Time to give another popular pub name myth a thrashing. There are more than 150 pubs around Britain called the Chequers, which puts it into the top 30 pub names, and yet the explanation given in most pub name books for the origin of the sign is complete cobblers.
The likeliest source of the problem seems to be Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, which declares that “the arms of FitzWarren [that is, blue and gold checks], the head of which had the privilege of licensing ale-houses in the reign of Edward IV, probably helped to popularise this sign.”
Almost every writer has repeated this story without making any checks (pun intended). Brewer’s itself looks to have nicked the claim from the Gentleman’s Magazine, which printed the story of the FitzWarrens, their chequered arms, and alehouse licensing as the origin of the pub sign in September 1794. However, every claim in the tale is nonsense. For a start the Warenne (not FitzWarren) family, Earls of Surrey, whose arms were indeed “chequy azure and or”, died out in the direct line in 1347, during the reign of Edward III, more than a century before Edward IV.
The right to their chequered arms passed down through their relatives the FitzAlan family and on to the Howards, Dukes of Norfolk, who still quarter the Warenne arms with those of Howard and FitzAlan and their ancestor Edward I’s son Thomas. John Howard, the first of the family to be Duke of Norfolk, was treasurer of the royal household under Edward IV. But there is no evidence that he, or anybody else, had “the privilege of licensing alehouses”: Edward VI was king when the first Act bringing in licences for alehouses was introduced, in 1552, and granting licences was a right given to local magistrates.
In fact, although the alleged “Fitzwarren” connection to the Chequers innsign has been republished as recently as the Wordsworth Dictionary of Pub Names, printed in 2006, it was trashed as far back as 1875, by Mark Antony Lower, author of a book called English Surnames, which includes a chapter on pub names. Lower calls the idea that the pub sign represents the arms of the Earls of Warenne/Earls of Surrey “foolish”, and says, politely, that any charter giving the Warennes the right to issue alehouse licences “would be very difficult, I think, to produce” – meaning that it never blahdy existed.
Lower also points out that the chequers seen on alehouse signs were generally red and white, not the Warennes’ blue and gold, and he links the red-and-white chequers to the “red lattice” that seems to have been a popular painted indicator that the premises on which they appeared was an alehouse. William Shakespeare mentions a red lattice window on an alehouse in Henry IV, and Thomas Decker wrote in 1632 in English Villanies that “A whole street is in some places but a continuous ale-house, not a shop to be seen between red-lattice and red-lattice.”
The transformation of the red lattice to painted chequers seems to have taken place between Decker’s time and that of William Hogarth in the mid-18th century, whose engraving of Beer Street shows checked squares painted on the signpost of the Barley Mow pub in the foreground, and on the wall of the Sun pub in the background. It looks as if, at a time when many other buildings on unnumbered city streets would have borne signs, the specifier of a pub or alehouse was now painted chequers. (Perhaps, as some have suggested, the chequers meant “boardgames played within”, or “money exchanged here”, but I can’t see the former being a big enough deal to advertise or the latter being so common that both Hogarth’s Beer Street pubs would engage in it.)
By the 19th century, if not before, the chequers that showed a place sold alcoholic liquor were being painted on the doorposts of pubs: both Charles Dickens and William Thackeray refer to it. Thackeray described in one of his lesser known novels, Men’s Wives Mr Eglantine arriving at the Bootjack Hotel, Berkeley Square, an inn owned by Mr Crump, saying: “Eglantine leaned against the chequers painted on the door-side under the name of Crump, and looked at the red illumined curtain of the bar.” Dickens, in David Copperfield mentions briefly the “chequered sign on doorpost” of a public house where a glass of water for Dora was obtained. For Lower in 1875 the “chequered square painted upon the doorpost” was still “common to many inns bearing a more specific [sign].”
It is quite possible that some, at least, Chequers pub signs are derived from the Warenne arms, most likely from their appearance as one of the quarterings in the Howard arms: the Howards were big enough landowners to be honoured multiple times in such a way. (A slap, incidentally, for Dunkling and Wright’s A Dictionary of Pub Names for saying that “In the village of Lytchett Matravers, Dors[et], the sign relates to the chequered battle-flag of the Duke of Arundel.” No such person – Dunkling and Wright confuse the Duke of Norfolk with the title traditionally given to that duke’s oldest son, the Earl of Arundel.)
Some Chequers pub signs may come from other armigerous families besides the Warennes/FitzAlans/Howards who bore chequered shields, such as the Fiskes of Laxfield in Suffolk and the Moltons of Pinho in Devon. A few may come from the game of chequers, or draughts, some from the name of the chequer tree or wild service tree, which certainly grows in or near several Chequers pubs in Kent and Sussex. I’m not convinced that the sign has anything to do with moneychangers, another popular claim in pub name books: I know of no evidence that inns ever acted as moneychanging operations. My bet is that many Chequers pubs were originally unnamed alehouses that had a chequered pattern painted by the door to show strong drink was sold inside, and which subsequently, in the absence of any other name, became known as “the Chequers” by default.
This post was prompted in part, incidentally, by my extreme grumpiness at having ordered the Wordsworth Dictionary of Pub Names from Amazon and discovering when it arrived that it is simply Dunkling and Wright’s Dictionary of Pub Names rebadged, and with none of the errors in Dunkling and Wright corrected. For a book on pub names to talk about the Vital Spark pub in Glasgow, for example, and show no knowledge that the name comes from the fictional “Clyde puffer”, or steamboat, called the Vital Spark in the Para Handy stories by Neil Munroe, which have been on British television in three separate incarnations, is appallingly sloppy.