English Pub Signs: A Short History
Where Pub Signs Started
Pub signs are a unique part of the British cultural landscape, but unfortunately with the growth of the big pub chains which are taking over individual pubs and changing their names they are in danger of being lost to us forever.
The origins of the English pub sign can be traced back as far as Roman times. The Roman tabernae were shops that also sold cooked food, bread, and wine. They were run by people called tabernarri, the original innkeepers, and it was their custom to hang vine leaves outside their doors to show passersby that they sold wine.
In Britain vine leaves were rare due to the inclement climate, so they substituted small evergreen bushes; hence one of the earliest Roman pub signs was the ‘Bush.’
In those early days a long pole or stake, which was perhaps used to stir the ale, was also placed outside the door to show that ale was sold inside. An establishment that sold both ale and wine would have both a pole and an evergreen bush.
Pub Signs In The Middle Ages
As time progressed more pubs in England began to be given a name, and it really became popular in the 12th century. Most of the population at this time would have been illiterate, so the name of the pub or inn would have been shown pictorially on a sign.
King Richard II passed an Act in 1393 that made it compulsory for inns to have a sign. This was so that the official ale taster could identify them and record his findings.
In 1751 another law was passed that ensured that every pub or inn had a name registered with the prefix ‘at the sign of.’
There are English pubs whose names were taken from medieval royalty, so if you visit a pub called 'The Elephant and Castle' it is a reference to Queen Eleanor of Castile, the wife of King Edward I.
This is the same Eleanor that the procession of memorial crosses were built for after her death by her grieving husband along a route stretching from Lincoln to Westminster. She also gave her name to Charing Cross, as it was a corruption of the 'ma ch`ere reine' or 'my beloved queen' that had been engraved on the monuments.
If you visit a public house called 'The Cat and the Fiddle' it goes right back to Tudor times when the first wife of King Henry VIII was the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon. It is a play on words, as she was known as 'Caterine La Fidele' or 'Catherine the Faithful'.
Before the Reformation in Henry VIII’s time and the split from the Catholic Church, many pubs were also given religious names. The Crossed Keys was the emblem of St Peter, The Mitre as a reference to a bishop’s headgear, The Ship which symbolised Noah’s Ark and The Anchor which was a reference to the Christian faith.
The Crusades also produced many notable pub names, and indeed many early inns were run by religious houses to cater for pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land. So there are many hostelries called ‘The Saracens Head,’ ‘The Turk’s Head’ and ‘The Lamb and Flag’ where the lamb represented Jesus Christ, and the flag was the flag carried by the Crusaders.
One of the oldest pubs in England is ‘Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem’ in Nottingham which was established in 1189. It is thought to have been a place where the knights and fighting men stopped on the way to meet up with King Richard I ‘the Lionheart.’
Heraldry and Pub Signs
At this time heraldry was very important, and kings and nobleman had heraldic devices that identified them on the field of battle and when they were traveling around the country.
They adopted a personal badge or cognizance, which would be sewn onto the livery that they gave their retainers to show who they gave their allegiance to. Many of these badges became the names of pubs and were incorporated into the pub signs.
If we take Richard II as an example, his cognizance was the White Hart, which is still the fifth most popular pub name in the United Kingdom. The White Hart is a badge that was derived from the arms of his mother Joan, the Fair Maid of Kent.
She was the wife of Edward the Black Prince and was the very first Princess of Wales. She gave birth to Richard II in Bordeaux in 1367. Hart is an old word for stag and the White Hart is associated with Herne the Hunter, who is a ghost who is said to haunt the park at Windsor Castle.
The story goes that Herne was supposed to have been a huntsman of Richard II who saved Richard’s life one day when he was attacked by a white hart. Herne was mortally wounded during the encounter but was healed by a local magician who tied the dead hart’s antlers onto Herne’s head as part of the magical healing process.
The price he had to pay was the loss of his hunting skills. He was framed for thieving by the other huntsmen at Windsor and lost the goodwill of King Richard, so he took himself into the park and hung himself from an oak tree.
His ghost, complete with the antlers, has appeared since then in the park at Windsor and other parts of Southeast England. Sometimes he is alone, and sometimes he is accompanied by other wild huntsmen, demon hounds and a horned owl.
His appearance is supposed to be a portent of ill-fortune, especially for the British Royal Family. Other old English legends are reflected in pub names such as ‘The Green Man,’ ‘The George and Dragon’ and ‘The Robin Hood.’
More Heraldic Connections for Pub Signs
Another couple of popular names for pubs in England are the White Boar and Blue Boar. The White Boar was the personal cognizance of King Richard III, and pub signs would have had a painted white boar and the white rose of York.
Legend has it that after Richard III was killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, all the pubs called the White Boar were hastily renamed the Blue Boar. The Blue Boar was the badge of the de Veres who were the Earls of Oxford, and had been supporters of Henry Tudor and hence on the winning side.
The War of the Roses provided quite a lot of famous pub names. Many pubs are named ‘The Sun in Splendour’ which was the cognizance of Edward IV. Edward IV adopted this badge after the battle of Mortimer’s Cross in 1461, which was a decisive victory for the Yorkists.
Before the battle, a natural phenomena known as a sundog or parhelion was seen in the sky and taken to be a sign of God’s favour for the cause of Edward and his followers.
There are also many pubs called The Bear and Ragged Staff, which was the personal badge of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick and also known as ‘Warwick the Kingmaker.’ The Bear and Ragged Staff is also now the coat of arms of the county of Warwickshire.
Pub Signs After The Reformation
After the Reformation, many pubs and inns found it politically expedient to change their names if it had any religious connotations. At this time many ‘King’s Head’ and ‘The Crown’ pubs were named after Henry VIII.
The many ‘Red Lions’ dotted around the country could have derived their name from James I, who came to rule over a unified England and Scotland in 1603, having previously been James VI of Scotland.
He ordered that the heraldic crest of Scotland, which was the Red Lion, be displayed from every important building in the realm, including the pubs and inns.
The pubs called ‘The Royal Oak’ commemorate the young Prince Charles, who went on to become King Charles II, who during the English Civil War after the Royalist defeat at the Battle of Worcester managed to escape the Roundheads and took refuge in an oak tree in Bishop’s Wood, Staffordshire.
He managed to evade his pursuers for several days and later was able to flee to France. Many pubs were named after English national heroes or anyone who had been taken to English hearts. Hence there are many pubs called ‘The Shakespeare,’ ‘Dick Turpin’ ‘The Lord Nelson,’ ‘The Duke of Wellington’ and ‘The Marquis of Granby’.
The story of the Marquis of Granby is especially poignant. He had been Commander in Chief of the English army, and after the Battle of Warburg during the Seven Years War in 1760 he bought pubs for all his non-commissioned officers. However, his amazing generosity ruined him, and he died with huge debts in 1770.
Pub Signs - Into the Modern Era
As the history of Britain moved on through the Industrial Revolution, many more pubs increasingly were given names that reflected this new industrial era. Hence the many pubs called ‘The Railway’ or ‘The Engineer.’
Other pub names reflected local industries such as ‘The Bricklayers Arms,’ ‘The Mechanics Arms,’ ‘The Mason’s Arms,’ and the ‘Blacksmith’s Arms.’
Sporting events also get a look in, and any inn called ‘The Cock’ or ‘The Cock Pit’ would have once been a venue for cockfighting. A pub called ‘The Bear’ would have referred to bear baiting, ‘The Bull & Dog’ would have referred to bull baiting and ‘The Dog and Duck’ represented hunting.
More modern sporting pursuits are represented by the many pubs called ‘The Anglers Arms,’ ‘The Cricketers’ and the ‘Fox and Hounds.’
There are many, many more pub names that exist in the British Isles and they all reflect on our rich and varied history.
Where they can these old names and the signs themselves if possible should be preserved for posterity as a glimpse into an older Britain that is beginning to slip away.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
What is the origin of The White Post pub name?
It is not a particularly common pub name. It could have come from a white post being a feature nearby. Before there were painted pub signs, some innkeepers hung or stood objects outside their tavern to identify the establishment, so maybe a white post was outside the pub.Helpful 1
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