Before the erection of a lighthouse at Cromer, lights for the guidance of vessels were shown from the tower of the parish church, these were small, but served a useful purpose for many years. A number of ecclesiastical lights such as this were exhibited around the coast in medieval times.
During the first twenty years following Charles II's restoration in 1660 many proposals were put forward for lighthouses on all parts of the coast. One of the petitioners, Sir John Clayton, suggested no less than five lighthouses on four different sites - at the Farne Islands off Northumberland, Flamborough Head in Yorkshire, Foulness at Cromer and Corton near Lowestoft. Despite opposition to his schemes Sir John, together with a George Blake obtained a comprehensive patent in 1669 and erected towers at each of the four sites. The patent would last for 60 years and specified rates of dues to to be paid (voluntarily) by the owners of passing vessels. Unfortunately the cost of maintenance was high and many of the shipowners were unwilling to pay the dues required so that Clayton could not afford to kindle fires in the tower at Cromer. However the unlighted tower served as a beacon and together with the other towers are marked definitely as lighthouses on sea charts after 1680 with references such as "a lighthouse but no fire kept in it".
The owner of the land at Foulness, Nathaniel Life, considered that the situation required a lighthouse and it is said that he built a tower in 1717 hoping to be granted a patent for the light. It is more likely, however, that Life merely took steps for lighting the shell of Clayton's tower. Assisted by Edward Bowell, a Younger Brother of Trinity House, he persuaded the Brethren to apply for a patent. They obtained it in 1719, the dues to be ¼ penny per ton of general cargo and ½ penny per chaldron (25 cwt) of Newcastle coal. Life and Bowell jointly received a lease at a rental of £100, on Life's undertaking that the tower with one acre of ground should pass to Trinity House when the patent expired in 61 years.
The patentees exhibited a coal fire enclosed in a lantern on 29 September 1719. In 1792 Trinity House, now in possession, fitted here its second flashing light; 5 reflectors and argand oil lamps on each of the 3 faces of a revolving frame. The frequent and rapid eclipse of the light annoyed some of the seamen, who described it as an "ignis fatus" or will'-o-the-wisp.
J Saxby Wryde writes that the first keepers were two young women who together received a pound a week for wages with certain perquisites. However the sea encroached rapidly; in 1799, 1825 and 1852 immense masses of the cliff slipped down into the sea with the building finally being destroyed by a landslip in 1866.
The lighthouse is now monitored and controlled from Trinity House’s Planning Centre in Harwich, Essex.