Britain has a unique heritage in its inn signs: a record of its history and the people who made it. Inn signs depict everything, from battles to inventions, from sporting heroes to royalty.
The origin of inn signs goes back to the Romans. The 'Tabernae' would hang vine leaves outside to show that they sold wine - in Britain, as vine leaves are rare (due to the climate!), small evergreen bushes were substituted. One of the first Roman tavern signs was the 'Bush'. Early pubs hung long poles or ale stakes, which might have been used to stir the ale, outside their doors. If both wine and ale were sold, then both bush and pole would be hung outside.
The naming of inns and pubs became common by the 12th century. With pub names came pub signs - as the majority of the population could not read or write. In 1393, King Richard II passed an Act making it compulsory for pubs and inns to have a sign (his own emblem the 'White Hart' in London) in order to identify them to the official Ale Taster. Ever since then, inn names and signs have reflected, and followed, British life at that time.
Before King Henry VIII and the Reformation, many had a religious theme, for example 'The Crossed Keys' , the emblem of St. Peter. When Henry split with the Catholic church, names were changed from religious themes to 'The King's Head' or 'The Rose & Crown' etc.
The 'Red Lion' is probably the most common name for a pub and originates from the time of James I and VI of Scotland who came to the throne in 1603. James ordered that the heraldic red lion of Scotland be displayed on all buildings of importance - including pubs!
Many signs have royal links: for instance, most 'White Lion' inns date from the time of Edward IV and the 'White Boar' was the emblem of Richard III.
Before painted inn signs became commonplace publicans would identify their establishment by hanging or standing a distinctive object outside the pub.
Boot (The Boot)
Copper Kettle (The Copper Kettle)
Crooked Billet (a bent branch from a tree)
An "arms" name can just derive from where the pub actually is.
Bedford Arms Hitchin, Hertfordshire: Takes its name from its address, Bedford Road, and portrays the arms of the town of Bedford. The more usual derivation is for the Duke of Bedford whose seat is at the nearby Woburn Abbey
Harpenden Arms: Situated in the middle of Harpenden, Hertfordshire. Was originally called the Railway as the pub is along the road from the railway station.
Some "arms" signs refer to working occupations. These may show chaps undertaking such work or the arms of the appropriate London livery company. This class of name may be only just a name but there are stories behind some of them.
Bricklayer's Arms Hitchin, Hertfordshire: The first landlord, William Huckle, who opened this pub in 1846 was a bricklayer by trade.
Artillery Arms Bunhill Row, London EC1: situated next door to the headquarters of the Honourable Artillery Company, the British Armys oldest regiment.
A very popular name is the Red Lion. That refers to King Richard the (II??) lionheart.
Some have quirky origins like the Black boy pub in Oxfordshire. The story there is that a local woman got pregnant by a black man a few hundred years ago when this was very unusual. She tried to scrub the colour out of the child's skin apparently and it became part of local folklore!
Sadly some politically correct fools complained and I'm not sure if they succeded in getting the pub's name changed. The people who complained were not even black.
There are definite links with history to pub names. Unfortunately over the last 10 years old pub names have disappeared for trendy names but thankfully there has been a return to original names as people have rejected homogenization.
There are some names with obvious connections certain names are based on heraldic affiliations IE pictures on the Shields of Kings and local noblemen which is why the Red Lion of Richard the Lion Heart is such a popular pub name.
My own personal favourite is "The Swan with two Necks" which comes from the fact that the Royal family owned all the Swans in the UK until one of the kings of England granted a license to the Licensed Victuallers of the UK to own swans as a thank you for providing beer! to distinguish the difference between the kings swans and the Licensed Victuallers Swans, they had to mark them by putting two nicks in the beak of the swan, or in owld English "2 necks"... this is true honest...
Some of the older, pubs in outlying areas have a history of preserving folk traditions and folk names.
Best I can do, luv.
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