The inn-significance of the Red Lion

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.

11 thoughts on “The inn-significance of the Red Lion

  1. Having just finished researching a e-book on British pub names, I found your posting fascinating but should just like to add a little something to your conclusions.

    When Henry VIII was refused permission to divorce Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn he broke from the Catholic faith and created the new Church of England. He began confiscating the wealth of the catholic church and destroyed many religious houses. He sold off monastery lands to the highest bidder, creating a new class of landed gentry as well as handing out peerages to his supporters.

    Suddenly, pub names with catholic connections became unwise, if not dangerous, and landlords rushed to change them. Many adopted “loyal” pub signs, hence the proliferation of Kings Arms, Crown etc. Even more aligned themselves with the new incoming lord of the manor by taking part of the coat of arms eg, Red Lion, Bedford Arms etc.

    You’re quite right in saying that every pub name has numerous interpretations. When researching my e-book I tried to cover every option but it was sometimes impossible to substatiate every assertion or contradict each tall tale. However, the guesswork and the conjecture made it much more fun to write!

    Keep up the pub posts.

    Elaine Saunders
    Author: A Book About Pub Names

  2. Suddenly, pub names with catholic connections became unwise, if not dangerous, and landlords rushed to change them. Many adopted “loyal” pub signs, hence the proliferation of Kings Arms, Crown etc

    If you have hard, contemporary documentary evidence of that, I’d be very interested to see it.

    Is your book out yet? I’d be very happy to review it, and link to it from here …

  3. Yes my book is out and can be found at Just search for A Book About Pub Names. It was designed as an e-book rather than a print book so I could include over 100 colour illustrations and links to dozens of specialist websites eg on the Wars of the Roses, Crimea etc. I’ve also posted an old article of mine on pub signs at LULU which is available as a free download, Signs From The Spirit World.

    However, I plead guilty to “unthought-out nonsense” particularly where the Red Lion is concerned. In my own defence, I’d like to quote verbatim a question asked on University Challenge on 1st April 2008. “Which common pub name originally denoted the arms of John of Gaunt and, after 1603, that of the Stuart monarch.

    If the venerable researchers on University Challenge can fall into the Red Lion trap, what hope can we lesser mortals have?

    Elaine Saunders
    A Book About Pub Names

  4. Similarly, the first “QI” book contains some complete nonsense on the great porter vat flood of 1814, nicked, I suspect, by the researchers from Alan Eames’s book Secret Life of Beer, which destroyed all the believe I has in Stephen Fry as a smug know-it-all who really did know it all.

    I filled in a “beer history” quiz on an American website earlier this year., which basically meant achieving the highest score by putting down the answer you guessed they thought was right, rather than the answer that was actually right.

  5. The Red Lion, symbol of an Inn or “auberge”, comes from the French(language). Back in the days when people for the most part were illiterate, businesses had to use symbols, images, or icons to ‘advertise’ or draw attention to their product or service.

    In French, the translation of Red Lion is, “Lion d’or,” pronounced, lee ow(n) door. But that exact same grouping of sounds can also stand for, “lit, on dort” which means, a bed; one can sleep. So, the symbol or image of the red lion announced to travelers that, “Here we have beds and you can sleep here”. [Good Madison Avenue ingenuity but, disappointingly, not very pedantic!]

    1. The major problem with your theory is that “Red Lion” isn’t “Lion d’or” but “Lion rouge” …. “Lion d’or” would be “Golden Lion” …

  6. Thank you for a very interesting article which to my amazement answers my question much more accurately than I could have expected. Having an interest in the history of pub signs anyway I was interested to see on a trip between Beaconsfield and Holmer Green (Bucks (close to the Chenies))3 Red Lions (probably half or more of the pubs we passed) which said to me there had to be a particular link to this area.

    Low and behold your explanation gives precisely that link ie the Duke of Bedford. This surely shows that the name in this area relates to that origin rather than the others suggested and as such would put doubt on those latter explanations as a generic explanation at all. I would agree that there is most likely similar links to this as a heraldic symbol important locally in many parts of the country, as well as where the footprints of the Dukes of Bedford fell on their travels. I suspect that in this manner there are some that indeed are linked to John of Gaunt and James1 but not the majority.

  7. Without having done any actual research or being at all knowledgeable about either subject, I’d like to offer up another potential origin for some of the historical Red Lions:


    The red lion is an important symbol in alchemy, often referred to using phrases like ‘the drinkable gold’, ‘life force’, ‘the high medicine’, sustainer or conquerer of will, and so forth.

    Not to mention that, at least to my eyes, most alchemy texts read like drunken recollections of fantastical tales & formulas recounted by chemists on a bender.

    Just something I thought might be worth someone looking into…

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