Clifton House is thought by many to the be finest surviving merchant house in King’s Lynn. Built in a prime position, fronting onto Queen Street and backing onto the river, the site has been occupied since the 12th century.
The present house owes its name to William Clifton and his heir who owned it for much of the 19th century, but owes it grandeur to the Taylor family who remodelled it at the turn of the 18th century.
The current house occupies the site of two or three medieval properties, features of which remain incorporated in the structure. The first clue to the wealth and importance of these early owners is revealed below the house: there is a fine brick vaulted undercroft dating from the mid 14th century. This would have been used by the merchant owners as a storage area for their goods. Within one wall of the undercroft the remains of a 12th century window, the clue to an earlier building, can be seen. Equally significant, a medieval tiled floor was found under what is now the kitchen, but would formerly have been a parlour. The tiles, dating from the late 13th century, are of the type known as ‘Westminster Tiles’ and are extremely rare, particularly in a domestic building. The then owners were undoubtedly wealthy and important people.
During Tudor times the five-storey tower was constructed, probably by a Lynn merchant by the name of George Walden who owned the property in the 1570s. Entry was from the riverside yard rather than the house, but it was more than just a watch tower and office. The tower was a status symbol, used to entertain guests and associates, its rich decorations and fine views intended to impress.
The last significant change to the site can be credited to the Taylor family. Simon Taylor, a loyal royalist during the reign of Charles II, was both MP for Lynn and knighted by the King in 1684. He set about remodelling the family home which he had owned since the early 1660s. It was his son and heir, Samuel Taylor who completed the project. It is believed that they employed architect Henry Bell to undertake the work. The scheme included remodelling the street fronts in a grand style, with sash windows and a magnificent doorcase. The doorcase, with twisted barley sugar columns made from mahogany, and known as Solomonic columns, leads to the terrace adjacent to the house and frames the entrance to the tower, also designed by Bell. The redesign of the interior included the insertion of a magnificent central staircase.
Sadly the 19th and 20th centuries saw a slow decline of the house. Some respite was afforded in the 1960s and 1970s when the property was owned by the Borough Council of King’s Lynn and the long lost medieval floor tiles were discovered and saved. The house was sold into private hands in 1982.
With the death of the owner, the house came onto the market in 1996. The KLPT Trustees had long been concerned about the steady deterioration of this magnificent house and made the decision to purchase it. Urgent repairs were needed to make it weather proof and sound. Whilst seeking grant funding the Trust pressed on with repairing the roof, treating the timber and replacing fallen ceilings. Brickwork in both house and tower needed repairs, along with window frames. The arrival of a grant from English Heritage, which covered a portion of the costs, was very welcome.
Once the exterior and urgent works were completed, the Trust decided to sell the house. They were especially keen to see it go to an owner who would complete the restoration and use it as a family home. In 2005 the house was sold to Dr Simon Thurley, then CEO of English Heritage, and his wife Dr Anna Keay, an architectural historian. They have proved to be the perfect custodians of the house, turning it into their much-loved family home. They have undertaken a painstaking restoration of the interiors of the house and tower, revealing further ‘layers’ of history in the process. They have been generous in sharing their findings with others. The house is open to view on Heritage Open Day, during the annual King’s Lynn Festival and at other times by arrangement with the owners.