Historical pub signs and names

I’ve seen people asking for inspiration about names for inns and taverns. So this post is all about pub names in real world history, and how they can provide inspiration for your game world. It is the third (and for now last) post in a mini-series on refreshment in the middle ages.

Generic product signs

In very early times (and throughout the middle ages in little-urbanised countries such as Scotland), drinking establishments did not have names in the way that they do more recently. They would have had a generic sign indicating the product they sold—such as a vine leaf for a wine shop/tavern (perhaps another green plant sign like a bush, in climates where the vine does not grow and the wine is imported), or a drink-related item such as a ale-wand (pole for stirring ale during brewing), a drinking cup or sheaf of grain for an ale house. You might tell one from another by specifying the location, or by the name of the owner.

This type of sign did not go permanently out of use with the coming of other names, and things like Wheatsheaf, Barley Mow, Malt Shovel, Tankard, Grapevine or Hogshead are often used as pub names even today.

Houses of refreshment might alternatively display or depict something related to their food offering, such as the Cony (rabbit), the Cheshire Cheese or the Panier (bread-basket).

Individual signs

By the high middle ages (specifically the 12th century, around the onset of the castles-and-kingdoms kind of period that provides the look and feel for much of the ‘fantasy’ genre) it was becoming common for specialist ale-houses and suchlike to have a more individually distinctive sign. Less so in country villages where there would be no more than one permanent pub and often just a rotation between the houses of various home-brewing alewives. And also not in some other countries such as Scotland, where apparently pubs were not individually signed or named until the 17th century.

In England it became compulsory under a law of 1393 for ale-houses to display a sign so they could be identified by the ale-tasters—local officials tasked with regulating the quality and price of ale. Scotland had a similar law requiring the display of an ale-wand, though I am not sure of the date.

Heraldic badges

Many ale-houses and inns were owned by the lord of the manor or the lord who granted the town charter (often the monarch), and would display his coat of arms or a heraldic-type emblem. Others (especially in the later middle ages) might be run by a guild or other organisation that also had a coat of arms (especially the brewers’ or vintners’ guild, but guilds for other trades might own one or a few). If the whole arms were used and were complicated to describe, then the sign would be referred to as, for example the Devonshire Arms, the Winchester Arms or the King’s Arms. If just a single emblem were used, or if the arms featured a central dominant emblem or pattern, then that name might be used—for example the Bear, the Talbot (a kind of dog), the Three Cups or the Chequers.

In some jurisdictions, ale-houses might all be required to display the arms or a personal emblem of a higher ruler. When king Richard II of England made ale-house signs compulsory in 1393, he required those in London all to display his badge of the White Hart (a type of stag) and it has been a popular pub sign ever since (I’m not sure how London pubs at that time differentiated themselves from each other—perhaps they displayed something else alongside the white hart?). Also I have read that James I of England (and perhaps also in his earlier role as James VI of Scotland), in the 17th century required the Red Lion from his arms to be displayed on all important public buildings, including pubs (it was earlier also the personal badge of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster). Other royal emblems that have been used as pub signs in England have included the White Lion of Edward IV, the Swan of Henry IV, the White Boar of Richard III and the red, white or white-and-red Rose, symbols of the Lancastrian, Yorkist and Tudor dynasties.

Religious emblems and concepts

In the later middle ages, religious pub signs were popular. This may have come about for heraldic reasons, with bishoprics, monasteries and other religious institutions being major landlords and having religious symbols in their coats of arms. There may also have been a contribution from the role of the church in providing village public houses for meetings and festivities, perhaps from the religious character of many town guilds if they operated pubs, or just the piety of the age.

Religious symbols that are or have been known as pub signs or names in England include: the Crossed Keys, the Mitre, the Angel (and Mary), the Lamb (and Flag); the Anchor (and Hope, or vice versa); the Lion and Lamb; the Salutation; the Shepherd (and Flock); the Three Crowns or Three Kings; the Saint George (and many other saints); the Holy Ghost; Our Lady of Pity; the Resurrection; the Holy Cross; the Trinity; the Bible. Obviously in a fantastical or alternate-history world with a different religion/s, the specific religious symbols are likely to be different.

In historical England this type of name became less popular with the break from the Roman Catholic Church under Henry VIII, and the Protestant Reformation that ensued. Many church properties were confiscated and the pub signs changed to reflect new ownership, and others may have been re-named to avoid the appearance of disloyalty or heresy. Likewise in invented settings, religious and political upheavals can result in changes of symbol display throughout society.

Services offered

Pubs might use their sign to advertise to passers-by services or entertainments they offered in addition to the obvious ale, becoming known as the Horse and Groom, the Horseshoe, the Wheelwright or the Fighting Cocks.

A variation, probably post-mediaeval I feel, might be for a pub sign to depict or indicate the kind of customer the pub catered to, such as the Coach and Horses, or the Jolly Sailor.

Geographical features

Pubs could be referred to as the Bridge, the Northgate, the Crossroads, the Riverside or the Hill according to where they were. The owner might or might not bother getting a sign to depict this.

A variation on this logic is a pub named for its own physical characteristic, such as the Crooked Chimney or the Hole in the Wall.

Miscellaneous objects

An owner or manager might lay hold of a handy object and hang it over the pub door by way of an identifying sign, effectively naming the pub the Boot, the Plough or the Old Copper Kettle. There have been pubs called the Bell, though I wonder if this was a functional rather than merely distinctive object, being rung at opening time or some such.

Painted signs

I’ve heard of a number of other pub signs which don’t seem to fit the above categories (some of them may be more obscure heraldic devices I suppose) and I guess just lent themselves to distinctive painted signs. These are mainly from the later middle ages or Early Modern period.

Animals: the Hedgehog, the Cat and Two Parrots, the Crane, the Ram’s Head

Representations of people (including legendary figures or personifications): the Bishop’s Head, the Pope’s Head, the King’s Head, the Maiden’s Head (actually I’ve seen the Maidenhead alternatively named the Virginity so I’m not sure what was really depicted on the sign), the Sower, the Wood Wose; Judith, Love and Death, Old Father Time

Astronomical features: The Rising Sun, the Moon, the Seven Stars

Representations of objects (that probably weren’t themselves hung over the door): the Lute, the Ship, the Sugarloaf, the Woolsack

Other later trends

Other types of pub name that may seem traditional now but I think are largely post-mediaeval include: historical events or their heroes, such as the Royal Oak, the Trafalgar or the Duke of Wellington; sporting activities such as the Cricketers or the Fox and Hounds; two unrelated things such as the Whale and Cow or the Shovel and Boot; puns such as the Dew Drop Inn; named ships such as the Golden Hind or the Prospect of Whitby—also other modern forms of transport such as the Railway; names evocative of old times or local heritage, but not actually associated with pubs in the period in question, such as the Foresters or the Roadmaker

Unofficial names

Bear in mind that locals or regulars might have a name for a pub that does not match the sign over the door. They might simply call it by its manager’s name, its location or its physical description, despite it having an official sign or name. They might call it by an old name that has stuck (at my old job we called the pub nearest the office the Camel for at least ten years after new management took over and changed its official name). People might also derive their own wording from the pictorial sign, subverting its original intent—the Black Swan might be called the Dirty Duck, or the Eagle and Child the Bird and Baby.


Medieval Tavern Names






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