The origin of the town's name is linked to the water by which it stand, with Lin, Lenne or Leuna meaning the place by the pool or the place of spreading waters. Though the name suggests earlier settlement, it is from medieval times that its history becomes clearer. The foundation of St Margaret's church, though not the present building, can be dated to the beginning of the 12th century.
King's Lynn now stands on the river Ouse, but before the time of King William's Domesday book in 1086 the mouth of the Ouse was at Wisbech. Where Lynn now stands there was a wide estuary, with the rivers Nay and Gay and a number of other streams flowed into an estuarine lake. To the south of the current site of the town was a wide salt lake and marsh area. Salt was a vital commodity in Norman and medieval times, as it was the only known effective and cheap preservative for food. It may be that the town first became important through the production of sea salt, by boiling off the water of the salt lake. It may even be that the deposition of sand, getting rid of what had been separated from the salt, led to the pushing out of the high water mark, creating over the years more land for settlement.
The wash ports of Boston and Lynn were only exceeded in importance by London and Southampton in the medieval period. Sea trade with Europe through the Hanseatic league of ports was dominant; the transatlantic trade and rise of the west coast ports such as Bristol had not yet begun. Trade brought great prosperity and led to many fine buildings, some of which survive to today. The hall of the Trinity Guild was rebuilt after a fire in 1421 and the Guildhall of St George in King Street is reckoned the largest and oldest in England. The town was defended with walls and gatehouses, with the South Gate still standing today.
Not all was prosperity; the Black Death struck the town in 1349 and nearly half the people of the town died. On other occasions, as with many towns dependent on sea trade, floods and gales led to loss of ships and loss of life.
Other buildings in Lynn remind us of its history in Tudor and Stuart times. Religion continued to play an important part in the lives of many, and as with othe Norfolk towns, Lynn benefitted from pilgrims making their way to Walsingham. Thoresby College was built in the first decade of the sixteenth century to house the priests of the Holy Trinity Guild. Half-timbered houses from Elizabethan times can be seen; Lynn contributed five ships to the fleet which sailed against the Spanish Armada. In Stuart times much grain, butter, cheese, hides and wool continued to be loaded onto ships at Lynn, whilst coal was brought into the region. At the time of the English Civil local landowner Hamon Le Strange held the town for the King against a three week siege by Parliamentary forces.
In 1683 the splendid Custom House was built, and it now houses the Lynn tourist office and an exhibition to sailor and explorer George Vancouver, a native of Lynn. A series of buildings from this period has also survived, and has led Lynn to being used as the 'set' for a number of historical films.
Today a major Millennium project is both preserving and transforming the river side of King's Lynn, balancing the need to conserve and explain the past with a site designed to bring many visitors to a town with such a rich history.
St Margaret's church, King's Lynn. Herbert de Losinga moved his see from Thetford to Norwich in 1094, and established churches and religious houses in Norwich, Great Yarmouth and King's Lynn. The present building grew to cathedral-like proportions in the period from the 12th to the 16th century
The Tudor door to Thoresby College. The college was built between 1500 and 1510, to provide a home for priests of the Holy Trinity Guild. The little wicket door in the centre of the main door is the usual means of entrance today
The Custom House. Designer Henry Bell created the building as a merchant exchange in the Stuart period
King's Lynn's history is centred on its story as a port on the river Ouse. Today the river front provides a base for industry and trade, a pastime for the angler and a place to visit for the tourist
The 15th century hall of the Trinity guild, now part of the town hall. Beneath the hall is a vaulted undercroft, which originally served as a warehouse