The name Fakenham is Saxon, possibly meaning Fair Place/Place on a Fair River, or Hamlet (Ham) on the river (Ken) Fa/Fair (Fa).
In 1086 (Domesday Book) Fakenham had only 150 residents. Hempton, on the opposite side of the river, was the larger community and had an abbey that played host to pilgrims on their way to Walsingham. Fakenham became the dominant centre when the abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII. It has been a market town since 1250, when it was given a charter. The stalls probably occupied space around the parish church of St.Peter & St.Paul. Fakenham's modern-day Thursday market is still situated very close to its original positioning and around the market place.
Its major industry in the 19th and 20th centuries was printing, but the major printworks (Cox and Wyman) closed in the 1970s. Nevertheless, there are still more than ten small printing firms in industrial premises around and near the town. A large number of printing blocks have been set into the surface of the market place as a memorial to this lost industry.
In the late 1990s the town was listed by contributor Robert Woods to The Knowhere Guide as "the most boring place on Earth". The contribution was specifically referring to Wednesday afternoon which is 'early closing' day in Fakenham. This comment, made by Woods, was taken and quoted out of context as "voted the most boring place on Earth" and very rapidly the story was running in national newspapers with the town council defending the town and spending considerable time, money and effort trying to prove that this was not the case. Woods retracted his statement live on BBC Radio Norfolk, saying that although Fakenham was boring, so too was toilet roll, and he wouldn't want to be without that either. Fakenham was recently voted the seventh best place to live in Britain in Country Life's quality of life survey.
Recent investment in Fakenham has seen the town centre being renovated and pedestrianised. It now enjoys a popular farmers' market on the morning of the 4th Saturday of each month.
The town was the base for North Norfolk's first independent commercial radio station, FTR FM, broadcasting for a short period between 4 and 30 August 1997, using an RSL broadcast licence. Other RSL radio stations followed, between November 1998 and May 2001, including FCR 107.2 and Central Norfolk Radio.
On 25 May 2014 the historical Aldiss building, which had been a feature of Fakenham town centre for many decades, was destroyed by fire. The building was at the time host to the Original Factory shop, after the Aldiss outlet had been moved in the 1990s. There is a currently a petition circulating around the local area for the site to be cleared and remain free of new building work, due to the scenic view of the local church now visible from the town square.