When preparing my books on the origins of place names I like to include a selection of pub names. Defining such is a different way of looking at the history of place. Many landowners will have had an interest in the local pub and for their support, or perhaps that should be to earn that support, saw the family name used for the name of the pub.
As that name would have made no sense to the largely illiterate locals the sign used their coat of arms, or perhaps a portion of it, which would have been instantly understood. Even today we use imagery to represent the written language – in signs for public transport, in logos used by brands and companies, and in the icons on screens of our phones and computers. Quite quickly it became commonplace for the term ‘Arms’ to be used even when heraldry was not behind the name. Hence we see Arms used with the place name, the message showing the location of the premises and effectively using ‘Arms’ as a synonym for ‘pub’.
Over the years the lords of the manor move on and their name does have a tendency to disappear from the name, particularly in the larger towns and cities. Yet heraldry still plays a part and while the full arms mean a complex and thus expensive sign, to take a particular part of the image and use that as the name retains the link to the family while producing a new name. This imagery, as legible for our ancestors as the written word is to us, is often misunderstood and does produce some creative explanations.
A good clue to a sign taken from heraldry is the many strangely-coloured animals (both real and imaginary) we see in pub names. Examples include White Lion, Blue Boar, Green Dragon, and the most common of them all, the Red Lion. Another pointer is the inclusion of the number ‘Three’ in the name. It just so happens that three was used in heraldry and is seen in names such as Three Tuns (Worshipful Company of Brewers and Worshipful Company of Vintners), Three Horseshoes (Worshipful Company of Farriers), Three Cups (Worshipful Company of Salters), Three Crowns (Worshipful Company of Drapers), and Three Wheatsheaves (Worshipful Company of Bakers) and many others.
There are even examples of heraldry giving first a pub name and latterly a place name. The most famous being the Elephant and Castle which, while often said to be a corruption of the Infanta de Castile, it actually began as the crest of the Cutlers’ Company. The elephant represents the ivory used to produce the handles of the best knives while the ‘castle’ is actually a howdah on the back of the beast.
If there are any specific pub names you would like to see defined, or any definitions of unusual names you have to offer, I would be delighted to hear from you.