Lynn has been described as the Warehouse of the Wash during the medieval period. It has been said that during the Middle Ages it was as important to the country as Liverpool was during the time of the Industrial Revolution. However, Lynn’s historical success as a port was partly down to some extreme weather events. The outcome could have been entirely different.
A Changing River
Like all rivers, the course of the River Great Ouse has changed significantly during its history. Fortunately for Lynn, a major change happened just as the town was beginning to expand.
In prehistory the River Great Ouse flowed from Huntingdon to Wisbech, and from there into the sea. There was no access to the Ouse from the coast at Lynn. But over time the lower reaches of the river silted up and flood waters developed new courses, generally progressing eastwards.
After a series of major inland flood events at the start of the C13th, the river breached a watershed near Denver and from there joined the Wash at Lynn. The original northern course began to silt up, depriving Wisbech of a reliable outlet to the sea, and the new course was kept navigable by diverting the River Nene east to flow into it in the 1470s.
It was Lynn, not Wisbech, that claimed and maintained the prize.
A Thriving Port
Part of the reason why exporters were able to transport their goods to Lynn, and why importers chose Lynn as their port of choice, was the extensive inland river system connected to the River Great Ouse which flowed into the Wash at the town and gave traders access to seven counties.
From the C13th onwards, towns such as Thetford, Bury, Cambridge, Ely, Bedford, Northampton, Peterborough, Boston could all be reached directly or indirectly via the Ouse.
The major export of wool would come into the town from the Eastern Region, and amongst other things, wine, wax, coal, and timber would flow to the buyers in the area (including to the many religious establishments). Lynn’s position on the East Coast also meant that it was perfectly suited to trade with Europe and the thriving Hanseatic ports in the Baltic region.
In addition to the commercial traffic, the port was also ideally suited to receive the many pilgrims on their way to the shrine at Walsingham. In the Middle Ages Walsingham was the most popular pilgrim site after the Shrine of Thomas Beckett at Canterbury. Pilgrims coming into the port would often visit the Red Mount Chapel before continuing their journey. The more affluent ones would hire a boat at the South Gates and continue up the River Nar to Castle Acre to shorten their journey on foot.
The port of Lynn was extremely busy. However, this level of traffic nearly never happened. It only did happen because of a quirk of fate.
A Note on Place-name Etymology
The name Wisbech is popularly claimed to mean “on the back of the Ouse” because the first element in the name appears to be similar to the river name Ouse that flowed through the town. This is almost certainly incorrect.
The Domesday entry for the town (1086) is ‘Wisbece’. The original elements are almost certainly ‘wisc’ + ‘bece” or ‘bæc’ meaning “marshy river valley or ridge”. Alternatively the first element may be the River Wissey, itself and the Old English name meaning “marshy stream”.
Lynn appears as ‘Lena’ or ‘Lun’ in Domesday and this is related to the Celtic word ‘llyn’ for ‘lake’ or ‘pool’. It is not difficult to see why an Old British word for such an important geographical feature (The Wash) survived the arrival of the later invaders.
Historically the Bishop of Norwich had held some rights and control over the town (see The Riot When Bishop Henry Despenser Came To Lynn) until 1537 when Henry VIII granted it a new charter and it became King’s Lynn.
© James Rye 2021
Ekwall, E. (1987) The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Place-names (4th Edition), Clarendon
Mills, A.D. (1991) A Dictionary of English Place-names, OUP
Websites all accessed September 2021