Sea Salt and Sin – The Beginning of King’s Lynn

There have doubtless been people visiting and living at the southern corner of the Wash throughout human history, but the town of King’s Lynn itself (originally called “Bishop’s Lynn” – see Why is King’s Lynn called “King’s Lynn”?) has a relatively late beginning. There were people, but no obvious quaint Celtic settlement that developed into a Saxon village before becoming a Norman town. In one sense, the proud market town of Lynn literally grew out of the mud at the end of the eleventh century. The two forces of sea salt and sin generated the town that was there by 1101.

Mud on the Banks of the River Great Ouse, King's Lynn 
Photo © James Rye 2022
Mud on the Banks of the River Great Ouse, King’s Lynn
Photo © James Rye 2022

The Sea and the Salt

A pressing concern for visitors to the town today might be, “Have I got the correct coins for the Car Park?” or, “Will I get a WiFi signal for my parking app?” Mjor concerns for the average person in post-Conquest England were food – not only having enough of it, but also of having reliable ways of preserving it so that nothing was wasted and so that starvation during the winter was avoided.

And the provisions of the sea were attractive. Not only could the sea yield food, but it could also provide salt – a key to preserving all kinds of nutrition. People would be drawn to certain coastal regions.

In 1085 when William the Conqueror’s officers surveyed his kingdom and recorded the Doomsday Book, there was no town of Lynn. The land where the town now stands would have been the remains of a tidal marsh. Further back in history the water line would have extended well into what is now The Walks. By 1085 the high water line from the tidal lake of the Wash had shrunk back to beyond the west end of where St Margaret’s Church now stands.

The Doomsday Book divides the marsh into four areas: North, South, West, and Bishop’s. The final part was land belonging to the Bishop of Elmham and Thetford (later moving to Norwich). He had a palace in Gaywood (which is recorded as a settlement in Doomsday).

In 1085 there wasn’t a town of Lynn, but Doomsday records over 50 salterns (saltworks) in the area.

Lynn (almost certainly derived from “llyn”, the Celtic word for “lake”) had ideal conditions for salt production. Salt making involves:

  • Long stretches of sand between high and low water marks. The regular covering of this sand with salty water. (The shallow edges of Lynn’s tidal lake provided both of these.)
  • Wooden containers filled with sand from the tidal beaches. (Salt water from the lake was then poured onto the sand into the containers to make them even more salty.)
  • Vessels to collect the run-off water from the containers of sand.
  • Peat or turf to burn in order to boil the above liquid to produce the crystalized salt.

The desalinated sand was then dumped, gradually raising the level of the shore, hence moving the shoreline forward (and in this case, westward).

In addition to buying salt, some other trading was going on the shore of the Wash where Lynn now stands. The people were also probably buying wool from the flocks on the coastal marshes, and corn from the dried out arable land emerging from the fens.

The Bishop was getting some income from the small community trading on his land. According to one reading of events it was at the request of these traders that Bishop de Losinga founded the priory church of St Margaret’s and obtained for them a market and a fair. It would be easier for the traders to go to church, their trading would be regularised and promoted, and the attraction of a fair meant that the town’s name would spread and attract lots of visitors.

However, parallel to the shore trading, something else was going on for the Bishop.

The Bishop and the Sin

By 1101 when the priory church of St Margarets had been established, everything seemed fine, but Herbert de Losinga, the Bishop of Norwich, had had a troublesome few years.

In 1088 de Losinga asked his friend the King, William II, if he could become Bishop of Thetford and Elmham, and if his father could become the Abbot of Winchester. De Losinga was Abbot of Ramsey at the time. He was looking for a promotion and access to a greater income for himself and his family. The trouble was that he laced his request to William with an offer to pay the King the eye-watering sum of £1,900 if his request was granted.

Doubtless William thought about it briefly before granting De Losinga what he wanted. Today we may disapprove of individuals making generous donations to political parties in order to gain a seat in the House of Lords, but we are so used to it that it tends to get lost in yesterday’s news. However, the problem for de Losinga was that yesterday’s news didn’t go away – in fact, it lasted for eternity. De Losinga had a conscience. He knew he had sinned.

The particular sin was the sin of simony. It derives from a story in the Book of Acts where a man named Simon tries to buy influence and the power of the Holy Spirit from the Apostles (Acts 8:9-25). Round about the same time as de Losinga’s sin, Archbishop Anselm was trying to bring about reform of the church in England and was preaching against this particular practice.

Herbert de Losinga, Bishop of Norwich 
(Photographer unknown)
Herbert de Losinga, Bishop of Norwich
(Photographer unknown)

De Losinga knew that according to Catholic doctrine, he was risking extra years spent in purgatory after his death. In fact, de Losinga was so worried that he travelled to Rome in 1094 to resign his office. The Pope accepted de Losinga’s resignation and granted him absolution. However, the Pope immediately reinstated him in another job and another task.

On receiving de Losinga’s resignation Pope Urban told him he was to leave Thetford and Elmham and become Bishop of Norwich, and that as part of his penance he was to give more money – this time to the church – and use it to build other churches and religious houses.

De Losinga obeyed and provided funds for the first buildings of St Nicholas at Great Yarmouth, St Margaret’s in Lynn (1095), and Norwich Cathedral. The Lynn church was originally dedicated to St Margaret, St Mary Magdalene, and all the Virgin Saints.

Boundaries, Expansion, and Money

In 1096 Herbert de Losinga decided to translate his cathedral from Thetford to Norwich where he founded a community of Benedictine monks to serve it. To these monks he gave, amongst other things, a church (St Margaret’s) he had begun to build on the Gaywood marsh. The parochial area of the church was also given to the monks. It included the ‘land, marsh, and people’ between Possfled (later Purfleet) and Sewoldsfled (later Millfleet), running back to the seabank at Gannock.

The monks had a number of secular privileges.

  • The soke of all the dwellings in the area (fees from law disputes, rents).
  • Profits from the Saturday market.
  • Profits form the fair held on the feast of St Margaret.
  • Ownership of salterns in the area.
  • Ownership of a new mill.

The town expanded and a first chapel of ease, St James’, was built in 1135.

Within 50 years the town had outgrown its original boundaries. From 1145 the new Bishop, William Turbe, builds the extension north of the Purfleet with a new (larger) market place and a new church (St Nicholas’, which was to become the largest Chapel of Ease in England). The land was not part of the original grant to the Benedictine monks and came under the direct lordship of Turbe. Much to the disappointment of the Benedictine monks on the other side of the Purfleet, the Bishop kept the profits from the larger market place for himself.

The two areas remained separate until the beginning of the thirteenth century. Bishop John de Grey was able to buy back the grant of land made to the Benedictine monks in Lynn’s original settlement by granting them similar land and privileges elsewhere. Once both the “Old Lynn” and the “New Lynn” were under de Grey’s direct lordship he obtained a charter for the town in 1204, expecting (no doubt) rewards from the further commercial growth of the port.

© James Rye 2022

Book a Walk with a Trained and Qualified King’s Lynn Guide


  • Clarke, H. and Carter, A. (1977) Excavations in King’s Lynn 1963-1970, The Society for Medieval Archaeology Monograph Series No. 7
  • Hillen, H.J. (1907) History of the Borough of King’s Lynn, Vol.1, EP Publishing Ltd.
  • Owen, D.M. (ed.) (1984) The Making of King’s Lynn: Records of Social and Economic History New Series IX, Oxford University Press
  • Parker, V. (1971) The Making of King’s Lynn, Phillimore
  • Rye, J. (1991) A Popular Guide to Norfolk Place-names, Larks Press
  • White, C.H.E. (accessed April 2021) Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Losinga, Herbert de,,_1885-1900/Losinga,_Herbert_de

See also:

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