Maritime communities in pre -plague England: Winchelsea and the Cinque Ports

David G Sylvester, Fordham University


This study uses the methodologies employed by urban, naval, and maritime historians to explore the nature of community in medieval Britain's only formal urban confederacy, the Cinque Ports. It takes issue with the lingering notion that the naval forces of this confederacy functioned as a prototype of the Elizabethan Royal Navy and strives to understand the economic, political and social agenda of the residents of these maritime communities, known as the ‘barons’ of the Cinque Ports. The particular focus of this study is the port town of Winchelsea, located in Sussex, and a leading member of the confederacy in the centuries leading up to the Black Death. The corporate records of this vibrant community not only provide insight into the inner workings of a medieval port town, but also suggest how residents of England's maritime confederacy cooperated to promote their corporate interests. Part I examines the origin of confederacy and the privileges and obligations of its members. It goes on to describe the physical and social landscape of Winchelsea, with an emphasis on the inclusiveness of the baronial community and the development of its common institutions. Part II reconsiders the naval service of the confederacy and suggests that many port town residents were well-positioned to benefit from this obligation. It is argued that a common interest in shipping and the fisheries, rather than their duty to provide naval service, was at the root of the barons' cooperative efforts. The piratical activities of the residents of the confederacy—for which they were singled out and received the censure of their contemporaries—are examined against the backdrop of the politics of the day, and as an expression of the barons' efforts to promote their confederate agenda. This study concludes that the Cinque Ports constituted much more than a administrative convenience of the crown, that the economic and political interests of local port town residents were fundamental to the survival of this maritime alliance, and that the barons of the Cinque Ports took steps to protect their privileged status and shared liberties.

Subject Area

Middle Ages|European history

Recommended Citation

Sylvester, David G, "Maritime communities in pre -plague England: Winchelsea and the Cinque Ports" (2000). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9955972.