HOME Master Article Index/Index by County Links Contact Us
Ancient Britain Castles Churches/Cathedrals Houses/Manors Museums Towns Countryside London History & Folklore Travel Tips

Test daily news

Visit the Stone Pages


A History of Britain in Its Pub Signs

by Elaine Saunders

Devereux Pub SignAs far as time-travel goes, a walk down any High Street in Britain can take an explorer back across centuries.

Few people realise that two thousand years of history is hanging over their heads, and that the humble pub sign can hold the key to a town's past. Pubs were rarely named by accident but were inspired by religion, royalty, heroes and the occasional scandal. Knowing how to read the signs means that any visitor can unlock the history of the inn and learn a great deal about its former customers.

When the Romans invaded Britain in AD43 they brought hot baths, straight roads and the first real pubs with them. In Rome, landlords of these tabernae hung bunches of vine leaves outside as a simple sign but, upon reaching Britain, they had to improvise. They used any evergreen plant and it's still possible to find pubs called The Bush or The Hollybush up and down the country.

Roman roads such as Fosse Way and Ermine Street opened up Britain to long-distance travel and large numbers of troops moving around the country needed to be fed and watered along the way. Roadside inns opened at regular stages -- much like today's motorway service stations -- where travellers could find food, drink and sometimes a bed for the night. Modern roads still follow the route of these ancient highways and it's not inconceivable that some of the roadside inns have been on the same site for centuries.

By the 12th Century large groups were once more taking to the roads, this time in pursuit of pilgrimage. Following the murder of Thomas à Beckett in Canterbury, pilgrimages to his shrine, and other cathedrals around the country, became fashionable. One such journey was described by Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales in which pilgrims set out from the Tabard in London, a real inn of the time.

Traditionally, travellers sought overnight accommodation in the many monasteries along the way but the numbers became so great that the monks could no long cope with the influx. Enterprising locals therefore set up private inns and took religious names to imply a monastic connection. However, the population was largely illiterate so pictorial signs were used to advertise the inns instead of lettering. The images were probably copied from churches' stained glass windows -- the pictures of saints, angels and arks being both familiar and easy to reproduce.

Ship Tavern Pub SignThese religious influences on British pub names would have continued indefinitely had Henry VIII not been desperate for a male heir. Realising that Catherine of Aragon could not give him a son, he sought to divorce her and marry Anne Boleyn. When the Pope refused, Henry broke from the Catholic faith and established his new Church of England in the 16th Century. He systematically destroyed the monasteries and confiscated their wealth whilst pubs rushed to change their names to eradicate any Catholic links. Arks became Ships and St Peter, the guardian of the gates of Heaven, became the Crossed Keys. Many more landlords played safe by adopting loyal names like the Kings Arms or Kings Head.

Henry VIII sold off the monastery lands to the highest bidder and granted peerages to his supporters so some landlords aligned themselves with the new incoming lord of the manor, giving us names like the Devereux Arms or the Duke of Norfolk.

The king was also a great sportsman, a fact celebrated in pub signs. Near hunting grounds there are plenty of pubs called The Greyhound (Henry's favourite hunting dog) or The Bird in Hand for his love of falconry. Other common sporting signs include the Fox & Hounds, Dog & Duck or Hare & Hounds.

Landlords soon realised that pub signs could also advertise the entertainment on offer. Ye Olde Fighting Cocks in St Albans is a perfect example and claims to be the oldest pub in Britain. It used to be the dovecot for St Albans Abbey but after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, a clever businessman realised its circular shape would make it the perfect venue for cock-fighting. Many pubs with cock in the title would have held cock fights whilst the Bull advertised bull-baiting and the Bear bear-baiting.

Yet more pubs associated themselves with the area's predominant trade as a way of gathering custom, such as the Golden Fleece (for the local wool trade). Bricklayers, Blacksmiths and Carpenters Arms were meeting places for local tradesmen and often acted as unofficial employment exchanges. A craftsman moving to the area would seek out such a pub where the landlord could introduce him to an employer or extend credit until he established himself in business.

Golden Fleece Pub Sign

Landlords regularly offered banking services to customers and allowed employers to pay their workers on the premises. By the 18th century, the larger inns on stage-coach routes had become sophisticated commercial centres with strong rooms, storage facilities and lines of credit for businessmen.

Pub signs now began advertising the services on offer to the hundreds of passenger coaches and commercial vehicles. Coach & Horses, Horse & Groom, Wheelwrights and Farriers Arms sprang up along the major routes. It's easy to recognise a former coaching inn as many still have high arches from the street to the stable-yard behind, where grooms, porters, coach-repairers and blacksmiths worked hard to keep traffic moving.

Marquis of Granby Pub SignHowever, not only the tavern owners flourished -- highwaymen made the most of the rich pickings and are occasionally remembered on pub signs. One such was Lady Katharine Ferrers of Markyate, Hertfordshire, who turned to highway robbery out of boredom and to repay her gambling debts. She preyed on the main London to Birmingham road, relieving one traveller of today's equivalent of £60,000. Most highwaymen would kill for a few coins, however. The Wicked Lady at Wheathampstead, Hertfordshire, stands on the spot where she was fatally wounded in 1660.

The Industrial Revolution brought untold wealth to Britain and commercial traffic increased hugely. Industrialists abandoned the roads and built canals to carry coal and raw materials to their factories. Pubs like the Waterway or the Navigation were built along the banks to serve the watermen, many of whom lived on their boats with their families. But by 1850, the faster, cheaper railways had superseded the canals and every town soon boasted its Railway Tavern or Station Arms.

Pub signs have also been used as affectionate tributes and commemoration. Heroes like Nelson and Wellington have pubs named after them, as do famous battles, ships and naval engagements. One affectionate tribute is reserved for the Marquis of Granby, a British army commander much loved by his men. In the 18th century there were no army pensions and, rather than let his men starve, he bought pubs for every one of his disabled non-commissioned officers. He died over £37,000 in debt (£4million today) but the many pubs bearing his name are a fond memorial.

Pub Sign: The Kings
ArmsPubs are a familiar sight in town and country but many of the names crop up more often then others. Every town has its own Crown, Red Lion and Royal Oak but what's the particular history behind them? Why are they so popular?

Compared with many of Britain's pub names, The Crown is relatively new, having become popular as late as 17th century. At that time, King Charles I's disputes with Parliament had spilled over into civil war, the Parliamentary army being commanded by Oliver Cromwell. Despite fleeing to Scotland, King Charles was eventually captured, tried and executed in 1649, his son was exiled and Cromwell assumed power.

Cromwell was a Puritan and deeply religious, and he effectively prohibited most forms of enjoyment. Pubs and theatres closed, sports were banned and colourful clothing and cosmetics were forbidden. The country wore black, as if in mourning for the entertainments it had once enjoyed and even Christmas was outlawed.

Cromwell's death and the restoration of King Charles II heralded a new era of indulgence. Theatres reopened for the performance of the new, bawdy, comic Restoration plays whilst ale flowed in taverns once more. Landlords were so relieved at the return to business that pubs were renamed The Crown in Charles' honour.

Crown also appears in another popular name -- Rose & Crown. There are two theories behind this name, the first coming from another civil war, the Wars of the Roses. Sibling rivalries in the 14th century lead to war between the houses of Lancaster (whose supporters wore red roses) and York (who wore white). In the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, Lancastrian Henry Tudor defeated and killed the Yorkist King Richard III and crowned himself Henry VII. He then married the old king's beautiful niece, Elizabeth the Rose of York, and they went on to found the great Tudor dynasty. Pubs were named in the couple's honour, Rose & Crown.

Pub Sign: The Royal
OakThe last Tudor monarch, Elizabeth I, may unwittingly have influenced the second explanation of this name. When she died, she appointed King James of Scotland as her heir. It is said that pubs called the Crown added an English rose to their signs, implying that their loyalty to a Scottish king must always take second place to their Englishness.

The Tudors may also have influenced the next pub sign, the Swan. Anne of Cleves, the fourth wife of Henry VIII, had a white swan as her family crest and pubs are said to have adopted this name as a tribute to her. As the marriage was annulled after six months however, it's unlikely to be the true explanation.

Henry IV's wife, Mary de Bohun of Hereford, also had a white swan in her coat of arms, as did Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI. However, this sign could easily have been connected with the ancient trade guilds. The reigning monarch still owns all swans on open water but, in the 15th Century, the Worshipful Companies of Dyers and of Vintners were both granted rights of ownership. The Swan could have been a meeting place for workers in either of these trades. Roasted swan was also served at ceremonial banquets so a pub by this name could have implied fine dining.

As well as royal associations, many pub names have religious connections. Masons building a church would have stayed at the local inn and many took an ecclesiastical name upon completion. The ones rebuilding St Brides church after the Great Fire of London stayed in the Old Bellin Fleet Street. Bells were believed to have magical powers, protecting against evil spirits and lightning. Before today's urban noise, bells ringing out to summon the faithful to prayer or sounding curfew would have been far more noticeable. No wonder names like Bell, Old Bell, Six Bells and Eight Bells are so often seen.

The ark has also been symbol of the church: a ship's masts are in the shape of a cross and the centre of the church is the nave, which comes from the same word root as navigation. When Henry VIII renounced the Catholic faith in the 16th Century to create his new Church of England, many pubs abandoned names implying Catholic allegiance. Kings Head or Kings Arms suddenly became very popular and any pub called the Ark could have become the Ship. However, a ship was also a very easy image for signwriters to draw and would also have been popular in coastal areas or naval ports.

Some ships even had pubs named after them, like the Royal George, which sank in 1782 with massive loss of life, or the Royal Oak, torpedoed in the first weeks of World War II with 833 fatalities.

Pub Sign: The Bell
InnMost pubs called the Royal Oak usually show a painting of a tree with a crown resting in the branches. This takes us back once more to the English Civil War when the future Charles II was on the run from Cromwell's army. He remained undiscovered for a day in the branches of an oak tree in Boscobel wood, even though Cromwell's men were on ground below. On Charles II's restoration, this became a popular story and a great number of pubs took the name.

A far less popular king was George IV, who reigned from 1820 to 1830, and lived an excessively extravagant lifestyle. He was hugely overweight, addicted to laudanum and father of several illegitimate children. He married Caroline of Brunswick to discharge his debts but was hateful to her and they separated within a year of marriage. He was once described by the Duke of Wellington as "selfish, ill tempered and without one redeeming quality." It's strange therefore that there should be so many pubs called the George showing a handsome Regency dandy on their signs.

Another figure widely disliked was John of Gaunt, the fourth son of Edward III and the richest man in England in the 14th Century (his annual income exceeded £5 million at today's rates). He founded the House of Lancaster, was part of the feud that led to the Wars of the Roses and crushed the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. It's highly unlikely therefore that he inspired the Red Lion so often seen.

Another theory is that James I decreed that the Red Lion of Scotland should be displayed outside all public buildings, but that would surely have lead to almost every pub adopting the name. In fact, lions were a popular heraldic device in black, blue, red, gold and white, and all have appeared on pub signs. Landlords might have given their pubs the name Red Lion to gain the patronage of the local lord, or a dignitary with this crest could have visited the inn at one time.

The final sign is connected with neither religion nor royalty but was inspired by the Victorians' love of innovation. The Industrial Revolution brought economic and technological success to Britain, and in the 1830s the construction of a vast railway network began. Soon most towns in the country had a station, and hotels were built to cater for the new passengers. Like those on the old coaching routes, the pubs took names like the Railway Tavern or Station Arms as a way of attracting the travelling public.

Defining the origins of pub names is not an exact science because history is open to a great deal of interpretation (and misinterpretation). However, pub signs are like snapshots from time, every one of them capturing an historical event or era. These pictures have been handed down to us across the centuries and carry these stories forwards even if, most of the time, the stories literally pass over our heads.

Pub signs are collectively a unique record of Britain's history -- religious, industrious and scandalous. Many are also beautifully-crafted works of art on public view. So the next time you're walking down the High Street, make sure you stop, look up and read the signs. There's a world of stories hanging over your head.

Holly Bush Pub Sign Greyhound Pub Sign
Nelson Pub Sign Wicked Lady Pub Sign
Pub Sign: The Red Lion Pub Sign: The Swan
Pub Sign: The Crown Pub Sign: The George

Related Articles:

The Historic Pubs of London, by Pearl Harris

Haunted Pubs of England, by Dr. Gareth Evans

A Beginner's Guide to British Pubs, by Graham Hughes

More Information:

Brewery Artists Pub Signs
A wealth of examples of pub signs, plus the history of pub signs and pub sign painting, from the now-extinct Brewery Artists and Whitbread Studios.

Elaine Saunders is a freelance writer based near London. Find out more about the history of pubs and pub names in her e-book, A Book About Pub Names, which contains over 100 illustrations together with dozens of links to specialist websites. It's a comprehensive guide to the history of Britain's pubs and pub signs with chapters on their history, old trades and occupations and drinking measures. For a free extract and details of how to buy visit http://www.completetext.com/ebooks.html.

Article and photos © 2008 Elaine Saunders


 Site Copyright © 2018 Moira Allen. All rights reserved.
For information on reprinting articles or photos on this site, please contact Moira Allen, Editor