex and what had originally been a merchant arrangement with the cities sharing certain rights and privileges to each other’s goods, soon took on a larger mantel.
Uppermost among the responsibilities of the fleet of so called Cinque Ports ships was serving as the de facto English navy in the event of war. To this end, the best ships were necessary not only to haul goods and livestock but to keep the port towns safe. The vessels were essentially what are known as Medieval round bottomed ships. They were relatively long in relation to the breadth of their beam with dimensions averaging 78 to 80 feet in length and about 20 feet at the beam. Despite this their draught was surprisingly shallow, only about 3 ½ feet, which allowed for anchoring snuggly in all of the association’s ports. The storage space in the hold was thus maximized so that more cargo could be hauled easily. The vessels were steered by a large, aft-fitted oar and they generally displaced about 80 tons. Though their merchant crews were lean, usually no more than 15 men, they could also carry up to 70 soldiers.
The ships differed visibly from the usual merchant design in the addition of fore and aft castles designed to carry and protect men at arms. A top on the single, central mast would frequently be built and painted to match these castles and was a perfect place to position archers in a sea battle. These battlements also came in very handy in the event of attack by pirates which was, by the turn of the 14th century, an all too common event. The pirates in question were frequently Irish and their Viking-style long boats were much faster and more maneuverable than the merchant vessels. Strength of arms had to win the day for the Cinque Ports ships.
The ships were also a forebear of those to come in that they were built at dry docks with an eye not only for security but also minimum spoilage of cargo. Water seepage was the enemy of stock like fabrics and other “dry goods” so the ships were fully decked to maximize seaworthiness and minimize leakage. They were the craft of choice for nobility traveling from port to port in Britain and from England to the Continent.
The supremacy of the Cinque Ports association, particularly with regard to defense, petered out by the reign of Henry VIII. With England teetering on the edge of being a World power, the privateer navy begun by Henry VII took up the duty of keeping England safe from seafaring threats. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Header: Cinque Ports ship model via science&society.co.uk