A History of Lincoln

By Tim Lambert

Roman Lincoln

Lincoln began as a Roman town. The Romans conquered Lincolnshire in 48 AD. Shortly afterward they built a fort on the site of Lincoln. However, by the late 1st century, the area was pacified so the soldiers moved on and the fort was abandoned. A new town was created on the site. It was a Colonia, a settlement for retired soldiers. The word lindo means a pool in the Celtic language. So the Romans called the new town Lindum Colonia. (After the Romans left the name Lindum was corrupted to Lindon then finally to Lincoln)

Roman Lincoln grew into a large and prosperous town. It may have had a population of between 6 and 8 thousand. Walls surrounded the town. Inside the streets were laid out in a grid pattern with a rectangular space in the middle. This was the forum or marketplace. It was lined by shops and by the basilica or town hall.

Roman Lincoln also had public baths. In Roman times people went to the baths not just to get clean but also to socialize. It was the Roman equivalent of going to the pub.

In Roman Lincoln, rich people lived in stone houses with glass windows and even a type of central heating. However the poor lived in simple wooden houses.

Roman Lincoln was also an inland port. The Romans deepened the Witham so ships could reach the town from the sea. They also dug the Fossdyke to link the Witham with the Trent. Roman Lincoln reached a peak of prosperity in the early 4th century.

However, in the later 4th century it declined. Roman civilization was breaking down and the last Roman soldiers left Britain in 407 AD. By the 5th century, most or all of the town’s inhabitants had fled. Afterward, the Roman buildings gradually fell into ruins.

Lincoln in the Middle Ages

After the Romans left Angles from Germany conquered Lincolnshire. At that time the town of Lincoln was almost empty. There may have been a small number of people living inside the walls and farming the land outside. However Lincoln had ceased to be a town.

Lincoln revived when the Danes conquered the area in the late 9th century. They created a network of fortified settlements called Burghs. Where possible they used old Roman towns as they already had sturdy walls. Each one of these burghs was made a town with a weekly market. The Danes made Lincoln into a burgh.

In the 10th century, it was captured by Alfred the Great’s son but the Danish influence lingers on. The Danish word for a street was gata. In time it was corrupted to gate in the street names Danesgate, Thorngate, and Clasketgate.

In the 10th century, a suburb grew up called Wigford. (Wig is a corruption of the Danish word wick meaning creek). Lincoln grew to be a large and important town with its own mint. In the town, craftsmen made things like combs out of bone. There were also potters, blacksmiths, jewelers, and shoemakers.

By the time of the Domesday book (1086), Lincoln probably had a population of around 6,000. By the standards of the time, it was a large and important town. Even London only had 18,000 inhabitants. In 1068 William the Conqueror built a wooden castle at Lincoln to make sure the townspeople behaved themselves. He destroyed 166 houses to make way for it. In the 12th century, it was replaced with stone. The keep of the castle was called Lucy Tower after Countess Lucy.

In 1072 the Bishop moved his seat to Lincoln from Dorchester. He built a cathedral, which was completed in 1092. This first cathedral was severely damaged by an earthquake, which hit Lincoln in 1185. It was rebuilt after 1192. The central tower of the new cathedral collapsed in 1237. A new tower with a spire replaced it. The spire was completed in 1311.

In the late 11th century a new suburb grew up called New Port (port is an old word for market or town). Newport had its own market. In 1123 there was a fire in Lincoln, which destroyed many buildings. Fire was a constant hazard as most of the buildings in the town were made of wood with thatched roofs. On the other hand, if they burned they could be easily rebuilt.

Lincoln was also sacked twice during civil wars. The first time was in 1141 then again in 1216 but each time Lincoln recovered. In 1157 Lincoln was given a charter (a document granting the townspeople certain rights). The town was made independent and the rich citizens were allowed to elect a council of 24 men to rule. From the early 13th century Lincoln had a mayor.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, Lincoln’s prosperity was based on wool. It was woven in the town and dyed. Much of the finished cloth was transported along the Witham and then exported abroad. In Lincoln, there were also the same craftsmen found in any Medieval town such as butchers, bakers, brewers, carpenters, blacksmiths, potters, and shoemakers.

In the late 13th century only certain ports called Staples were allowed to export wool abroad. In 1291 Lincoln was made a staple, adding to its prosperity. By the 14th century, Lincoln had an annual fair and from 1409 it had two. In the Middle Ages fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year. Merchants would come from all over England to sell their goods at a Lincoln fair.

In the Middle Ages, merchants were organised into guilds, which looked after their member’s interests. Different groups of craftsmen had their own guild e.g. there was a weavers guild. The craftsmen guilds fixed prices and hours of work and they inspected members’ work to make sure it was up to standard. They also looked after their members when they were ill or too old to work. There were also religious guilds in Lincoln. They helped their members in times of sickness and with funeral expenses. They also employed priests to pray for the souls of dead members. The largest was St Mary’s Guild. Its guildhall has survived.

In the 13th century, the friars arrived in Lincoln. Friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went out to preach. The first friars in Lincoln were the Franciscan friars. They were known as grey friars because of the color of their costumes. They arrived in 1231. The Dominican friars arrived in 1238. They were known as black friars because of their black costumes. In 1269 came the Carmelites or white friars. There were also Augustinian friars by 1280. Another denomination was the friars of the sack, so-called because their clothes were made out of rough cloth like sackcloth.

In the Middle Ages, the church ran the only hospitals. A leper hospital called the Hospital of the Holy Innocents or the Malandry was founded by 1100. It stood outside the town walls. The Hospital of the Holy Sepulchre was founded in the early 12th century for the sick and poor. The Hospital of St Giles was founded in the late 13th century.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, there was a Jewish community in Lincoln. The houses built by 2 of them still survive. In 1255 the Jews of Lincoln were falsely accused of murdering a boy called Hugh. Afterward, 18 innocent people were taken to London and hanged. All the Jews in England were forced to leave in 1290.

In the 14th century, Lincoln’s prosperity declined. For one thing, its wool trade faced increasing competition from abroad and also from other parts of England. Secondly, it faced increasing competition from Boston and the new port of Hull. In 1369 the wool staple was moved to Boston which was a severe blow to Lincoln.

LINCOLN 1500-1800

Lincoln had declined in size and prosperity by the 16th century. Its population may have shrunk to 2,500. The town was affected by the decline of the wool trade. Furthermore, the discovery of America meant West Coast ports boomed while those on the East Coast stagnated.

In 1538 Henry VIII closed the friaries in Lincoln. He also closed the religious guilds in Lincoln and seized their property. Henry’s agents also looted the cathedral of its treasures. In 1549 the spire of the cathedral collapsed in a storm and in the late 16th century many churches in Lincoln were closed as they were no longer needed.

In 1642 civil war began between the king and parliament. Most of the people of Lincoln firmly supported parliament but the town changed hands several times during the war. In July 1643 a parliamentary army abandoned Lincoln fearing they could not hold it. They withdrew to Boston. Royalist troops then occupied Lincoln but in October the parliamentary army won a battle at Winceby. The royalists then abandoned Lincoln.

However, in March 1644 they won a battle at Newark. Once again the parliamentarians fled from Lincoln and left it to the royalists. On 3 May the parliamentary army returned and the royalists withdrew into the upper town. On 6 May the parliamentarians attacked the upper town and the castle. They soon captured both. Afterward, parliamentary soldiers looted the cathedral and houses in the upper town. Lincoln remained in parliamentary hands until the end of the Civil War in 1646.

However, in 1648 a Scottish army invaded England in an attempt to restore Charles I to his throne. They were supported by English Royalists. A royalist army approached Lincoln, which was only defended by a small force of men. The parliamentary soldiers took refuge in the Bishop’s palace. They were soon forced to surrender but not before they had set fire to the palace. However, the royalists were soon defeated in battle and Lincoln changed hands again. This time there was peace until Charles II was restored in 1660.

From the late 17th century Lincoln began to revive a little. One sign of this came in 1695 when the town was granted another fair.


By 1700 the population of Lincoln had probably grown to about 4,000, still considerably less than it had been in the Middle Ages. Lincoln remained a small and quiet market town. For the well-off in Lincoln life grew more comfortable in the 18th century. A theatre was built in 1732. In 1744 assembly rooms were built for card games and balls. Lincoln gained its first newspaper in 1784. In 1736 a new butter market was built and in 1769 a general hospital was built. Lindum Road was built in 1786.

From the mid-18th century, Lincoln was helped by improving communications. The Fossdyke was deepened in 1744. Grain and wool were taken along from Lincoln to the North. Coal and cloth were brought to the town. From the middle of the century, turnpikes were built. These were privately owned and maintained roads. You had to pay a toll to use them.


In 1801, at the time of the first census, Lincoln had a population of more than 7,000. By the standards of the time, it was a fair-sized town though it was only slightly larger than it had been in the Middle Ages. However Lincoln grew at a terrific rate during the 19th century and by 1900 it had over 50,000 inhabitants.

The Lawn Asylum was built in 1820. In 1828 an act of Parliament formed a body of men called the Commissioners with powers to pave and light the streets. From 1828 Lincoln was lit by gas. The railway reached Lincoln in 1846.

In 1848 a corn exchange where grain could be bought and sold was built. However from the mid-19th century, Lincoln changed from being a market town to being an industrial center. The firm of Clayton and Shuttleworth iron founders was formed in 1842. That firm made steam engines and farm implements. In the 1850s several other engineering firms were founded in Lincoln. Other industries were brewing and brickmaking.

Like all 19th century towns, Lincoln was dirty, overcrowded, and unsanitary. However, after 1876 the council built a network of sewers. Meanwhile from 1883 horse-drawn trams ran in the streets of Lincoln.

Lincoln City Football Club was founded in 1884 and a College of Art was built in 1885. A new Theatre Royal was built in 1893. The first public library in Lincoln opened in 1894. The first electricity-generating station in Lincoln was built in 1898.


For most of the 20th century, the population of Lincoln grew more slowly than in the previous century. However, at the end of the century, it began to grow rapidly again.

Although there were sewers in Lincoln in 1900 people still obtained their water from pumps. However, in 1905 a typhoid epidemic killed 130 people. That finally convinced people of the need for a pure water supply. A piped water supply was turned on in 1911. After 1905 the horse-drawn trams in Lincoln were replaced with electric trams. The first buses ran in 1920. They soon replaced the trams. The last tram ran in 1929.

During World War I the first tank ‘Little Willie’ was built in Lincoln. As well as tanks many aircraft were made in Lincoln during that war.

Usher Gallery was built in 1927.

For most of the 20th century, the main industry in Lincoln remained engineering. Lincoln suffered severely during the depression of the 1930s but full employment returned in the Second World War. During that war, 11 people were killed in Lincoln by the German bombing.

During the 1920s and 1930s, the first council houses were built in Lincoln. Many more were built after 1945 as well as many private houses. Pelham Bridge was built in 1958. The City Hall was built in 1973. A Garden of Remembrance was built on the site of the Roman Forum in 1983. Then in 1985, a western relief road was built.

Waterside Shopping Centre was built in 1991 and Lincolnshire Road Transport Museum opened in 1993. Lincoln University opened in 1996 and St Marks Shopping Centre opened the same year.

In the late 20th century heavy industry in Lincoln gave way to service industries such as tourism.

Lincoln in the 21st century

Lincoln Cathedral

In the 21st century, Lincoln is still a flourishing town. In 2002 a sculpture called Empowerment was unveiled in Lincoln. In 2023 the population of Lincoln was 103,000.