A History of King’s Lynn

By Tim Lambert

King’s Lynn in the Middle Ages

King’s Lynn was once called Bishop’s Lynn because it belonged to a bishop. (Bishops Lynn became King’s Lynn in the 16th century). The word Lynn means pool and probably refers to a tidal pool on the Ouse. By the end of the 11th century, a little trading settlement grew up there. It was part of an estate owned by Bishop De Losinga. In 1095 he founded a Benedictine priory (a small abbey) there.

In 1101 he granted the people of King’s Lynn the right to hold a market on Saturday. King’s Lynn also had an annual fair. In the Middle Ages fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year for a period of a few days. People would come from all over East Anglia to buy and sell at the King’s Lynn fair. Bishop De Losinga also built the Church of St Margaret.

So the little town of King’s Lynn was founded. Its boundaries were a stream called the Purfleet in the North and another called the Millfleet in the South. (Fleet is an old word for stream. Purfleet was the pure fleet but both these streams are now covered over).

In the middle of the 12th century, Bishop Turbus extended the town to the area called Newland north of the Purfleet. This area was, at first, legally separate from the town of King’s Lynn and it had its own market called the Tuesday Market. Bishop Turbus also built the church of St Nicholas. (The patron saint of sailors). King’s Lynn also had a ‘suburb’ south of the Millfleet, outside the boundaries of the town. So King’s Lynn was for administrative purposes 3 towns.

Medieval King’s Lynn was a big success. By the 14th century, it probably had a population of 5,500-6,000. It would seem small to us but by the standards of the time, it was a large and important town. In 1204 King John gave King’s Lynn a charter (a document granting the townspeople certain rights).

In King’s Lynn salt was boiled in huge copper pans. It was then exported. Another important export was wool. Large amounts of grain were also exported from King’s Lynn. Imports included timber from Scandinavia, pitch (a tar-like substance), fish, and iron.

Salt and a spoon

However, King’s Lynn was never a manufacturing center only a port. In the Middle Ages, merchants in northern Germany and the Baltic were organized into the Hanseatic League. The Hanseatic merchants did much trade with King’s Lynn and in 1475 the Hanseatic Warehouse was built for them.

In the 12th century, King’s Lynn was probably protected by a ditch and earth rampart at first, perhaps with a wooden palisade on top. By the end of the 13th century, it had stone walls. However, in 1331 King’s Lynn suffered a severe fire. In the Middle Ages, most buildings were of wood with thatched roofs so a fire was a constant danger. King’s Lynn also suffered severely when the black death reached England in 1348-49. Perhaps half the town’s population died.

Meanwhile, in the 13th century, the friars came to King’s Lynn. The friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went out to preach and help the poor. In King’s Lynn, there were Dominican friars (known as black friars because of their black costumes), Augustinian or Austin Friars, and Carmelites or white friars.

St Georges Guildhall was built in King Street in 1406 (In the 20th century it was converted into a theater). The Guildhall in Queen Street was built in 1421. In the Middle Ages, people went on journeys called pilgrimages. Red Mount Chapel was built about 1485 as a chapel for pilgrims traveling to Walsingham.

King’s Lynn in the 16th Century

Thoresby College was built in 1500-1510 to house priests of a religious guild. In the Middle Ages, merchants and craftsmen joined together to protect their interests but there were also religious guilds. These provided charity for the poor and often they employed priests to pray and say masses for the souls of dead members. Thoresby College was built by a man named Thomas Thoresby to house priests of the Guild of The Holy Trinity in King’s Lynn.

In 1524 King’s Lynn was given a mayor and corporation. In 1537 the king took control of the town from the bishop. From then on it was called King’s Lynn. However, in the 16th century, the town’s two annual fairs were reduced to one. In 1534 a grammar school was founded in King’s Lynn. However, in 1538, Henry VIII closed the Benedictine Priory. He also closed the three friaries in King’s Lynn.

Meanwhile, according to tradition in 1531, a woman servant was boiled to death in King’s Lynn for poisoning her mistress. (Between 1531 and 1547 in England the punishment for murder by poisoning was boiling to death).

During the 16th century, a piped water supply was created in King’s Lynn (for those who could afford to be connected). Elm pipes carried water under the streets.

Like all Tudor and Stuart towns, King’s Lynn suffered from outbreaks of plague. There were severe outbreaks in 1516, 1587, 1597, 1636, and 1665. But the 1665 outbreak proved to be the last. Fire was another hazard in King’s Lynn. In 1572 thatched roofs were banned to reduce the risk of fire.

King’s Lynn in the 17th Century and 18th Century

In 1642 there was a civil war between the king and parliament. At first King’s Lynn supported parliament but in August 1643 after a change in government, the town changed sides. Parliament lost no time in sending an army to capture the town. King’s Lynn was besieged for 3 weeks before it surrendered.

At the end of the Middle Ages exports of wool, which had been the mainstay of King’s Lynn for centuries declined sharply. By the 16th century, it was no longer significant. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the main export was grain. In general King’s Lynn ceased to be a major international port although some iron, timber, and pitch were still imported. Like other ports on the East Coast, King’s Lynn suffered from the discovery of the Americas, which benefited ports on the West Coast. It was also affected by the growth of London which tended to ‘suck in’ trade.

However, in the late 17th century imports of wine from Spain, Portugal, and France into Kings Lynn boomed. Furthermore, there was still an important coastal trade. (In those days it was much cheaper to transport goods by water than by road and so many goods were shipped around the coast from one port to another). Large quantities of coal were imported into King’s Lynn from North East England.

In the mid-17th century, the fens were drained and turned into farmland. Vast amounts of farm produce were exported from King’s Lynn to the growing market in London. Furthermore, King’s Lynn was still an important fishing port. Greenland Fishery House on Bridge Street was built in 1605. By the late 17th century shipbuilding had become an important industry in King’s Lynn. A glass making industry also began in the late 17th century.

In 1683 an architect named Henry Bell, who was once mayor of King’s Lynn, built the Custom House. The same man built the Dukes Head Inn. In the early 18th century Daniel Defoe said King’s Lynn was: ‘Beautiful, well built and well situated’.

In the 18th century, shipbuilding continued to thrive in King’s Lynn. So did associated industries such as sail making and rope making. Glass making continued to prosper. Brewing was another important industry in King’s Lynn. The first bank in King’s Lynn opened in 1784.

King’s Lynn in the 19th Century

In 1801 the population of King’s Lynn was 10,096. It grew rapidly to about 20,000 in 1851. Then the population fell to around 17,000 in 1871. Thereafter the population of King’s Lynn grew very slowly.

There were several improvements to King’s Lynn in the 19th century. In 1803 and 1806 acts of parliament formed a body of men with powers to pave, clean, and light the streets. In 1813 a dispensary was founded where the poor could obtain free medicines. The Lynn and West Norfolk Hospital opened in 1835.

Like all towns in the 19th century, King’s Lynn was dirty and unhealthy. There were outbreaks of cholera in 1832, 1848, and 1854. Then in the late 19th century a network of sewers and a proper public water supply were created. The stream called Millfleet was covered in 1897.

A Corn Exchange (where grain could be bought and sold) was built in 1854. Public Baths were built in 1856. The County Court was built in 1861 and a Technical school opened in King’s Lynn in 1893. Meanwhile, the railway reached King’s Lynn in 1847.

The port of King’s Lynn continued to thrive in the 19th century. Alexandra Dock was built in 1869. Bentinck Dock was built in 1883. In the 19th century, grain was no longer exported it was imported as Britain could no longer feed itself and had to import food. Glass-making ended in the 19th century (though it was revived in the 20th century). But new industries grew up in King’s Lynn. These included making farm machinery, boilers, and after 1894 mechanical diggers.

King’s Lynn in the 20th Century

Amenities in King’s Lynn continued to improve in the 20th century. A museum opened in King’s Lynn in 1904. A public library opened in 1905. The first moving pictures were shown in King’s Lynn in 1910. The Majestic Cinema opened in 1928. Then in the 1930s, the council began slum clearance.

When World War II began it was assumed that King’s Lynn would be safe from bombing and many evacuees were sent there from London. However, King’s Lynn was not completely safe and suffered several air raids. Most of the evacuees soon returned home.

In 1962 it was agreed that King’s Lynn should become an overflow town for London. As a result, the town’s population swelled. New estates were built at the Woottons and Gaywood. In the 1960s the town center was redeveloped and many old buildings were destroyed. Lynnsport, a sports centre opened in 1982. The Corn Exchange was converted to a theatre in 1996.

The old industry of brewing died out by the 1950s but new industries came to King’s Lynn. From the 1930s there was a food canning industry in the town and from the 1950s soup making. In the 1960s the council tried to attract new industries by building a new industrial estate at Hardwick. The new industries included light engineering, clothes, and chemicals. Fishing remained an important industry. Today tourism is also important. True’s Yard Fishing Museum opened in 1991 and the Town House Museum opened in 1992.

King’s Lynn in the 21st Century

In 2003 a skate park opened. In 2015 a new fire station opened in Kings Lynn. In 2022 the population of King’s Lynn was 42,000.

A Timeline of Kings Lynn

1101 The Bishop gives the people of King’s Lynn the right to hold weekly markets and annual fairs

1204 King John gives King’s Lynn a charter (a document granting the town certain rights)

1348 King’s Lynn is a large and important town with a population of 5,500-6,0000. Wool, grain, and salt are exported and pitch, fish, and iron are imported.

1406 St Georges Guildhall is built

1475 The Hanseatic Warehouse is built

1485 Red Mount Chapel is built

1500 Kings Lynn is declining in importance although the port is still busy

1524 Kings Lynn is given a corporation and a mayor

1534 A grammar school is founded in Kings Lynn

1537 The king takes control of the town from the bishop. From then on it is known as Kings Lynn instead of Bishops Lynn.

1572 Thatched roofs are banned in Kings Lynn to reduce the risk of fire

1605 Greenland Fishery House is built

1643 During the Civil War Kings Lynn is captured by a parliamentary army

1665 Plague strikes Kings Lynn

1683 The Custom House is built

1720s Daniel Defoe describes Kings Lynn as ‘Beautiful, well built and well situated’

1784 The first bank opens in Kings Lynn

1801 The population of Kings Lynn is 10,096

1832 Cholera strikes Kings Lynn

1835 The Lynn and West Norfolk Hospital opens

1847 The railway reaches Kings Lynn

1861 The County Court is built

1869 Alexandra Dock is built

1883 Bentinck Dock is built

1904 A museum opens in Kings Lynn

1905 A public library opens

1910 The first cinema opens in Kings Lynn

1962 It is decided Kings Lynn should be an overflow town for London

1982 Lynnsport opens

1991 True’s Yard Fishing Museum opens

1992 The Town House Museum opens

2003 A new skate and bike park opens