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West Wycombe 163: The Red Lion

Picture Credit: “West Wycombe 163: The Red Lion” by Peter O’Connor aka anemoneprojectors is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Why do Pubs have names?

Pub names are used to identify and differentiate public houses. Many pubs are centuries old, from a time when their customers were often illiterate, but they could recognise pictorial signage.

The number of pub signs increased in 1393 when King Richard II passed a law that required landlords to display signs so that royal ale tasters could locate pubs easily to inspect the ale and collect taxes.

The origin of Pub signs goes back to Roman times when the ‘Tabernae’ would hang vine leaves outside to show that they sold wine. One of the first Roman tavern signs was the ‘Bush’. Early Pubs hung long poles or ale stakes outside their doors, perhaps to stir the ale. If both wine and ale were sold, then both bush and pole would be hung outside.

Pub names have a variety of origins, from objects used as simple identification marks to the coats of arms of sovereigns, aristocrats and landowners. Other names come from historical events, livery companies, occupations and sports or craftsmen’s guilds.

The most common Pub names

The two surveys often cited of most common Pub names are by the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) and the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), who say the most common names in 2007 were:

  • According to BBPA
  • Red Lion
  • Royal Oak
  • White Hart
  • Rose and Crown
  • King’s Head
  • King’s Arms
  • Queen’s Head
  • The Crown
  • According to CAMRA
  • The Crown
  • Red Lion
  • Royal Oak
  • Swan
  • White Hart
  • Railway
  • Plough
  • White Horse

Pubs Galore

A more current listing can be found on the Pubs Galore site (here), updated daily as pubs open/close and change names. The top 10 were:

  • Red Lion
  • Crown
  • Royal Oak
  • White Hart
  • Swan
  • Plough
  • Railway
  • White Horse
  • Kings Arms
  • Ship
A Potted History

In 1393, during the reign of King Richard II, an Act was passed making it compulsory for pubs and inns to have a sign to identify them as official watering holes. Many adopted The White Hart as their sign as it was the personal badge of the King – today, it is the fourth most popular pub name in the UK.[1]

In medieval times, publicans would hang distinctive objects outside their inn to distinguish them from the surrounding properties. Names such as The Plough, The Copper Kettle, The Boot or objects which were coloured, such as the Blue Door, were commonplace. Other inns took a different approach. During the time of Richard the Lionheart, religious houses ran the earliest inns catering for pilgrims and knights on their way to the Crusades in the Holy Land. Pub names of that time include The Turk’s Head, The Saracen’s Head and The Lamb and Flag.

By the 12th century, the naming of inns and public houses was reasonably common, and with pub names came pub signs. Most of the working population was illiterate, and pictorial signs were used instead of lettering to advertise the inns or the type of entertainment on offer inside. Considering that ale was their primary trade, many of the public houses opted for something to do with beer – names such as The Hop Pole, The Barley Mow or The Three Barrels originate from these times.

Before the Reformation during King Henry VIII’s rule, many pub names took a religious theme, and the religious influence on British pub names would have continued indefinitely had it not been for the Dissolution of the Monasteries. At this point, many pubs were quick to eradicate any Catholic link.[2]

The Coach and Horses marked a place where passengers on a stagecoach received refreshments while horses were changed or given an overnight stop. Look at any map, and the chances are you’ll be close to an old turnpike road. When the steam locomotive puffed its way into the daily lives of the Victorians, a number of pubs called The Railway or The Station were opened[3].

A Selection of Pub names

The Red Lion
The Red Lion is the most common pub name in Britain. Debrett’s say it rose in popularity following the union of the Scottish and English crowns in 1603 when King James I and VI of Scotland ordered that the heraldic red lion of Scotland be displayed on all buildings of importance.

The Royal Oak and The Rose and Crown
The Royal Oak is Britain’s third most common pub. It refers to Charles II, who hid from pursuing Roundheads in an oak tree after his defeat at the Battle of Worcester in 1651.

Edward III used a golden rose as a personal badge, and two of his sons adapted it by changing the colour: John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster, used a red rose, and Edmund of Langley, 1st Duke of York, used a white rose. The conflicts between their descendants are collectively called the Wars of the Roses. In 1485 Henry Tudor, a descendant of Lancaster defeated Richard III of the York dynasty and married Richard’s niece Elizabeth of York. Since then, the combined red-and-white Tudor rose, often ‘crowned’, has been a symbol of the monarchy of England. The name Rose and Crown celebrates the end of the War of the Roses.

Pubs named after Animals

Names like Fox and HoundsDog and DuckDog and GunHare and Hounds, etc., refer to shooting and hunting. Animal names coupled with colours, such as White Hart and Red Lion, are often heraldic. A white hart corresponds to the badge of King Richard II, while a red lion was a badge of John of Gaunt and a blue boar of the Earls of Oxford. Other examples include:

  • Bald Faced Stag Inn (Finchley) – An inn notorious as it was frequented by murderers in the past.
  • Black Horse, perhaps named in memory of a black horse ridden by the highwayman Dick Turpin.
  • Bull Inn – named in memory of ‘bull-running’ – a practice made illegal in 1835, which involved chasing a bull through the streets of a town until it was weakened, then slaughtering it for its meat.
  • The likes of pubs called Fox and Hounds, Hare and Hounds and Dog and Gun can often refer to hunting or shooting.

Heraldic Pub names

The ubiquity of heraldic pub names shows how important heraldry has been in the naming of pubs. The simpler symbols of the heraldic badges of royalty or local nobility give rise to many of the most common pub names. Five common colours (heraldic tinctures) are gules (red); sable (black); azure (blue); vert (green); and purpure (purple). The metals are or (gold) and argent (silver), although in practice, they are usually depicted as yellow and white. Examples of Pub names, including items appearing in coats of arms, include:

  • Antlers: although this is often seen as a derivation of Richard II’s white hart emblem, it may also be an echo of a pagan figure, Herne the Hunter.
  • Black Griffin: a pub in Lisvane, Cardiff, named after the coat of arms carried by the Lords of the Manor.
  • Blue Boar, the name of many pubs in Westminster,
  • Norwich, Billericay, Maldon, Witney and elsewhere, from the badge of the Earls of Oxford.
  • Eagle and Child, Oxford, derived from the arms of the Earls of Derby, was a meeting place of the Inklings (an informal literary discussion group associated with J. R. R. Tolkien at the University of Oxford).
  • Elephant and Castle: apocryphally a corruption of the words “Infanta of Castile”, more probably taken from the crest of the Cutlers’ Company.
  • White Hart: the livery badge of King Richard II of England. It became so popular as an inn sign in his reign that it was adopted by many later inns and taverns.
  • White Horse: the sign of the House of Hanover, adopted by many 18th century inns to demonstrate loyalty to the new Royal dynasty. A white horse is also the emblem of the County of Kent. The name can also refer to the chalk horses carved into hillsides.

Heraldic symbols often indicate some of the oldest pubs in the land; many have carried their names for centuries. The Red Lion certainly has heraldic origins. Some will tell you that it dates back to when James VI of Scotland became James I of England and insisted that public buildings display the red lion of Scotland; others will point to John of Gaunt’s badge as a more likely origin. In truth, there are probably several derivations of The Red Lion, which might explain why it is the most common pub name, with nearly 600 examples dotted all around Britain.[4]

Pubs referring to occupations

Some Pub names that incorporate the word ‘Arms’ refer to working occupations of past times. The signs for such Pubs may show people undertaking their work or the arms of the appropriate London livery company. It may only be a name, but there are stories behind some of them, for example:

  • Artillery Arms (such as at Bunhill Row, London EC1: next door to the headquarters of the British Army’s oldest regiment).
  • Blacksmith’s Arms (such as in Wisbech) with the pun of the actual blacksmith’s arms and their strength.
  • Bricklayer’s Arms (such as in Hitchin, Hertfordshire: The first landlord, William Huckle, who opened this pub in 1846, was a bricklayer by trade).
  • Carpenters Arms – A series of pubs related to the occupation or more likely to the guild of carpenters.
  • Mechanics Arms (now renamed the Old Neighbourhood), near Stroud, Gloucestershire. In this context, a mechanic was a bonesetter).
  • Shipwrights’ Arms, (for example, in Wisbech, named for the men employed in the local shipbuilders).
  • There are over 57,000 local English pubs
  • 518 are named Red Lion (the most popular)
  • At least 426 pub names contain the word Queen (with 212 being Queen’s Head)
  • 10% of all pubs have one of the top 20 most popular names

Sources and Further Reading

A picture containing sky, building, outdoor, road Description automatically generated

The Thatched Inn: corner of Grand Avenue & Ockley Lane, Hassocks, Sussex

Picture Credit: "File: The Thatched Inn - - 36516.jpg" by Nigel Freeman is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
  1. Source:
  2. Ibid
  3. Source:
  4. Source:
  5. Source:

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