British pubs are famous the world over for their beer, their quirky looks and traditions (think last orders), their history and funny names, their atmosphere, their food, and the fact that most of them are still very family friendly.
When you ask for directions in the UK it will invariably include something like: “turn left at the Slug & Lettuce, continue on that road and then take a right at the Rose & Crown”. Pubs are an intrinsic part of the UK and its culture and people.
Each pub has its own history and every one is different, however, the names are not always unique. The most popular top 4 pub names in the UK are the Red Lion, Crown, Royal Oak, and White Hart; and there is a good reason for this, but first, why are there pub signs in the first place in the UK?
This all goes back to, yes, you guessed it, the Romans! Roman wine sellers used to hang vine leaves outside to show that they sold wine. When they came to Britain, that was no longer an option thanks to the British climate, so they used small evergreen bushes instead. Those who also sold beer would hang an ale stake out as well.
In the 12th century naming of inns and pubs became common, and as the majority of the population could neither read nor write, pub/inn signs were used instead. King Richard II passed an act in 1393 making it compulsory for pubs and inns to have a sign in order to identify them to the official Ale Tester, who would inspect the alcohol being sold at the establishment (apparently Ale Testers were paid in beer).
Since then pubs and inns have been named after monarchs, battles, prominent figures or some other local obscurity.
Red Lion pubs are said to be named after the badge used by John of Gaunt, who in the 14th century was the Duke of Lancaster and the 4th son of King Edward III and was, for a time, the most influential and powerful man in the country. However, there is another story that says Red Lion pubs are so-called because James VI of Scotland, on becoming James I of England, ordered that the heraldic red lion of Scotland be displayed on all buildings of importance, including pubs, so that his English subjects could be reminded that the Scots now held power in the South. One could also say that Red Lion pubs could be named after their local nobel family, as the red lion was part of many an English noble family’s coats of arms.
The Crown pubs are simply named thus to show their support of the monarchy, whichever that might be at any given time.
The Royal Oak pub name is derived from a true tale of a king on the run. Prince Charles was defeated in 1651 at the Battle of Worcester in the English Civil War and fled the scene with Cromwell’s troops hot on his heels. He reached Bishops Wood in Staffordshire, and climbed, what is now dubbed the Boscobel Oak, to hide in the tree for a day until his pursuers moved on. Charles then escaped to France and later returned as Charles II on the Restoration in 1660.
The White Hart is a rare pale/white red deer and was the heraldic badge of King Richard II (reigned 1377-1399) and is usually depicted with a chain and a golden collar or a crown around its neck.
Most pubs these days are tied to a brewery or pub company, which will dictate which beers can be sold in its pubs. Those without any ties are called Free Houses and can decide which brew they want to offer their clientele.
While I was in London earlier this year I came across a lot of these pub signs, some of which were less common than others.