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The Dutch Fair on Yarmouth Sands', by George Vincent, circa 1825

IT Is UNLIKELY that a settlement would have been made on the sandbank at the mouth of the Yare had it not been for the vast shoals of herring which at autumn inhabited the surrounding seas. Every year hundreds of fishermen were lured there by the bait of large catches, and there they erected temporary huts to shelter them from the worst of the weather. They dried their nets on the sands, salted their catches, and bartered them for goods brought in by neighbouring merchants. Many of the fishermen came from far afield, and prominent among them were the men of the Cinque Ports. As the name implies, the Cinque Ports was originally an association of the five ports of Romney, Dover, Sandwich, Hastings, and Hythe, but in the later years Rye and Winchelsea were also incorporated. This was a most powerful alliance, for between them the portsmen dominated the surrounding seas. Their importance to the king was obvious. He had no standing navy and was dependent upon them for protection from his enemies across the Channel. Consequently he granted them innumerable rights and privileges, and they were encouraged to cause as much harm as they could to the king's enemies on the high seas.

As soon as the sandbank began to be widely used the men of the Cinque Ports, who had fished there from the earliest times, not only claimed the right to frame laws regulating the fisheries, but demanded rent for the land being built upon. The townsmen, however, claimed that the portsmen were merely visitors who stayed for a few weeks every autumn and then sailed away. Thus began a conflict between the two parties which was to last for many, many years.

Marks used by the Barons of the Cinque Ports on their annual visits to administer the 'King's Justice' at the Free Fair of Herring
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Gradually more and more merchants, including many from France, Holland, Italy, and Scandinavia, began to make the annual trek to the sandbank. They came to buy herring and to sell or barter merchandise of all kinds. Soon this international gathering developed into one of the great fairs of the Middle Ages comparable with that of the Book Fair at Frankfurt. Every year for forty days from Michaelmas to Martinmas Yarmouth staged this Free Herring Fair, and the catches were despatched to most of the ports in Europe and the Middle East.

The huge influx of people of all nationalities (and its size can be estimated by the fact that 360 boats paid the toll on one occasion) made the preservation of order difficult. Faced with this problem the Crown turned to the Cinque Ports, and in their charter which antedates that of 1209 granted to Yarmouth by several years, they were granted the right to appoint two bailiffs to control the Free Fair at Yarmouth. King John, like Homer, nodded when he granted a charter to Yarmouth, for he overlooked the peculiar rights which the Cinque Ports had in the town, when he gave the burgesses of Yarmouth the right to hold their own courts. This was rectified some six years later when the king decreed that the barons of Hastings also had the right to hold courts in Yarmouth, for so it was written in their Charter of 1155.

This peace was never really honoured and fighting broke out almost immediately. Petitions and cross-petitions were made to Edward in which large claims for damages were made, and then the men of Yarmouth went off to the South Coast on a marauding expedition. There they sacked and pillaged as far to the west as Portsmouth. For this enterprise they were fined the sum of £1000. Things came to a head in 1297 when ships of the two ports, which were escorting the King of Flanders, so far forgot themselves as to engage in a pitched battle off Sluys. As a result of this fracas twenty-five ships were sunk and 200 men lost their lives. This conflict had now spread far beyond that of a local feud. It was in fact a threat to the safety of the realm, for the two factions between them supplied practically the entire fleet. Edward was only too well aware of the danger, and in 1304 the Archbishop of Canterbury felt compelled to write to both parties begging them to be at peace.


yar_IMAGE0607_2.jpgYarmouth continued to prosper, but the fortunes of the Cinque Ports began to wane, due in large measure to fundamental changes in their coastline. In consequence they were forced to combat the two evils of silting and erosion and the value of their ports declined. The scale had tipped so much in Yarmouth's favour that at the battle of Sluys in 1340 Yarmouth provided more ships than all the Cinque Ports combined. Then, to show his appreciation of the part these Yarmouth ships had played in this, the first great victory in the annals of the British Navy, King Edward III halved his royal arms with those of the town. This was a particularly appropriate honour, for the fleet had been led by one of Yarmouth's most illustrious sons, Admiral Perebourne, who was many times elected bailiff. Despite all this, the power of the Cinque Ports proved irksome. Her barons still came to the Herring Fair on the eve of Michaelmas, bringing with them their clerk and retinue. Their banner was still carried through the streets and the "brasen horn of saylence" still sounded before the proclamation authorising the laws and regulations governing the fair was read.

Petty jealousy was still much in evidence and the visiting bailiffs were often provoked and derided. There was much unseemly jostling for precedence in the market place, and a difference of opinion as to who should sit under the royal cloth in the administration of justice at the Tolhouse provided yet another brawl. Then on another occasion a turbulent spirit named Edward Owner was instrumental in an attempt being made to keep the Cinque Port barons out of the Tolhouse altogether. The complete account of all the affrays is to be found in the official reports which the barons made on their return home. Fortunately, many of these are still in existence and much research work has been done on them by Major Teichman-Durville of New Romney. And so quarrel followed quarrel right into the reign of Queen Elizabeth, when suddenly relations improved considerably. The bailiffs and barons began to come together; they shared the same views and co-operated on the most friendly of footings. Then came an offer from the Cinque Ports for Yarmouth to join their confederation and, although Yarmouth agreed to do so, no record can be traced of this decision being put into practice. By now the visit of the barons had become merely a social occasion. The length of their stay had been reduced to three weeks, and even then there were murmurs in Kent at the expense of these annual visits. Then at last, in 1662, the barons came no more, and the peculiar power which they had enjoyed in Yarmouth for so long came to an end.

The 'brazen horn of saylence' which was sounded by the Barons of the Cinque Ports at the Free Fair in Herring
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