Public houses, better known as pubs, are a ubiquitous and important feature in England’s community life. And each pub has a name.
Roaming around the country, the same pub names crop up again and again, along with the unusual and unique.
Many pub names are centuries old.
This article tells you what the ten most popular pub names are in England, and the origins of each name.
The Crown is, perhaps not surprisingly in a Kingdom, the most popular name for a pub in England. There are 704 pubs in England called The Crown, according to the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA).
The origin is, as might be supposed, a demonstration of loyalty to the Crown, The name became particularly popular for public house owners after the Restoration in the 17th century, when King Charles II returned to his throne following the Commonwealth lead by Oliver Cromwell.
There are other variations on the same theme which are common, such as the popular pub names Rose and Crown and Three Crowns. When I was a teenager, I used to visit the Crown and Anchor, in London Bridge, with my mates.
2. Red Lion
Lions are common animals in heraldic symbols, and many pubs were named after a local noble’s coat-of-arms.
It never hurt to keep the local powers-that-were happy, so naming the local inn or tavern after Lord Such-and-Such’s arms or heraldry was a common practice.
The 668 Red Lion pubs in England therefore probably have several origins, including John of Gaunt’s coat of arms, and King James I’s liking of the symbol.
Once again there are variations on the name – a pub near where I live is called Old Red Lion, for example.
The Old Red Lion pub stored Oliver Cromwell’s body overnight, when King Charles II had it dug up from Westminster Abbey so he could stick it on a spike on London Bridge.
3. Royal Oak
This is another popular pub name with strong links to the Restoration of the Monarchy.
In 1649, Charles I was executed. His son, the future King Charles II, carried on the fight against the Puritans, led by Oliver Cromwell.
Two years later, Charles lost the battle of Worcester, and his army was thrashed by the Puritan New Model Army.
In the course of his escape, Charles II spent 24 hours hiding in the branches of an oak tree in Boscobel Wood, while the nearby Boscobel House was searched by Commonwealth troops.
The Royal Oak itself is no more, but Son of Royal Oak and Grandson of Royal Oak continue in the family tradition, growing cheerfully in Boscobel Wood. The picture to the right of this text is of Son of Royal Oak.
As well as pubs, the Royal Navy has had 8 different ships called HMS Royal Oak since the Restoration.
There are, CAMRA claims, 541 Royal Oak pubs in England.
To read more about the Battle of Worcester, which preceeded Charles II hiding up the Royal Oak, see the Battle of Worcester Society’s website.
The Swan is both a royal bird, and a common feature on heraldic symbols.
King Henry IV’s mother, Mary de Bohun, had a swan on her coat-of-arms, and the Lancastrian Kings adopted the swan as one of their symbols.
The Swan was also used by the Earl of Warwick, and the Duke of Buckingham, among others.
There are 451 Swan pubs in England, and others with the word in their names, such as Black Swan and Swan With Two Necks
5. White Hart
The White Hart was part of the heraldic symbols of Richard II. King Richard II was not a particularly popular King.
He came to the throne in 1377, on the death of his grandfather, King Edward III, when he was aged 10.
In 1399, he was deposed by his first cousin, King Henry IV, son of John of Gaunt.
It might therefore appear surprising that White Hart pubs are the fifth most common – there are 431 of them in England.
However, it was during the reign of Richard II that a statute was passed saying that all public houses and taverns had to have a sign outside. As a result, many of the inns, pubs and taverns of the time put up a sign showing the White Hart.
Number six on the list is the Railway pub. The origins of this are, I hope, entirely obvious! There are 420 pubs in England called the Railway.
The 413 pubs in England called the Plough are named after the farming implement, or after the constellation of stars known as the Plough. Pub signs, therefore, can have either the farming tool, or 7 stars, painted on them.
There are also pubs with other agricultural names, such as the Harrow pub, and the Seven Stars pub at the back of the Royal Courts of Justice in London is named after the same constellation.
8. White Horse
The 379 pubs in England called the White Horse are named after one of three things. Firstly, the name is particularly common in the county of Kent, south-east of London. Kent’s symbol is a rearing white horse.
Others are named after the hill drawings across southern England which feature horses.
From the Iron Age onwards, people have carved giant white horses in the chalk downs and hills, by removing the grass and top soil to reveal the white chalk underneath.
The Uffington Horse is a famous example, and there are about 14 white chalk horses in Wiltshire.
When Queen Anne died, the House of Hanover came to the throne in the person of King George I.
The Hanoverian coat-of-arms included a white horse, and some pubs were named after it, to demonstrate how overjoyed the public house’s landlord was with the new regime.
If you want to read more about Queen Anne and why the Stuarts gave way to the House of Hanover, read this article:
The 378 pubs in England named the Bell are named after the country’s ubiquitous church bells.
Variations are also common, such as the Smarden Bell, or the Bell and Clapper.
10. New Inn
There are many places or buildings called “New” in England which are anything but. Some of the 372 New Inn pubs are among them.
New College Oxford, for example, where my brother-in-law studies medicine, is one of the oldest colleges at Oxford University, founded in 1379. But it’s not the oldest college, hence the name.
The picture to the right is of New Inn on Tresco, one of the Isles of Scilly, 30-odd miles to the west of Land’s End in Cornwall.
Note on the Most Common Pub Names
Exactly what is a pub, as opposed to a restaurant, hotel, or B & B, is open to debate. So different organisations vary as to their views on which are the most common pub names in England.
The list, and figures above for the number of each name, are taken from the Campaign for Real Ale’s figures. You can find CAMRA’s website by clicking here.
The Inn Sign Society has a different top ten list, namely:
1 Red Lion
3 Royal Oak
4 Rose & Crown
5 Kings Head
6 White Hart
7 Queens Head