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.