Karl Pearson, whose sesquicentenary was celebrated earlier this year, is an excellent example of how extremely intelligent people can hold deeply stupid beliefs. Pearson was a huge and important figure in the development of mathematical statistics, he founded the Department of Applied Statistics at the University of London, and his writings on science influenced Einstein’s thoughts about light and time. He was also a eugenicist and Aryan supremist with irredeemably racist views about “lower tribes” that would rightly get him dismissed from any university today. On the credit side, he turned down a knighthood from George V, and he delivered an excellent motto for those of us sometimes accused of trivial pursuits: “Not one subject in the universe is unworthy of study.”
Many would regard the study of pub names as an insignificant field of enquiry, but I like to paddle in its shallows – I’ve a dozen books on the subject, including an “original” Larwood and Hotten (all right, 12th edition, 1908). Sometimes I feel I ought to join the Inn Sign Society. However, I cure myself of this urge by logging on to the society’s website, and the unthought-out nonsense that is peddled there on the origins of common pub names makes me want to slap someone.
Here’s what the ISS says about the Red Lion, often claimed to be the commonest pub name in Britain (though at around 650 examples it is probably just beaten by the Crown):
… most Red Lions originate from the reign of James I. Already James VI of Scotland when he ascended to the English throne in 1603, on arrival in London the new king ordered that the heraldic red lion of Scotland be displayed on all buildings of public importance – including taverns, of course.
Let’s just forensically dissect this claim. First, is there any evidence at all that James VI/I made such an order?
Second, would there be a sensible motive for him to make such an order?
No, quite the opposite. James had been the heir presumptive to Queen Elizabeth since the death of his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, in 1587, but it had never been certain he would be offered the crown, and while he arrived in London with a fair degree of goodwill from the bulk of the English population he would not have pushed the fact that they were now ruled by a king from another country in their faces by insisting that Scottish red lions be put up everywhere.
Third, if such an order had been made, is it likely it would have affected pub and inn names?
No – if all the “buildings of public importance” bore red lions on them (and incidentally, the ISS’s statement begs the question that a tavern would be seen as a “building of public importance” anyway, a highly questionable assumption), then how could you tell, if someone said “I’ll meet you at the Red Lion”, which “Red Lion” was which?
So, to sum up on the ISS’s statement that the Red Lion pub name comes from a decree by James 1 in 1603: there’s no evidence for it, it doesn’t make sense historically and it’s nonsense from a practical direction as well.
The ISS also nods at the most common explanation for origins of the pub name Red Lion, that it is derived from the badge of John of Gaunt, who died in 1399. This is the origin you will find in almost every book on pub names, including Larwood and Hotten, who declare that “doubtless” John of Gaunt’s red lion spawned all the other Red Lions. But it doesn’t take much research to show that this, too, is nonsense.
A red lion was certainly one of the badges linked to John of Gaunt, Edward III’s fourth son, who was born in the town now spelt Ghent. He was Duke of Lancaster (through his first wife, Blanche) and also a claimant to the throne of the kingdoms of Castile and Leon in Spain through his second wife, Constance of Castile. Leon’s arms, naturally, were a (red) lion rampant on a silver background, and during the time John laid claim to the throne of Leon he must have used those arms.
John was one of the most powerful men in later 14th century Britain, Steward of England from the time the young Richard II came to the throne, and the richest man in the country, with an income of £12,000 a year. He was, effectively, founder of the House of Lancaster, father, grandfather and great-grandfather to Henrys IV, V and VI respectively, and, through his third marriage, great-great grandfather of Henry VII, first of the Tudors. All subsequent British monarchs are his descendants. He is, thus, a very important English historical figure.
However, he was haughty and reserved and deeply disliked during his life among the bulk of English people for his policies towards the oppressed mass. In the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, when he was out of the country, the rebels destroyed his palace by the Thames in London, the Savoy. Rather than loot the palace, the attackers threw the Duke’s gold and silver onto a bonfire and his jewels into the Thames. They said they refused to steal from such a hated figure. One man who did try to pillage was also thrown on the fire. When John did return to England he was largely responsible for crushing the rebellion. It is unimaginable that such an unpopular man should have had his badge on so many pubs.
In addition, John only had the right to the red lion of Leon for the 17 years between 1371, when he married Constance, and 1388, when he gave up his claim to the Spanish thrones in return for £100,000 (an unbelievably large sum of money in the 14th century) and a yearly pension.
So – not John of Gaunt either, then. Who else? Well, the red lion is, in fact, one of the commonest heraldic badges in England. More than 150 families, in at least 31 counties from Cornwall to Northumberland, bore the “lion gules” (including at least one family of brewers, the Stewards of Norfolk). With the red lion in such widespread use by those entitled to bear arms, who were almost by definition important landowners, and frequently lords of the manor, in the places where they lived, it is not surprising the common use of the red lion among the English aristocracy and gentry is reflected in our pub signs. In the village of Chenies, Buckinghamshire, for example, the big local landowner and lord of the manor was the Duke of Bedford, whose Russell family arms showed a red lion. The village’s two pubs are still called the Bedford Arms and – yes – the Red Lion.
A heraldically derived pub name need not even be from a family with property interests in the immediate vicinity. Sometimes noble visitors took their personal signs with them on their travels, to put up on houses where they and their supporters were lodging. These signs, bearing the family badge and intended to show the illiterate where the lord’s retinue could be found in a strange town, were known as “lodging escutcheons”.
In 1560 the then Earl of Bedford, ancestor to the later Dukes, took with him “iij dozen of logyng skochyons” (lodging escutcheons) on a journey to France. Undoubtedly his “logyng skochyon” was the Russell red lion, and if he and his retinue stayed in the same inns regularly, many of those inns must have gained permission to display a red lion permanently to show their connection with this noble family. There was a Red Lion in Bedford itself, and it is recorded that in 1689 the fifth Earl of Bedford stayed in state at the Red Lion, Cambridge, surely not a coincidence. On his way there he stopped for a night in Royston, Hertfordshire – where one of the biggest inns, was, again, the Red Lion.
The truth is that there is no single, easy answer to the origin of the Red Lion, such as “James I”, or “John of Gaunt”, but a multitude of answers, each one particular to a particular place. Each pub will have been called the Red Lion for its own specific reason, generally connected to specifically local concerns. The Red Lion, Cambridge will have a different origin for its name to the Red Lion, Cerne Abbas or the Red Lion, Osset, West Yorkshire, and only local research can tease out the likely true story for each different Red Lion pub.