A History of Kings Lynn

By Tim Lambert

Kings Lynn in the Middle Ages

Kings Lynn was once called Bishops Lynn because it belonged to a bishop. (Bishops Lynn became Kings 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 Kings Lynn the right to hold a market on Saturday. Kings 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 Kings Lynn fair. Bishop De Losinga also built the Church of St Margaret.

So the little town of Kings 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 Kings 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). Kings Lynn also had a ‘suburb’ south of the Millfleet, outside the boundaries of the town. So Kings Lynn was for administrative purposes 3 towns.

Medieval Kings 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 Kings Lynn a charter (a document granting the townspeople certain rights).

In Kings 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 Kings Lynn. Imports included timber from Scandinavia, pitch (a tar-like substance), fish, and iron.

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

In the 12th century Kings 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 Kings Lynn suffered a severe fire. In the Middle Ages, most buildings were of wood with thatched roofs so a fire was a constant danger. Kings 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 Kings Lynn. The friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went out to preach and help the poor. In Kings 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.

Kings 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 own 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 Kings Lynn.

In 1524 Kings 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 Kings Lynn. However, in the 16th century, the town’s two annual fairs were reduced to one. In 1534 a grammar school was founded in Kings Lynn. However, in 1538, Henry VIII closed the Benedictine Priory. He also closed the three friaries in Kings Lynn.

Meanwhile, according to tradition in 1531 a woman servant was boiled to death in Kings 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 Kings Lynn (for those who could afford to be connected). Elm pipes carried water under the streets.

Like all Tudor and Stuart towns, Kings 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 Kings Lynn. In 1572 thatched roofs were banned to reduce the risk of fire.

Kings Lynn in the 17th Century and 18th Century

In 1642 came a civil war between the king and parliament. At first Kings 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. Kings 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 Kings 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 Kings Lynn ceased to be a major international port although some iron, timber, and pitch were still imported. Like other ports on the East Coast, Kings Lynn suffered from the discovery of the Americas, which obviously 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 Kings 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 Kings Lynn to the growing market in London. Furthermore, Kings Lynn was still an important fishing port. Greenland Fishery House in Bridge Street was built in 1605. By the late 17th century shipbuilding had become an important industry in Kings Lynn. A glass-making industry also began in the late 17th century.

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

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

Kings Lynn in the 19th Century

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

There were a number of improvements to Kings 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, Kings 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 was 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 Kings Lynn in 1893. Meanwhile, the railway reached Kings Lynn in 1847.

The port of Kings 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 Kings Lynn. These included making farm machinery, boilers, and after 1894 mechanical diggers.

Kings Lynn in the 20th Century

Amenities in Kings Lynn continued to improve in the 20th century. A museum opened in Kings Lynn in 1904. A public library opened in 1905. The first moving pictures were shown in Kings 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 Kings Lynn would be safe from bombing and many evacuees were sent there from London. However, Kings Lynn was not completely safe and suffered several air raids. Most of the evacuees soon returned home.

In 1962 it was agreed that Kings 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 Kings 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 remains an important industry. Today tourism is also important. True’s Yard Fishing Museum opened in 1991 and the Town House Museum opened in 1992.

Kings Lynn in the 21st Century

In 2003 a new skate and bike park opened. In 2020 the population of Kings Lynn was 42,000.