Our History

Our History

1344 or 1348

Edward III proclaimed St George as Patron Saint – 23 April St George’s Day & Shakespeare birthday


Plague – Black Death – like aids but worse – 50% of population of East Anglia died – Guilds helped knit together a heavily damaged social fabric.


St George’s Guild Founded

1410 – 1430 

Guildhall built on reclaimed land, the hall itself is 107 feet long and 29 feet wide and is now the largest medieval guildhall in the country.  It is Brick with a scissor brace roof


First record of Nativity Play


Due to being built on reclaimed land which was unstable, heavy roof started to push walls out so buttresses erected on north side of building and king posts added to stabilise roof


Dissolution of Religious Guilds


Became a sail maker’s loft



1585 & 1595


No record of Shakespeare coming to the town, however Lord Admirals Men (with whom he was associated) performed in Norwich

Queen’s Players

His Majesty’s Players


Proof of performance taking place in the Guildhall at this time as documents forbidding performances


Royalist gunpowder store and Arms (W carved in wall by the stage door could indicate War defence property )


Market Exchange


Customs House


Button Factory


Joseph Cooper – Painter used it

1700 – 1767

County Court

1766 - 1814

Theatre installed boxed round the sides and benches across the middle as the Theatre model (like the Globe Theatre but with the roof on


Sold to William Lee Warner Merchant for £557 10/- for use as a warehouse


Merchant Everard’s warehouse

End 19C/ Beginning 20C

Mr Bridges took it over as a warehouse to paint and store scenery

(theatrical connection comes back in)


Bridges bought the Property for £2650.  Royal Warrants – Queen Alexandra’s above the stage and George V on wall stage right were granted to Bridges Company


Derelict – holes in the roof and wall leaned out going to be pulled down and a garage built.  Alexander Penrose thought “something could be done with it” and raised funds from various charities and selling seats for 100 guineas (point out Alexander Penrose’s plaque on the wall).  Also support from the Late Queen Mother and  her lady in waiting the Late Lady Fermoy – Grandmother to Princess Diana (Portrait on Wall).  Draw attention to the names of purchasers of seats – I generally point out the great mix – Queen/famous performers/local industry/schools!  At one time if there was a performance on St George’s day and the purchaser of a seat attended they could see the performance for free.


Opened by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother for the first Festival

  •  King’s Lynn blessed with 2 Medieval Guildhalls – the Trinity Guildhall (or Town Hall) and the Guildhall of St George. 
  • Cult of St George developed at time of the Black Death because of his alleged power to answer prayers for the recovery from the plague.
  • Religious devotion, which the Guilds encouraged, was, after what must have appeared God’s punishment of a wicked world, was a powerful incentive for membership.
  • The Guild of St George the Martyr was founded in Lynn in 1376 primarily as a religious guild to fund a priest to sing at the alter of St George in St Margaret’s Church  It became extremely prosperous and influential - by 1406 it had acquired its present site and in that year was granted a licence by Henry IV permitting the Guild to hold property. 
  • The Guild had
    -        4 meetings a year - the most important on St George’s Day
    -        Its alderman and four custodians were elected by the brothers and sisters who walked in fine robes from King’s Street to St Nicholas Chapel for a requiem mass.
    -        A priest was appointed to pray for the souls of their departed members as well as the royal family at alters in St Nicholas and St Margarets
    -        It contributed to the repair of the town defences and sea banks
    -        Its priest and four minstrels required support and pensions were awarded to members who fell into poverty.

How was this funded?

  • Membership fees and fines for misdemeanours 
  • Rents for properties endowed by benefactors 
  • Hiring charges for the Hall and warehouses 
  • The main door was probably the street door on the north side with stairs to the upper storey 
  • Guildhall primarily used for meetings, dinners and dances until dissolution of the Guilds in 1547.
  •   Lynn very rich in guilds
  •  A town of wealth and importance most likely had its own Miracle and Mystery plays in the manner at York and Coventry.  
  •   Lynn was also an important stopping point for pilgrims on their way to the shrine at Walsingham so an ideal location for religious inspired drama.

Uses After Dissolution

  • 1547 Dissolution of Guilds under Edward IV - Guildhall became property of Lynn Corporation
  • Court House (wrong doers tried at time of fairs called a ‘Pie Powder’ court –  derivation of the French for dusty feet pieds poudres)
  • Corn Exchange
  • Public Meeting Place
  • In 1560 the outbuildings became a warehouse and the Guildhall itself became known as the Common Town Hall.  Records show that for an annual rent of £7 a local sailmaker was allowed to “make and sow sayless” in the said hall in 1588/9.
  • In late 16C hall thought to have revived its relationship with drama.  Local legend (not proven ) Shakespeare performed here in 1593.  Known to have been used by the Queen’s Players in 1585 and 1595 and by His Majesty’s Players in 1635.  The Lord Admiral’s Men, with whom Shakespeare was associated were in Norwich in 1593.  - a woman confessed to murdering her husband to take a lover whilst watching a play on the same subject – which was also depicted in Hamlet ) 


Medieval Documentary Evidence
No documentary evidence of hall being used a theatre until 1594 when players were forbidden to perform there or at the Trinity Guildhall. 
1616 the Mayor wrote to the Lord Chancellor to ask him to stop “all the companies of players that yearly resort to the town” notwithstanding their permission to do so.

Why? - corporations associated itinerant actors with spreading sedition (speech inciting public disorder) and the plague.  Plays were considered lewd, sinful and ungodly. 

According to the Puritans, Preachers and other people disgruntled with theatre life, the audience was disreputable, unruly and full of prostitutes and pickpockets.   It follows if the whole audience was made up of pick- pockets, there would be very little else going on, and everyone would be stealing from each other. It is also doubtful that every woman who attended a play was a prostitute!



1640’s Royalist Gun Power Store & Arms (W near Stage Door)

1650 - Market Exchange

1656 - Second Customs House

1704 - Unsuccessful button factory

1727    Joseph Cooper painter (peppercorn rent for 21 years on condition he attended to the painting, woodwork, plastering and even gilding)

1700 - 1767 County Court House (Cross over of dates?)


New Playhouse 

Around 1740 Norwich managers sounded out burghers of KL to see if they would support a “regular” playhouse.  The Mart and the crowds it generated was the main incentive.  By 1750 the Norwich players were calling regularly and in 1766 they persuaded the corporation to construct a playhouse


1766 - Playhouse built by Thomas Sharpe £450


The principal acting space was a forestage flanked by tiered boxes and covered by a plastered proscenium ceiling support on timber posts. Sufficient traces survived in 1950 to enable a model to be constructed.  


Thomas Snagg in 1769 found the town “a good one for comedians”  

Theatre described as “very pretty and belonging to the corporation”  

Lynn audiences described as “genteel” however had its share of rowdyism.  Editor of the Cambridge Chronicle noted in February 1774, that “the letter addressed to the proprietors of the Lynn theatres complaining of indecency among servants and irregular persons mixing with their superiors in the pit etc and other improprieties, was too long and too local for insertion in this paper.


March 22 1779 £120 was taken at an amateur performance at St George’s Hall  of “The Clandestine Marriage” given “For the Benefit of the Wives, Widows and Families of the Impressed Men for His Majesty’s Sea Service belonging to the Town of Lynn and its Environs”. 


1784 - season not well attended - Corporation agreeing to return 20 guineas to the company from their 60 guineas rent which was distributed amongst the players.


Preparation for Performances


Fires lit on stage for several days; doors opened at 5.15 for 6.15pm.  Servants were forbidden to keep seats for their employers after Act 1 of the main piece. 

Prices: lower boxes 4s upper boxes 3s, pit 2s gallery 1s.  Constables stationed outside theatre to prevent traffic congestion - carriages arriving point the horses eastward and those departing set off in a westerly direction.


However things improved in the first decade of 19C with very good attendances which justified the building of a new playhouse in 1815, which was the Theatre Royal Nr Greyfriars (not the current bingo hall - the original theatre burned down in 1936)



After this chequered history once again...

1814 - Sold to William Lee Warner £557 10/- (Granary)

1826 - Everard Wool Warehouse

1920 - Bridges £2650

1945 - Restoration (fund raising)

1951 - Opened by Queen Mother


The set up now is that the building is owned by the National Trust, run by the Borough Council of King's Lynn & West Norfolk and leased to The King's Lynn Arts Centre Trust


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