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Home > A History of Britain in its Pub Signs, Part II

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 Sign: The Red Lion Pub Sign: The Swan
Pub Sign: The Crown Pub Sign: The George