The History of Kings Lynn
The name locals use for the town, simply ‘Lynn’, encompasses the story of how it began. ‘Lynn’ was a Celtic word for lake or pool, and on the North Norfolk Coast 1000 years and more ago there was an extensive tidal pool that provided a good proportion of the few inhabitants of the area with a living panning salt. There was also an ancient ferry on the site to carry passengers and goods across The Wash, the foundation of a maritime trade that eventually led to the town being one of the greatest and most prosperous ports in England.
When the Normans conquered England there was no recognizable settlement where Lynn now stands. There was, however, a manor at nearby Gaywood belonging to the Bishop of Thetford . Herbert de Losinga purchased the Thetford bishopric in 1091, and relocated it to more dynamic Norwich in 1094; soon he developed Great Yarmouth ; in 1095 he ordered the construction of a Benedictine priory near Gaywood, and in 1101 he authorised the development of a substantially new town that in 1204 took the name Bishop’s Lynn according to a charter granted by King John .
This first town was sited between two tidal creeks, the Purfleet and the Millfleet, which provided water, sewerage, and basic docking facilities. Silting and salt panning – which produced piles of sand – led to an increase in usable land, and as the fen hinterland of the town developed agriculturally Lynn’s role for the next few centuries was established: wool from the sheep raised in the region was shipped either overseas or merely along the coast; and when the land was used for cereal production grain became a great export. Within two centuries of its foundation Lynn was England’s third largest port. The town had been granted a Saturday market in 1101; with the expansion north over the Purfleet a second market was authorised on a Tuesday.
Fishing developed in Lynn alongside the seaborne trade, the local salt enabling catches to be processed and preserved for shipment. The town also saw imports of raw materials from Scandinavia and of wines from France and Iberia.
Given its significance and location facing the Northern European ports dominated by the Hanseatic League in the Middle Ages Lynn was a logical choice for the Hansa traders to set up shop, which they first did there in 1271. The town developed particularly close links with Danzig in Prussia (modern Gdansk), some Lynn merchants settling there to further their fortunes. In 1475 as part of the Treaty of Utrecht the Hansa merchants were given a warehouse in Lynn, still standing to this day, the only such historic building in England.
Lynn suffered setbacks with a major fire in 1331, and as with the rest of the country was devastated by the Great Plague of 1349, but the settlement recovered swiftly enough. By the following century trade was so healthy that not one but two guildhalls were built, both still standing: in 1406 St George’s and in 1421 the architecturally stunning Trinity . St George’s is now a theatre, not a new use - Shakespeare is said to have performed there.
In 1524 Lynn was granted a mayoralty, and the town’s stock rose further with the establishment of a grammar school 10 years later. But in 1538 Henry VIII took Bishop’s Lynn in his seizure of church property, thus the town became King’s rather than Bishop’s Lynn, losing various religious houses into the bargain.
East Anglia was lucky enough to be free of major battles in the Civil War , but Lynn made the error of swapping sides from Parliament to the Crown during the conflict: Parliamentary forces duly besieged the place for three weeks and retook it with ease.
As the Americas became the focus for British trade in the 17th century Lynn’s importance as a port diminished somewhat, but wine imports continued apace, fishing remained profitable, and the continuing drainage of the Fens meant ever more cereal crops were exported through Lynn in this period. Coastal shipping was also vital to the economy, sending goods over long distances being generally far swifter and cheaper by sea than overland until the Railway Age (which came rather late to Lynn in 1847). A sign of Lynn’s continued prosperity was and is the Custom House built in 1683 to the design of local architect Henry Bell.
King’s Lynn’s most famous son, George Vancouver, was the explorer who claimed British Columbia for the Crown in the 1790s; a slightly borrowed hero is Nelson , born up the coast a few miles. Both, of course linked like the town to the sea.
Despite or perhaps because of the coming of the railways Lynn’s port continued to do well in the Victorian era: indeed the facilities expanded: Alexandra Dock opened in 1869 and Bentinck in 1883, but the grain export trade had already dried up as Britain’s population outgrew its food production. Some imports replaced that business, but most such shipments went directly to the great cities.
To a certain extent industry replaced shipping in the 19th century and through the 20th; glassmaking began in Lynn in the 17th century; agricultural machinery and boiler making became important, requiring iron works – the reason for Lynn being one of the first English towns targeted by Zeppelins in 1915. Designated a London Expansion Town in 1962 the population surged.
It may be as Jeremy Clarkson said recently nowhere near anywhere else, but for those interested in history its centre offers some fascinating reminders of the town’s rich past.