The etymology of King's Lynn is uncertain. The name Lynn is said to be derived from the body of water near the town: the Welsh word llyn, means a lake; but the name is plausibly of Anglo-Saxon origin, from the word lean, implying a tenure in fee or farm. As the Domesday Book mentions many saltings at Lena (Lynn), an area of partitioned pools or small lakes may have existed there at that time (1085). The salt may even have contributed to Herbert de Losinga's interest in the modest parish.
For a time it was named Len Episcopi (Bishop's Lynn) while under the jurisdiction, both temporal and spiritual, of the Bishop of Norwich; but during the reign of Henry VIII it was surrendered to the crown, and it then assumed the name of Lenne Regis, or King's Lynn.
In the Domesday Book, it is known as Lun, and Lenn; and is described as the property of the Bishop of Elmham, and the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The town is and has been for generations generally known by its inhabitants and local people simply as Lynn. The city of Lynn, Massachusetts, just north of Boston, was named in 1637 in honour of its first official minister of religion, Samuel Whiting, who arrived at the new settlement from Lynn, Norfolk.
Lynn originated as a settlement on a constricted site to the south of where the River Great Ouse exits to the Wash. Development began in the early 10th century, but the place was not recorded until the early 11th century. Until the early 13th century, the Great Ouse emptied via the Wellstream at Wisbech. After the redirection of the Great Ouse in the 13th century, Lynn and its port became significant and prosperous.
In 1101, Bishop Herbert de Losinga of Thetford began to construct the first mediaeval town between two rivers, the Purfleet to the north and Mill Fleet to the south. He commissioned St Margaret's Church and authorised a market. In the same year, the bishop granted the people of Lynn the right to hold a market on Saturday. Trade built up along the waterways that stretched inland and the town expanded between the two rivers.
Lynn had a Jewish community in the 12th century, which was entirely exterminated during anti-Jewish massacres in 1189.
During the 14th century, Lynn ranked as England's most important port. It was considered as vital to England during the Middle Ages as Liverpool was during the Industrial Revolution. Sea trade with Europe was dominated by the Hanseatic League of ports; the transatlantic trade and the rise of England's western ports did not begin until the 17th century. The Trinity Guildhall was rebuilt in 1421 after a fire. Walls entered by the South Gate and East Gate were erected to protect the town. The town retains two former Hanseatic League warehouses: Hanse House built in 1475 and Marriott's Warehouse, in use between the 15th and 17th centuries. They are the only remaining buildings from the Hanseatic League in England.
In the first decade of the 16th century, Thoresby College was built by Thomas Thoresby to house priests of the Guild of The Holy Trinity in Lynn. The guild had been incorporated in 1453 on the petition of its alderman, chaplain, four brethren and four sisters. The guildsmen were licensed to found a chantry of chaplains to celebrate at the altar of Holy Trinity in Wisbech, and to grant to the chaplains lands in mortmain. In 1524 Lynn acquired a mayor and corporation. In 1537 the king took control of the town from the bishop and in the 16th century the town's two annual fairs were reduced to one. In 1534 a grammar school was founded and four years later Henry VIII closed the Benedictine priory and the three friaries.
During the 16th century a piped water supply was created, although many could not afford to be connected: elm pipes carried water under the streets. King's Lynn suffered from outbreaks of plague, notably in 1516, 1587, 1597, 1636 and the last in 1665. Fire was another hazard and in 1572 thatched roofs were banned to reduce the risk. During the English Civil War, King's Lynn supported Parliament, but in August 1643, after a change in government, the town changed sides. Parliament sent an army, and the town was besieged for three weeks before it surrendered.
A heart carved on the wall of the Tuesday Market Place commemorates the burning of an alleged witch, Margaret Read, in 1590. It is said that as she was burning her heart burst from her body and struck the wall.
In 1683, the architect Henry Bell, who was once the town's mayor, designed the Custom House. Bell also designed the Duke's Head Inn, the North Runcton Church, and Stanhoe Hall. His artistic inspiration was the result of travelling Europe as a young man.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, the town's main export was grain. Lynn was no longer a major international port, although iron and timber were imported. King's Lynn suffered from the discovery of the Americas, which benefited the ports on the west coast of England. Its trade was also affected by the growth of London.
In the late 17th century, imports of wine from Spain, Portugal and France boomed, and there was still an important coastal trade. It was cheaper to transport goods by water than by road at that time. Large quantities of coal arrived from the north-east of England.
The Fens began to be drained in the mid–17th century, and the land turned to agriculture, allowing vast amounts of produce to be sent to the growing market in London. Meanwhile, King's 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 important. A glass-making industry also began at that time.
In the early 18th century, Daniel Defoe called the town "beautiful, well built and well situated". Shipbuilding continued to thrive, as did associated industries such as sail-making and rope-making. Glass-making was prosperous and brewing was another important industry. The first bank in King's Lynn opened in 1784.
A remarkable example of penal brutality occurred on 28 September 1708, when a seven-year-old boy, Michael Hammond, and his 11-year-old sister, Ann, were convicted of stealing a loaf of bread and sentenced to hanging. Their public executions took place near the South Gates. The Member of Parliament at the time was Sir Robert Walpole, generally regarded as the first Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
King's Lynn railway station in July 2017
CC BY-SA 4.0
By the late 17th century, the town had begun to decline. This was only reversed by the somewhat late arrival of railway services in 1847, provided mainly by the Great Eastern Railway, subsequently the London and North Eastern Railway, running to Hunstanton, Dereham and Cambridge. The town was also served by the Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway (M&GN), which had offices in the town at Austin Street, and an important station at South Lynn (now dismantled). This was also its operational control centre until relocation to Melton Constable. The former M&GN lines across Norfolk were closed to passengers in February 1959.
The town's amenities continued to improve into the 20th century. A museum opened in 1904, and a public library in 1905. The first cinema in King's Lynn, the Majestic, was officially opened on 23 May 1928. (The year is commemorated in a stained glass window on the front of the building.) The town council began a programme of regeneration in the 1930s.
During World War I, King's Lynn was one of the first towns in Britain to suffer aerial bombing. On the night of 19 January 1915, the town was bombed by a naval Zeppelin, L4 (LZ 27), commanded by Captain Lieutenant Magnus von Platen-Hallermund. Eleven bombs were dropped, both incendiary and high explosive, doing extensive damage, killing two people in Bentinck Street, and injuring several others.
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 raids.
In 1962, King's Lynn was designated an overflow town for London and its population began to increase. New estates were built at the Woottons and Gaywood. The town centre was redeveloped in the 1960s, with many old buildings destroyed. Lynnsport, a sports centre, opened in 1982. The corn exchange was converted into a theatre in 1996.
The local breweries had died out by the 1950s, but new industries that came included food canning in the 1930s and soup-making in the 1950s. In the 1960s, the council tried to encourage development by building a new industrial estate at Hardwick. The new industries that arrived included light engineering, clothes and chemicals. However, fishing remained important.
King's Lynn, as viewed from across the River Great Ouse
Since 2004, work has been under way to regenerate the entire town through a multi-million-pound scheme. As part of this, the Vancouver Shopping Centre (since renamed the Vancouver Quarter), having been built originally in the 1960s, was refurbished in 2005 as part of the scheme, but was expected to last for only 25 years, according to the construction firm, even with a planned extension. A new award-winning £6 million multi-storey car park was built.
To the south of town, a large area of brownfield land is being transformed into a housing estate locally known as Balamory, after the children's TV programme. There were ambitions to build another housing estate alongside the River Nar, but these developments were vehemently opposed by local people and the economic situation brought them to a halt. There is also a business park, parkland, a school, shops and a new relief road in a £300 million+ scheme.
In 2006, King's Lynn became the United Kingdom's first member of The Hanse (Die Hanse), a network of towns and cities across Europe which historically belonged to the Hanseatic League. Originally this was a highly influential medieval trading association of merchant towns around the Baltic Sea and the North Sea, which contributed to the development of King's Lynn.
The Borough Council commissioned a report by DTZ. This was published in 2008 and accepted by the council. It described King's Lynn's workforce as "low-value" with a "low skills base". The town was further described as having a "poor lifestyle offer". The quality of services and amenities was described as "unattractive to higher-value inward investors and professional employees with higher disposable incomes". Average earnings are well below regional and national levels, and a large number of jobs that exist in tourism, leisure and hotels are subject to seasonal fluctuations and likewise poorly paid. Education and workforce qualifications are also described as below the national average. The borough ranks 150th out of 354 in terms of deprivation.
In 2009, a proposal was submitted for the Campbell's Meadow factory site to be redeveloped to include an 5ha employment and business park. In June 2011 Tesco gained permission for a superstore there. On 8 June 2010, Tesco unveiled regeneration plans for the site, which would cost £32 million and were billed to create 900 jobs overall.
Tesco also pledged £4 million of improvements in other areas of the town. Whilst it planned to spend £1.6 million widening the Hardwick Road, the Sainsburys bid was preferred by the Council as offering the town more benefits.
The £40 million plans of Sainsbury's for a new superstore, opposite Tesco on the Pinguin Foods site, created an estimated 300 jobs. This was the key to securing the future of Pinguin Foods in King's Lynn. Pinguin Foods is releasing 12acre of its 44acre site to accommodate the proposed store. Mortson Assets' and Sainsbury's plan included creating a new link road between Scania Way and Queen Elizabeth Way to improve access and allow the industrial estate to expand and attract new employers, whilst Sainsbury's maintains their store in the town centre. Sainsbury's has pledged £1.75 million for highways improvements and a further £7 million to invest in the Pinguin Foods factory.
At 8 am on 15 January 2012, the landmark Campbell's Tower was demolished, with competition winner, Sarah Griffiths pulling the switch. Her father Mick Locke had died aged 52 after being scalded by steam at the factory in 1995. It was Campbell's first UK factory when it opened in the 1950s. At its peak in the early 1990s it employed over 700 local workers.
A new fire station was opened by HM The Queen in February 2015.