The five head ports consist of Dover, Sandwich, Hythe and New Romney in Kent, and Hastings and Winchelsea in Sussex. Limbs, or smaller contributors to the port and its provision to the crown, include Deal, Faversham, Folkestone, Lydd, Margate, Ramsgate, and Tenterden.
The Cinque Ports were designed to defend the southern and eastern coasts of Roman Britain from the increasing threat of raids by barbarian tribes, including the Picts, Franks, and Saxons, according to Cinqueports.org. These strongholds which stretched from Hampshire to Norfolk were under the Count of the Saxon Shore, and it was probably the Saxon Kings of England during the 11th Century who first formalised the arrangement. Thus these key coastal towns in Kent and Sussex were offered inducements for them to provide ships and men, in place of the mercenary vessels relied upon by their predecessors.
From the 11th to the 16th Century, each of the Five Ports was required to provide the Crown with a specified number of ships, for 15 days every year; each crewed by 21 men and a boy, says Cinqueports.org. If their service was required for longer than 15 days in any year, they were entitled to payment for the additional period. Initially, Hastings and Dover each furnished 20 ships and the other three ports, five each but, in the 13th century, the Hastings and Dover requirement was increased to 21 ships each, making a total of 57 ships for all five ports.
Ship service was a heavy burden for relatively small fishing communities and so the five head ports of Hastings, Romney, Hythe, Dover, and Sandwich turned to their neighbouring towns and villages for help in providing ships, equipment, and men. These limbs or members, as they were known, did not at first share in the privileges granted to the head ports. They helped out as they were accustomed to the fyrd, an Anglo-Saxon arrangement under which each community is required to raise a local militia to counter the threat of Viking raids and invasion. However, over time coastal erosion, foreign raids, harbours being formed, and the Black Death all impacted on the demands of the limbs by the main ports.
From the 14th Century, the Ports were allowed to provide fewer ships on condition that each was manned by a crew of 42 and was capable of carrying double the amount of goods and equipment. This involved negotiations, not just between the head ports and their own limbs, but also between different head ports, for the sharing of their individual obligations. The Lord Warden became the final arbiter of these re-allocations. Eventually, the size of ships required and the replacement of fishing vessels by purpose-built warships, rendered obsolete the harbours and vessels of the Cinque Ports.
Henry VIII is generally seen as the creator of the English Navy, but it was, in fact, his father Henry VII who first set up a fleet of warships. It was last recorded that the ports were called up in 1596 when the Spanish, after the Spanish Armada, again threatened to invade, and five ships joined the English fleet on a pre-emptive and successful raid on Cadiz. Since 1953, there has been a formal affiliation between the Confederation and one of Her Majesty's ships, which currently means the Cinque Ports are currently affiliated with HMS Kent, a Type 23 Frigate.