By Kenneth Clarke
Although the origins of the Cinque Ports are unknown, their individual beginnings preceded the Norman Conquest, for the Domesday Book records that during the reign of Edward the Confessor the burgesses of Dover, Sandwich and Romney were liable to supply to ‘the King, once in the year. twenty ships for fifteen days, and in each ship were twenty-one men. In return for such services each of these Ports received certain privileges. But there is no evidence at this time of any confederation among the Ports, nor is there any mention of them collectively in the Domesday Book. It was the Ports common economical interest in the East Anglican Herring Fishery that led to a loose association among the ‘Five Ports.’ They were not described in English records as the ‘Cinque Ports’ (at least until the sixteenth century), which grew into the Cinque Ports Confederation for, as the King possessed no Royal Navy in those days, they were the only source of ships when required. In fact, their many privileges and immunities emanated from the Kings continual involvement in wars with France in the later Middle Ages.
The original five ports were Hastings. Romney, Hythe, Dover and Sandwich. Rye and Winchelsea were at first attached to Hastings as ‘members’ or ‘limbs’ to assist in her ship service duties but, with the decline of that port, they were given a special status as ‘Ancient Towns’ with the standing of head ports. From time to time other towns were attached to the head ports as members, each member receiving the right to share in the privileges of its head port in return for undertaking to discharge part of the burden of ship service. At its greatest extent the confederation consisted of forty-two towns.
Although the Cinque Ports enjoyed many valuable privileges, the most picturesque was honours at court. The Ports claimed the right to bear the canopy over the heads of the Kings and Queens at their coronations and to sit at the Chief Table for dinner afterwards in the Great Hall at the right hand of the King. The canopy, silver starves and bells, which were provided by the Lord High Steward or Treasurer, were ‘retained by the Barons as their fee. (In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries every adult male of the Ports esteemed himself a Baron of the Cinque Ports, but today that title is only obtained by those who attend at a coronation).
One of the earliest accounts of this privilege is given by Roger de Hovenden, who states that, at the coronation of Richard 1 in 1189, four barons carried a canopy of silk over the King’s head on four lofty spears. A contemporary chronicler gives further details: ‘a certain pall, which belonged by ancient custom to the Barons of Dover and the Cinque Ports the coronation of a King. was offered up by the said Barons on the altar of Christ at Canterbury for an eternal remembrance’. According to this source, the carrying of the canopy was an ‘ancient custom’ in 1189 and, although its origins are unknown, it can, with certainty, be traced back to the re-coronation of Stephen in 1141.
Subsequent coronations are but scantily recorded and the first full description of the Ports’ participation is given by Matthew Paris at the coronation of Henry 111 and Queen Eleanor in 1236. ‘The Barons of the Cinque Ports carried over the King wherever be went the silken cloth four-square purple, supported by four silvered spears with four little silver-gilt bells, four Barons being assigned to every spear, according to the diversity of the Ports lest Port should seem to be preferred to Port. Likewise the same (Barons) bore a silken cloth over the Queen coming after the King. which said cloths they claim as theirs of right, and they obtained them at Court…. and moreover the Barons of the Cinque Ports claimed as theirs the right of sitting at the King’s Table, the same day, on the right hand of our Lord the King. And they did so sit’. It is interesting to note at this juncture that Hastings has claimed to be regarded as Premier Cinque Port. Such a claim seems to be untenable for all the evidence is in favour of there having been total equality between the Ports and if one had been predominant. it would undoubtedly have been found to have left some mark on their organisation and administration. The only head recognised by all the Cinque Ports is that of the one, whose turn it is to supply the speaker. and this duty passes from Port to Port in strict geographical rotation every year. The old phrase of 1236. ‘lest Port should seem to be preferred to Port’, still holds good.
Edward 1 was the first King to grant a charter to all the Ports collectively in 1278 and in it he confirmed, as his predecessors had done, their ‘honours at court’. At each subsequent coronation claims had to be formally submitted, but the services were performed until the reign of George 1V.
THE PROCESSIONAL CANOPY
The processional canopy together with the silver starves and bells, was a perquisite of the barons who, if they could, brought it to Cinque Ports territory where it was divided between the Eastern and Western Ports alternately. In 1413 Hastings received the canopy carried over Henry V while Dover and Romney shared that for his Queen Katherine in 1421. All seems to have gone well until the coronation of Edward VI in 1547 when they were allotted to Rye. Mr. W. Roberthes the Mayor of Rye, only secured possession of one staff, the remainder having been seized by his brother barons from Romney and Sandwich. At the following court of Brotherhood two months later the offenders were ordered to hand them over to Rye under pain of a twenty shillings fine.
In 1559 all the East Ports laid claim to the canopy at once. Consequently. it was sold and £21 of the profit divided between the four towns. Thereafter all canopies were shared for the common use of the Ports. Few of the canopies, starves and bells have survived. Portions of that from the coronation of George 111 are to be seen in Rye Museum.
Coronations have always been colourful scenes, a fact well reflected in the baron’s costumes. At the coronation of James 1 in 1603 they wore ‘one scarlet gowne, down to the ankle, chiswell fashion. faced with crymson satten, gascoigne hose, crymson silke stockings and velvet shoes, and black velvet capes’. Such matters were expensive and each town had to pay its coronation barons 43s. 4d. each as an allowance for the ‘scarlett liveries’. Part of the costume worn by Chiswell Slade at the coronation of George III can be seen in Rye Museum.
The later history of the Port’s participation in the coronation ceremonies was far from uneventful. At the coronation of Charles III, a most disgraceful scene occurred. No sooner had the barons attended the King to the foot of the stairs in Westminster Hall and turned towards their own table than the King’s footmen most insolently and violently, seized upon the canopy. The barons stoutly defended it by force, but, as they were few in number, were dragged to the lower end of the Hall. Luckily York Herald was at hand and ordered the door to be shut or the canopy (and the barons’) would have been dragged outside. When the King heard of his servants misconduct, he ordered their imprisonment and dismissal. The canopy was returned to the barons but, while the struggle was in progress some of the bishops and judges, seeing the vacant places, had quietly slipped into them, and ‘the poor barons’, as Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary, ‘naturally unwilling to lose their dinner, were necessitated to ‘eat it at the bottom of the second table below the Masters in Chancery and others of the long robe!’ At the coronation of William and Mary in 1689, the Ports’ claim to dine at the right hand of the King and Queen was refused and, in spite of protests, the right was never restored. It was, however, the behaviour of the barons’ at the coronation of George lV, when it is believed they refreshed themselves rather too liberally, to the detriment of dignity, the stability of the fine canopy and the safety of the King’s head – that resulted in the termination of their canopy responsibilities.
Although their services were dispensed with at the coronations of William 1V and Victoria, the barons refused to give up their ancient rights to take part in the coronation without a fight. In 1901, when the speaker-ship of the Ports devolved on the Mayor of Rye, Mr. Frank Jarrett, a strong claim to be allowed the service was submitted to the Court of Claims. Their ancient rights were upheld in modified form, for the barons were appointed only to attend the coronation of Edward VII. The same procedure and result has obtained at subsequent coronations.
Even though the prized privilege of their days of power, ‘honours at court’, is only retained in a modified form, the fact that the Ports still see advantages in meeting together shows that the confederation and its institutions are far from moribund. ‘The Courts of Brotherhood and Guestling’ as Dr. Felix Hull has written, ‘will survive as long as tradition is strong and as long as the towns see advantage in common action and discussion’. Perhaps, Sir Winston Churchill, the greatest Englishman of the 20th. century, found the right words to express the rugged individualism of the Portsmen and their unquenchable spirit when at the Court of Shepway held in Dover in August, 1946 he said “the Cinque Ports can still claim to be unconquered: they can still say that over a thousand years have passed since a foreign invader established himself upon English soil”.
Unconquered they are and unconquered they will remain, so long as the Portsmen do remain but true to themselves.
Keneth Clarke 1966.
From the September 2011 issue of “Hythe & Romney Life”
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