It’s pretty likely, at some stage, you’ve had more than a few in the Red Lion. In fact it’s pretty likely that you’ve had more than a few in more than a few Red Lions’. It is, after all, the most popular pub name in the country, its sign proudly brandished above 518 drinking establishments (at the last official count of such things) together with just shy of 100 variants (Old Red Lion, etc.).
The story behind a pub name can, on occasion, conjure up evocative images of mid-century England, others can appreciably less romantic. Urban myths and lazy interpretations also abound so one has to tread carefully. Real historians, a bit like economists, are very good at explaining why they might have been wrong but not always as good as proving they are right. Now I am no historian, even less a pub historian, so if our interpretations in the eyes of some lack a little pinpoint accuracy, well so be it. It is meant to be fun. And fun is certainly what the old taverns and ale houses of the day provided; beer swilling frivolity being an essential escape for the dreariness and difficulties of life at the time. Some might say the parallels haven’t really changed...
There are many explanations for the origins of the Red Lion. Clearly, it was heraldic and was, of course, a popular adornment to crests and coats of arms across many generations. One such prominent owner was James VI, the Scottish King, who became James I when he inherited the English throne in 1603 as the legitimate heir to Elizabeth I after she died childless. It is claimed that, in one of the first displays of his authority, he decreed that all public buildings, including taverns, must display the Red Lion prominently outside as a sign of respect and allegiance to the new King. Keen to stay on the right side of their new ruler, publicans obliged in their droves, often with an ornate splendour.
Tempting as it is to buy into this credible sound story, the facts get in the way of a good tale here as there is no physical record of any such order existing. While undoubtedly some might have changed their name and signage in tribute to James, such a happening was unlikely to have been mandatory.
Instead, one probably has to look back even further, to the days of John of Gaunt (1340-99). Gaunt had a heavy influence over the young ruler of the day, Richard II. Gaunt’s crest contained a Spanish castle and a Red Lion. Whilst he was not especially popular, his presence was soon missed as the country descended into disarray during one of his many foray’s abroad. With the country lurching towards civil war, some establishments, including taverns and inns, then began displaying Gaunt’s coat of arms in order to show their preference over the weak Richard. Rather than sort out the issues, and allegedly quite stung by this public display of displeasure, Richard II responded by ordering landlords to display his own crest, the White Hart, instead. The result, some have suggested, was that these were effectively the first political campaign posters in the UK. If that was indeed the case, then I am sure they were a lot more effective at garnering votes than the cheesy modern day alternatives we have to put up with!
Further digging suggests that as time progressed, the Red Lion adorned the crests of many a prominent local baron or landowner. Often the publican would name the establishment in tribute or to curry favour with such dignitaries and, in doing so, ensure himself a long tenure. Some clues, apparently, can be drawn from the position of the Lion itself on the sign; traditionally seen in the rampant (upright) position, there are seven other variations (salient, couchant etc.) which whilst beyond me, may in fact yield information on the source of the original crest. Fortunately, a more straightforward explanation exists for the derivative Red Lion names; these were simply when there was more than one Red Lion public house in the town and it allowed the inebriated the chance to distinguish between competing watering holes, hence the Old Red Lion, Red Lion and Sun, or even the Lower Red Lion in St Albans.
So the chances are then that your nearest Red Lion has more of a local historical flavour to it than a national one, but you never know. Many were indeed patronised by nobility, prominent clerics and brave military men. Others, let’s be honest, simply by the local vagrants and drunks of the day. Nevertheless, they are interesting footsteps to follow. I’m sure many of you will be re-tracing them this weekend, I know I certainly will…