Parish Summary: King's Lynn

This Parish Summary is an overview of the large amount of information held for the parish, and only selected examples of sites and finds in each period are given. It has been beyond the scope of the project to carry out detailed research into the historical background, documents, maps or other sources, but we hope that the Parish Summaries will encourage users to refer to the detailed records, and to consult the bibliographical sources referred to below. Feedback and any corrections are welcomed by email to

The large parish of King’s Lynn is situated in northwest Norfolk, to the east of Terrington St Clement. The parish town was originally called Lynn (from the Celtic for lake), but became Bishop’s Lynn in the medieval period because of its connection with the Bishop of Norwich. Henry VIII’s charter of 1537 severed this connection and the town and manor became royal property, being renamed Lynn Regis, or King’s Lynn.

Lynn has a long history, and was certainly well established by the time of the Norman Conquest, its population, land ownership and productive resources recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086.

The earliest evidence of human activity in the parish comes in the form of prehistoric flint tools, the oldest of which are Palaeolithic handaxes (for example NHER 5488, 14416 and 14429). The few Mesolithic flints recovered include NHER 5489 and 41198, though the latter was found in re-deposited soil near the tennis courts of The Edward VII school, and its provenance is therefore hazy. Neolithic flint finds include axeheads (NHER 5490, 5491 and 5500) and arrowheads (NHER 5493, 5495 and 5496).

A Bronze Age round barrow (NHER 5489) that was excavated in the 1930s in Reffley Wood revealed an Early Bronze Age occupation site that was sealed by the later barrow. Several Bronze Age cremations were found within the barrow, as well as flint implements, fragments of pottery and faience beads. There is now no visible sign of the barrow on the site. Other Bronze Age finds include a flint arrowhead (NHER 5494), pottery fragments (NHER 5497 and 5510) and copper alloy palstaves (NHER 5506 and 15300), a spearhead (NHER 5504) and a socketed axehead (NHER 5505). Iron Age finds are quite scarce, consisting of coins (NHER 19334, 28094 and 39511), pottery fragments (NHER 5511 and 29543) and harness fittings (for example NHER 5499).

Roman finds to date in the parish include coins (NHER 5513, 5517 and 11990), pottery fragments (NHER 5512 and 5515), a harness fitting (NHER 5499), a key (NHER 1249) and a bracelet (NHER 19117).

The route of a Saxon cobbled road (NHER 5538) has been tentatively identified running under what is now Bridge Street, and in the Tower Garden stands a Late Saxon stone cross (see under NHER 5477), though it is probably not in its original position. Saxon finds include pottery fragments (NHER 1241), a stirrup (NHER 5520), a buckle (NHER 5544) and a rare Middle Saxon brooch (NHER 5544).

The Green Dyke (NHER 21806) is an earthwork bank, probably Late Saxon in origin, running from Hardwick Causeway to Jerry's Dam. The bank is mentioned in 14th century documents and in some places runs along parish boundaries. It has been suggested that the bank is one of the original banks around the reclaimed area of King's Lynn.

At the time of the Domesday Book, Lynn appears to have been a fairly minor settlement, but the picture changed dramatically within a few years. Founded as Bishop’s Lynn at the end of the 11th century, Lynn was the fourth most important east coast port in 1204 and the eleventh wealthiest town in England in 1334. This explosion of activity has meant that the archaeological record for the medieval period is so rich that, for the purposes of this summary only selected examples of religious and secular buildings can be given. Having said that, the full records are easily accessible to those wanting more information.

Bishop Herbert de Losinga was said to have paid King William II at least 1,000 marks for the bishopric of Norwich, and was obliged by the Pope to found religious houses as a penance. One of these was the Benedictine Priory, now St Margaret’s Church (NHER 1026). This was founded in 1095, but rebuilt in the 13th century and later, though some Norman elements remain. Other later friaries include Dominican (NHER 1176), Carmelite (NHER 5481) and Augustinian (NHER 1025). Greyfriars Tower (NHER 5477) is the last standing remains of a Franciscan Friary that was founded here in the 13th century. The tower was the central crossing tower of the friary church and dates from the 13th and 14th centuries. It is the best surviving example of a Mendicant tower with a passageway in the country. The rest of the friary buildings do not survive above ground.

Of all the medieval churches in the parish, the oldest is All Saints’ in South Lynn (NHER 5553). Unusually set in the middle of a 1950s housing estate, it dates back to the 11th century and was rebuilt in the 14th and 15th centuries. The west tower collapsed in about 1763 and the west end was rebuilt in yellow brick and topped with a Victorian bellcote. On the chancel are traces of outbuildings and a chapel, probably 14th century, that are generally believed to have been the home of an anchorite hermit. Inside are a medieval nave roof, font and screen. Unfortunately, although still in use, the building has suffered from vandalism and some of the windows are boarded up.

Red mount Chapel (NHER 5478) on The Walk is an unusual 15th century wayside chapel that was part of the Walsingham pilgrimage route. The chapel is built of brick and ashlar in the form of two concentric drums. A barrel-vaulted cellar leads up to the chapel itself, which is entirely built of ashlar and which has an elaborate fan-vaulted ceiling. The chapel was used by soldiers during the Civil War, who left interesting graffiti in the interior.

Photograph of St Nicholas' Chapel, King's Lynn.

St Nicholas' Chapel, King's Lynn. (© NCC)

England's largest surviving parochial chapel, St Nicholas’ Chapel or the Fishermen’s Chapel (NHER 5549) was founded in 1146 as a chapel of ease to St Margaret's Church. The original building was replaced in about 1200 and the southwest tower was added some twenty five years later. In the early 15th century, the whole church apart from the tower was rebuilt as an enormous hall church with an aisled nave and chancel in one. At the same time a splendid two storey south porch was added, with a row of niches in delicate panelling. The current steeple dates to 1869, replacing an earlier one that collapsed in 1741. Inside the vast open space of the nave, the huge west window fills the chapel with light, illuminating a very fine 15th century carved angel roof, which is contrasted by a large acreage of plain 19th century pews crammed into the arcades during an 1850s restoration. The font is a 1902 copy of one of 1627 given by the Bishop of Norwich, but the polygonal water stoup at the west end of the north aisle is a 14th century original. The west doors date to the early 1400s, and bear traces of their original medieval decoration. Reasons of space preclude a comprehensive inventory of all items of interest, but there is a large and fascinating collection of monuments, memorials and furniture. The consistory court of 1617 in the northwest corner of the chapel is a rare survival.

Thoresby College (NHER 1228) was originally a college for thirteen chantry priests attached to the Trinity Guild. It was founded in 1500 by Thomas Thoresby and built between 1508 and 1511. Various later alterations and additions took place, culminating in a restoration of 1963, when the four ranges were converted to flats and offices.

St Faith’s Church (NHER 5556) in Gaywood has its origins in the Norman period but was substantially rebuilt in the 14th century. In the 1920s the nave was rebuilt, the aisles were added and the north porch was rebuilt incorporating a Norman arch. The church contains a late 14th century font and two 17th century painted panels. One of the panels depicts Queen Elizabeth's arrival at Tilbury, with the Spanish Armada in the background.

Photograph of St Peter's Church, West Lynn.

St Peter's Church, West Lynn. (© NCC)

Of the domestic buildings to survive from the medieval period (albeit much altered), a good example is 28 to 32 King Street (NHER 1028). The external appearance of these three houses hides their remarkable history, which was revealed during detailed investigations in the 1970s. The first building on the site was a stone house constructed in about 1200 with blind arcading on the interior gable walls. The first floor of the house was open to the roof and it may have been a hall, with a warehouse below. In the 13th century a masonry range containing an open hall was added to the south. The southern part of the house was replaced with a timber frame in the early 14th century and a timber-framed building was erected to the south, now known as No. 28. The ground floor rooms were probably used as shops. In the 16th and 17th centuries the buildings were modernised, and Number 32 was largely rebuilt in the 19th century. The buildings were restored in the 1980s and are now used as offices. 

The town defences (NHER 5486) are based on a series of natural earthwork banks that were formed in the salt marsh that once surrounded the town, and the line of the defences to the east follows the line of an old sea bank. Stone walls were constructed in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. The walls were strengthened in the 16th century, and St Ann's Fort was constructed in 1570. Only a few fragmentary remains of the fort survive. The defences were replanned during the Civil War but construction was interrupted by a seige laid by Parliamentary troops and the earthworks were left unfinished until 1645. The line of the defences can be followed in modern streets and property boundaries, and the Civil War defences were closely based on the line of the medieval defences. In the 18th century several sections of the walls were demolished, but some stretches of wall are still standing, as well as the town gates, including the well-known South Gate. 

From the later 12th century, Lynn’s reputation grew as the main port for the export of corn and then wool. The wool trade was at its height in the earlier 14th century, but had fallen away by the early 15th century, around which time there was a general contraction in trade, although there was still investment made in buildings and structures connected with trade. Quite a number of  structures connected with trade remain. 

Photograph of The Customs House, King's Lynn. From Picture Norfolk.

 The Customs House, King's Lynn. 

 Courtesy of Norfolk County Council Library and Information Service. 

St George’s Guildhall (NHER 5483) is the largest complete example of a medieval guildhall that survives in England. It was built in the early 15th century and was used as a theatre and warehouse from the 16th century onwards. To the rear of the guildhall are a number of 15th century warehouses running down to the river, one of which has a blocked water gate. The guildhall is now used as a theatre and arts centre. 

The Guildhall (NHER 5480) dates to the early 15th century and is built with the gable end to the road. The building is of brick, but has a magnificent façade of chequered flushwork, with a 17th century porch. Inside the entire ground floor is a brick undercroft and the first floor is also a single room, known as the Stone Hall, which has a large Perpendicular window and a medieval timber roof. 

Trade with the Baltic was kept alive with the establishment of the only surviving example of a Hanseatic warehouse in England (NHER 1230). This quadrangular warehouse and domestic range were built as a steelyard in about 1475. The east domestic range was rebuilt in the mid 18th century, possibly when ownership by the Hanseatic League ceased. The complex consists of two long parallel warehouses connected at the east end by a domestic wing and a shorter warehouse wing to the west. At the west end, both long ranges were later extended, leaving the original west return set back. The complex was restored in 1970 and is now in use as offices for Norfolk County Council. 

Warehouses also survive, including Bowker’s warehouse complex (NHER 1096), and so do the merchants’ houses (for example NHER 7138). 

A later trade-related building and one of the most recognisable buildings in King's Lynn is the Custom House, (NHER 5479), built by Henry Bell in 1683 as a merchants' exchange. The building was used as a customs house from the 18th century until 1989. It was the first Classical building to be built in King's Lynn, and it is now open to the public as a museum. 

A detailed description of all the medieval and post medieval buildings, finds and features in King’s Lynn could fill volumes. The historic core of the town itself is a delight. The area fronting the river has mainly Georgian brick houses to the streets, but with plenty of earlier work behind the facades. The sequence of Nelson Street, St Margaret’s Place and Queen Street is one of the most satisfying Georgian promenades in England, often used for film sets. The Tuesday and Saturday Market Places (originally medieval creations) and the streets leading off them are lined with many domestic, commercial and public buildings of interest. London Road, laid out in 1811 to 1813, was the focus of suburban expansion from the 1820s, and although rather choked with traffic today, has many elegant 19th century houses. To appreciate the rich history of the area, the detailed records should be consulted. 

Photograph of a witch bottle found in 1905 at 14 King Street, King's Lynn.

A witch bottle found in 1905 at 14 King Street, King's Lynn.  (© NCC)

The coming of the railways in the mid 19th century (NHER 13581, 13591, 13592, 13593 and 13600) robbed the area of much of its trade, but after a century in relative decline, the last thirty years have seen a vigorous expansion and revival. 

One of the most striking early 20th century landmarks in King’s Lynn was Paul’s factory chimney on Boal Street (NHER 28475). Built in 1916, it was the finest example of its type in the area, of great height with an ornate top. The chimney remained standing after the factory it served was knocked down to make a car park. However it was itself demolished in 1994, to great local protest. 

Another building to appear in the early 20th century was the Edward VII school (NHER 34294), an original and striking design in the Queen Anne Revival style.  

Facade of Gaywood Hall, built in 1851 on the site of a medieval bishop's palace.

The mid 19th century facade of Gaywood Hall.  (© NCC)

During World War One the area west of Red Mount was used as a prisoner of war camp, and in World War Two an anti-tank mortar emplacement was established there. The base of the mortar can still be seen (NHER 33295). Other World War Two features to survive are air raid shelters (NHER 31205 and 39557), tank traps (NHER 32378 and 32379) and two other mortar bases (NHER 28546 and 32384). There were also several pillboxes, but these have now gone (NHER 38237, 38296 and 41067). 

The most historically recent entry on the record is for a Royal Observer Corps Cold War underground monitoring post (NHER 35391), designed to measure fallout in the event of a nuclear attack. Situated west of the Great Ouse, it opened in 1960 and was destroyed by flooding in about 1989.  No trace of it remains today.  

This summary, as stated, is very much an overview of a parish and town with a huge number of finds, features and buildings of interest. Those wishing to find out more of the area’s history should consult the detailed record. 


Further Reading  

Pevsner, N. & Wilson, B., 2002. The Buildings of England. Norfolk 2: North-west and South (New Haven & London, Yale University Press) 

Richards, P., 1990. King’s Lynn (Chichester, Phillimore & Co)

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