Pub talk: what’s in a name?

RED LIONNAME GAME: The Red Lion in Chenies, Buckinghamshire [PICTURE: Cathy Price]

PUB names intrigue, bemuse and fascinate us – and across the centuries, there must have been a million rambling conversations over a pint or two about the particular origins or meaning of a hostelry’s moniker.

Of course, some names are clear enough references to animals, plants and sports or local landowners, occupations or geographical landmarks. Some are more generic mentions of smugglers or highwaymen, ships, steam engines or other modes of transport.

Others contain references that are perhaps a little more cryptic, especially if the myths, legends, historic events and literary works are no longer as familiar as they once were.

Our knowledge of heraldry may not be sufficient to immediately recognise royal connections, for example, even though royal names feature high on the list of the most popular choices, often demonstrating the landlord’s loyalty to the crown – whether genuine or otherwise – and particularly following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.

Coats of arms came into general use by feudal lords and knights in armour to distinguish themselves in battle in the 12th century, although the Romans used similar insignia to identify military units.

Originally granted to individuals, they were made hereditary in England by Richard I (Richard the Lionheart) who, after his crusades in the Holy Land, is credited with introducing the “three lions” design of the Royal Arms of England which also forms the basis of several emblems of English national sports teams.

By the 13th century arms had spread from their initial battlefield use to become an emblem for families in the higher social classes across Europe, inherited from one generation to the next.

The use of arms spread to the clergy, to towns, cities and universities, trades, guilds and subsequently commercial companies. Every noble family had its own coat of arms and inns on their lands were often named after them, particularly encouraged in the 14th century when Edward III attempted to rebrand the monarchy after his father’s disastrous reign.

That explains the ubiquitous Queen’s Arms and King’s Arms, perhaps – along with the Crown, and the Queen’s and King’s Heads. But what about the Royal Oak, the White Hart and that dazzling array of lions – red, black, white and golden?

The Royal Oak refers to the oak tree in Shropshire where King Charles II hid to escape Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads following the Battle of Worcester in 1651. The king told Samuel Pepys in 1680 how, when he was hiding in the tree, a parliamentarian soldier passed directly below it, and the story became popular after the restoration, lending the name to hundreds of pubs.

Even more popular is the Red Lion, often considered symbolic of the archetypal English pub and probably deriving from multiple origins. As Martyn Cornell argues convincingly in his Zythophile blog, the most likely source is the fact that the symbol features in the arms or crests of more than 150 local landowners the length and breadth of England.

Traditionally the red lion is also linked with James VI, having featured in the royal arms of Scotland from the 12th century and being incorporated into the coat of arms adopted by James in 1603 when he became king of Scotland, England, France and Ireland.

Another historical contender is John of Gaunt, one of the most powerful men in 14th century England and effectively founder of the House of Lancaster, but Cornell poses the valid question of why a man so profoundly disliked during his lifetime should have been commemorated so widely.

Cornell’s argument stands up to scrutiny well, particularly in places like Chenies in Buckinghamshire, where the local landowner and lord of the manor was the Duke of Bedford, whose coat of arms incorporates a triumphant red lion. And the names of the village’s two pubs? Yes, the Bedford Arms and the Red Lion (pictured above).

Even the ubiquitous Red Lion is in ongoing decline, however. The problem was highlighted in 2015 when personal trainer Cathy Price from Preston completed the task of visiting all 656 British pubs called The Red Lion – to find that in the years since her challenge began in 2011, some 90 Red Lions had closed.

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Another of the top 10 British pub names is the White Hart, the personal badge of the Plantagenet king Richard II (1377-1399), which takes its name from the archaic word for a mature white stag, often depicted with a chain and golden collar or crown round its neck.

Other “royal” names commemorate different times in our history – including William and Mary or The King and Queen in honour of William III and Mary II, who ruled from 1689, and the Rising Sun, often associated as the heraldic symbol of Edward III (1312-1377), though in rural areas the name may simply reflect the new day’s dawning.