From as early as the 13th century, King’s Lynn was one of England’s most important ports, beginning with trade around a ‘lin’, or estuarine lake, and quickly establishing links with cities in northern Europe through the Hanseatic League, a group of German cities whose ships travelled in convoys to deter pirates.
The town’s merchants grew rich importing fish from Scandinavia, timber from the Baltics and wine from France. Exports included wool, salt and corn. The town is a proud member of the modern day Hanse association of cities.
King’s Lynn has long prospered and depended on its maritime links for trade and business; a journey that can be discovered today in the cobbled lanes, quays and merchants’ homes by the Great Ouse that leads to The Wash and North Sea.
Would you believe that King’s Lynn, a treasury of historic buildings, has more Grade 1 listed buildings than York!
Here’s our ten things to see in the town to appreciate King’s Lynn’s maritime history…
Built in 1683, The Custom House in the heart of historic Lynn has a display on the Hanseatic League, including a model of a Hansekogge, 14th century ships than linked Lynn with Hamburg, Bremen, Lubeck, Rostock and Danzig. Above the door is a statue of Charles II.
The Custom House was described by Pevsner as ‘one of the most perfect buildings ever built’ and is now the tourist office. The classical pilasters, petite dormer windows, balustrade and cupola are heavily influenced by the Dutch style.
The Georgian Hanse House is one of England’s most significant historic buildings, spanning the 15th to 18th centuries. This complex around a courtyard is the only remaining Kontor or trading post of the Hanseatic League in England. German traders had their lodgings here, as well as warehouses, offices, stalls and shops.
The street front was probably a timber framed structure in the late 15th century with its entrance adorned with the double-headed eagle of the Hanseatic League. The property came into the possession of the Hanseatic League in 1475 after the Treaty of Utrecht which restarted Anglo-Hanseatic trade after several years of sea warfare.
There were other Kontors at Ipswich, Hull, London and Boston, but this is the last remaining. The street range was remodelled in the form of a fine Georgian mansion in the 1750s.
Saturday Market Place and Minster
The medieval Saturday Market Place accommodated a charnel chapel and cemetery in the 14th century so the weekly market and annual summer fair must have hugged the buildings and extended into King Street. Lynn Fair was one of the most important in the eastern counties and a major attraction for German and other European traders seeking wool and cloth. Dominating Saturday Market Place is King’s Lynn Minster, formerly St Margaret’s Church and founded in 1101. Look out for the flood level markings by the west door.
Holy Trinity Guildhall
Rebuilt in the 1420s, the impressive Holy Trinity Guildhall and Town Hall, with its stunning flint chequerboard patterned front, was the home of Lynn’s Great Guild of merchants whose membership embraced German citizens in the town. Lynn merchants were men of considerable wealth, generated through overseas trade with Prussia, Scania (southern Sweden), Bergen and Iceland.
It’s now home to Tales of the Old Gaol House which also displays the town’s regalia, including the superb 14th century King John Cup.
True’s Yard Fisherfolk Museum
True’s Yard is dedicated to the heritage and lives of the people who lived in the old fishing quarter ‘The North End’. The museum features the town’s last Victorian smokehouse, a fully restored and rigged 1904 Lynn fishing smack and two beautifully restored Victorian fishermen’s cottages.
King Street was known as ‘Stockfish Row’ or ‘Le Chequer’ in the 14th century and the main street of the Newland laid out by the Norwich Bishops in the 1140s. By the 15th century the thoroughfare was the favoured home of the merchants who built homes and warehouses running down to the river.
The town’s most elegant thoroughfare, it was eulogised by Sir John Betjeman as one of the best walks in England.
St George’s Guildhall on King Street is the last remaining medieval complex to have survived in this part of town.
Dating from 1410, it is one of the oldest surviving in the country and the largest. It’s also the oldest working theatre in the world that can claim Shakespeare performed there.
Historic warehouses behind now house the King’s Lynn Arts Centre.
A short walk down Ferry Lane leads to the foot ferry across to West Lynn. The trip is rewarded by superb views back across to the historic waterfront of King’s Lynn.
An archaeological dig in 1968-69 at Purfleet revealed a quay with timber supports proving that there was a safe harbour here in the 14th century three times its current width. The Purfleet was the disembarkation point for pilgrims en route to the Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham and was the town’s principal anchorage from medieval times.
On the quayside, by the giant boat-chains, is a statue of Lynn native Captain George Vancouver, famous for mapping the west coast of America in the late 18th century.
Between the Purfleet and Millfleet inlets can be found some fine cobbled streets.
The magnificent Clifton House, with its 1708 barley sugar porch columns, has an exceptional 14th century tiled floor of the Westminster type and a similarly-aged brick undercroft. The house was almost certainly the first to be built on the west side of Queen Street after the Great Ouse was diverted from Wisbech to Lynn in the 1260s.
Red-brick and timber roofed Tudor Thoresby College is entered through a fine 1510 wooden door on Queen Street. In the courtyard a slate plaque marks the line of the late 13th century quayside. In 1964 a timber wharf was excavated on the site to demonstrate how the river has moved west.
The Greenland Fishery, close to Millfleet, is an early 17th century merchant’s house, built by a local rope merchant. In the 18th century, as the Greenland Fishery, it was an inn used by the town’s whaling community.
Also in King’s Lynn…
Other buildings to look out for are early 16th-century Red Mount Chapel (above), Clifton House’s fine five-storey watch tower, and St Anne’s Fort on the Fisher Fleet, built to defend the town against pirates and invaders.
The Tuesday Market Place is full of handsome Georgian buildings, including the Neoclassical Corn Exchange, now a theatre. Each Spring its hosts the popular Mart (above).
Just off Tuesday Market Place is magnificent St Nicholas Chapel (above), England’s largest surviving Parochial Chapel.
On the quayside is Marriott’s Warehouse (above), a beautiful 16th century brick and stone warehouse now converted into a restaurant and heritage centre featuring displays about the history and development of King’s Lynn.
In the town centre Lynn Museum invites visitors to discover the mysteries of Seahenge, a 4,000 year old timber circle which was preserved in peat, and revealed at a low tide at nearby Holme-next-the-Sea in 1998.