This list from 2007 by the British Beer an Pub Association is the most often cited:
- Red Lion
- Royal Oak
- White Hart
- Rose and Crown
- Kings Head
- Kings Arms
- Queens Head
- The Crown
In April 2016, the Pub Galore site added several additional names to the list: Railway, Swan, White Horse, New Inn, and Ship.
I’ll work from the 2007 list and let any of you, that may be so inclined, check out the 2016 list.
Added Oomph! now has or has had all of these except for New Inn, which sounds a bit boring anyway (see addedoomph.com for pictures). There is often more than one sign with the same name, but with each artist creating his own version of the painting.
RED LION tops both lists with over 600 pubs and is the one symbol most used in a coat of arms. No one seems to remember the origin, but it was probably the land owner’s crest, or most certainly on a badge of Royalty. It is also one of the symbols of Scotland and may have originated with King James I in 1603. One source, The Inn Society, states “King James had decreed that all public buildings must display a heraldic red lion.”.
ROYAL OAK refers to a tree in Boscobel Wood where in 1651 Prince Charles climbed and hid in an oak tree, successfully evading Cromwell’s army, sometimes called Roundheads because many cut their hair close to their heads. Prince Charles finally escaped into France and was later crowned King Charles II on the Restoration of the Monarchy. The original Royal Oak finally succumbed to the souvenir hunters and old age in the 1700s, but never fear, the English were not going to lose such an historical symbol and quickly planted a sapling from the original tree……..and they now have Royal Oak Jr.!!!!
WHITE HART is probably the most beautiful pub sign I have ever found. The white hart is a male deer or stag and is portrayed with a golden chain around his neck. It refers to the legend of Diomedes consecrating a white hart, wearing a gold collar, to Diana. The white hart was also the livery badge for 9 year old King Richard II in 1377. Even to this day, a forest where a white hart has been seen is immediately restricted for hunting.
ROSE AND CROWN shows a rose, half red, half white….or in some cases, a red rose and a white rose with a crown overhead. This became the badge of the Tudors. It dates from 1485 when Henry Tudor, Duke of Lancaster (county of the red rose)
married Elizabeth of York (county of the white rose) and brought the War of the Roses to a close. This is the Henry who later crowned himself as Henry VII.
KINGS HEAD….Apparently when Henry VIII broke from the Catholic Church, many of the pubs had been named Popes Head, so in order to save their own heads, the innkeepers quickly changed the signs to show allegiance to the Monarch.
KINGS ARMS, same theory as above…..a demonstration of loyalty. Generally speaking, the English like their Royalty and I’ve rarely had a lack of Kings or Queens Head or Kings Arms pub signs.
QUEENS HEAD…..And if there was a Queen instead of a King? Get the paintbrush out and renovate and dedicate!!! Queen Victoria actually inspired great loyalty and affection, to the point that Prince Albert, Victoria’s great love and consort, also has pubs named after him.
THE CROWN works as a broad statement for Kings, Queens, or even lesser Royals and you didn’t have to change to sign so often.
As an aside comment, you may have noticed that some pub signs have the notation Free House. This means the pub is not attached nor owned by a brewery and the innkeeper or publican (the owner or pub manager) is not required to serve only the beers and spirits brewed by an owner brewery. In other words, it is a Free House and can serve a variety of beers from a variety of breweries.
Hopefully, this at least gives a little of the historical background of the best known pub signs. At another time, I’ll cover some of the more bizarre and lesser known signs. Again, it’s all on the internet if you’d like to pursue it on your own.
~ Barbara Plott, email@example.com ~