You may have strolled down a British high street and noticed several pubs with signs depicting Red Lions, White Harts, or Royal Oaks. Though their names may not be very original or unique, British pubs offer a snapshot of the local community, and serve as a space shared by a diverse set of people. They’re also a window into the country’s history. Pub names can tell you about technological advances, warring monarchs, and even a king’s famous escape from onrushing attackers. Here are the stories behind the 10 most common pub names in Britain today.
1. The Red Lion
The Red Lion is the most popular pub name in Britain. It certainly seems like a peculiar choice: Wild lions have not prowled the area for thousands of years, and there certainly aren’t any red ones. But the popularity of the name—which is on the signs of more than 500 British pubs—may come down to two different reasons.
The first goes back to 14th-century England and a man called John of Gaunt. John was the third son of King Edward III, and a succession crisis led to infighting within the family. The country’s support was split between John and his nephew, who would eventually become king Richard II. John had incorporated the red lion into his coat of arms after he married into the Castilian royal family, which featured the animal on their coat of arms. Meanwhile, Richard’s emblem was a white hart (more on that in a moment). According to Albert Jack, author of The Old Dog and Duck, pubs would show their support for John by displaying a red lion outside; those who favored Richard opted for a white hart. While Richard became the man on the throne, it seems that John would have the last laugh—his son would eventually capture the throne from Richard and crown himself Henry IV.
But there’s a second reason why Red Lion pubs are so popular. Two centuries after John of Gaunt died, a Scottish king ascended the English throne for the first time. James VI and I ordered many public buildings to show their support for him by displaying his crest, which also happened to be a red lion.
2. The Crown
There’s a reason so many pub signs are simple. In a time when the majority of people couldn’t read, a distinctive sign could help them recognize that this was a place where they could get a drink and a hot meal.
A crown is a straightforward, easy-to-identify emblem. In a country that has had a monarch for as long as the UK, the crown is an easy win for pub landlords whose loyalty to the throne may at one point have been questioned. The crown symbol outside taverns goes back as far as the Romans, according to folklorist Jacqueline Simpson, author of Green Men & White Swans: The Folklore of British Pub Names
3. The Royal Oak
You may be sensing a royal theme here, which shows the importance of the monarchy to British history. The Royal Oak name goes back to the English Civil War. King Charles II was up against Oliver Cromwell and his followers, who wanted more power for a parliament instead of absolute rule from the king. In 1651, Charles II was on the run and Cromwell had offered a £1000 reward for his capture. While being pursued by Cromwell’s men, the king hid in the thick upper branches of an oak tree for a day. Charles would later tell English diarist Samuel Pepys how close he was to being found: “While we were in this tree we saw soldiers going up and down in the thicket of the wood, searching for persons escaped, we seeing them, now and then, peeping out of the wood.”
Charles II returned to the throne in 1660. As a celebration of his restoration as king, many pub landlords took up the name the Royal Oak. The tree itself, near Boscobel House in Shropshire, became famous. Over the next few decades it became a popular site for royalists, who would take branches away as souvenirs. This destroyed the oak, so an acorn was taken from it and planted nearby as the tree’s “son.” Centuries later, when the son was damaged by bad weather, King Charles III, then the Prince of Wales, took one of its acorns and planted a tree to be the Royal Oak’s grandson.
4. The White Hart
A white hart—another name for a white stag—is a rare sight that’s thought to be a symbol of good luck. One old legend tells the story of a brave hero managing to tame a white stag enough to attach a gold collar to its neck. The animal’s association with courage and fortune are probably why a young King Richard II chose it as his emblem when he ascended to the throne at the age of 10.
According to James Potts and Sam Cullen, authors of What’s in a London Pub Name?, as Richard II saw more Red Lion pubs cropping up in support of his uncle John of Gaunt, he ordered pubs to show the White Hart instead. But a 1381 uprising from the common people threatened his position and sent his popularity plummeting. King Richard II, only 14 at the time, negotiated a truce, only to immediately go back on his word and brutally crush the Peasants’ Revolt. This likely led a lot of common pub owners to reverse their decisions and show the red lion crest instead. While the Red Lion is far more popular, there are still nearly 300 White Hart pubs in Britain.
5. The Railway
The most popular pub name without a royal connection offers insight into how important rail travel was to the UK’s development. While railways have existed in one form or another for centuries, Britain was the first place to get steam-powered trains in the 19th century. The rail network transformed the country, cutting travel times and making it easier to transport people and goods. And with easier travel came the need for a place to rest and even stay the night.
Travel and hospitality have always gone together, and while you would previously have found inns for weary travelers along main roads or canals, now you could find them by train stations. If you see a Railway pub today that’s nowhere near a station, look around it. As David Brandon, author of Discovering Pub Names and Signs, writes, it’s probably a sign that there was a train station nearby at some point in the past.
6. The Plough
This easy-to-understand sign pays tribute to a common tool for farmers. It may also be a nod to the process of harvesting the goods offered inside, as grain and fruit are some of the basic ingredients used to make beer, spirits, and wine. Seeing this pub name in a town center is another reminder of the UK’s rural history.
7. The Swan
The origins of this one aren’t clear. The birds can be found on some heraldry, while other Swan pubs may have been named after their landlord’s surname. According to Jacqueline Simpson, there probably isn’t a specific folk story involved with the name. It’s likely the elegance and regal qualities associated with swans were enough to make them a popular image on pub signs. Sometimes, a pretty picture is enough to sell a venue.
8. The White Horse
We’ve established by now that a lot of common pub names depend on who is sitting on the throne. And a new dynasty results in renewed showings of loyalty.
When the House of Hanover took over the British Crown in 1714, they brought with them the white horse on their coat of arms. The Hanoverians had German roots and drew on European mythology surrounding horses, which depicted the animals as a symbol of battle, strength, and wisdom. A rare white horse was first found on the coat of arms of Albert I, Duke of Brunswick-Grubenhagen in 1361, according to the Royal Mint. While the white horse was taken off the royal coat of arms in 1837 when Queen Victoria took the throne, its legacy survives in the name of more than 250 British pubs.
9. The King’s Arms
This pub name is not talking about a king’s actual arms. Instead, it’s another reference to the coat of arms the monarch and his men carried into battle. Heraldry was an important part of showing loyalty, and the general public would have easily recognized common emblems. While you may have had to tweak the coat of arms displayed on your sign every few years, at least the name The King’s Arms could stay the same—until Mary I became the first queen regnant of England, of course.
10. The New Inn
Don’t be fooled by the name: Many pubs with new in their names are anything but modern. However, they would, at one point, have been new. Perhaps the landlord couldn’t think of a more unique name, instead opting to keep it simple. One theory is that many “New” pubs came into existence every time alcohol licensing laws loosened.
What’s clear now though, is that the UK could do with a lot more new pubs. The country is losing them at a rate of more than two a day.