Aylsham is thought to have been founded by an Anglo Saxon thane called Aegel around 500 AD. The town is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 as Elesham and Ailesham, said to be derived from Aegel's Ham, with a population of about 1,000. Until the 15th century, the linen and worsted industry was important here, as well as in North Walsham and Worstead, and 'Aylsham Web' or 'cloth of Aylsham' was supplied to the royal palaces of Edward II and III.
John of Gaunt was Lord of the manor from 1372 and Aylsham became the principal town of the Duchy of Lancaster. Although John of Gaunt probably never came to Aylsham the townspeople enjoyed many privileges, including exemption from jury service outside the manor and payment of certain taxes.
In 1519 Henry VIII granted a market on Saturdays and an annual fair to be held on March 12, which was the eve of the feast of St Gregory the Pope. Aylsham markets have always been an important feature of the town and businesses developed to meet the needs of the town and the farming lands around it. Besides weekly markets there were cattle fairs twice a year and, in October, a hiring fair. Today the town has a population of about 5,000, several local industries and still serves the needs of a wide area with twice weekly markets and a farmers' market once a month.
A plaque on the wall of Barclays Bank in the Market Place commemorates Christopher Layer (born 1683), who was a militant Jacobite and supporter of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, the 'Young Pretender'. He was tried for high treason and hanged at Tyburn in London in 1723. Nearby, a plaque commemorates Joseph Thomas Clover (1825-1882), the father of modern anaesthetics, who was born above a shop overlooking the Market Place.
The historic Black Boys inn in the Market Place is one of Aylsham's oldest surviving buildings, and has been on the site since the 1650s, although the present frontage dates to between 1710 and 1720. There is a frieze of small black boys on the cornice and a good staircase and assembly room. The Black Boys had stabling for 40 horses, and employed three ostlers and four postboys.
Daniel Defoe stayed in Aylsham in 1732 and enjoyed a meal at the Black Boys. Parson Woodforde, the famous Norfolk diarist, also dined there in 1781. Horatio Nelson, whose cousin lived in Aylsham, is said to have danced in the Assembly Room.
Sir Humphrey Repton, the landscape gardener, is buried in St Michael's Churchyard, and his watercolours provide a fascinating record of the Market Place in the early 19th century. A thatched waterpump was built in 1911 at Carr's Corner in memory of John Soame by his uncle, a wealthy financier. An artesian well, it is 170 feet deep, and its canopy is thatched in Norfolk reed.
Aylsham is also the terminus for the Bure Valley Railway, the Bure Valley Way long distance footpath and the Marriott's Way. Blickling Hall, a fine example of a Jacobean brick-built stately home in the care of the National Trust, is a mile and a half away.