The Red Lion, Britain’s Most Common Pub Name

Britain’s history with its inn signs is like no other. The naming of pubs became common practice during the 12th century, and as most of the population was illiterate, inn names meant there would have to be inn signs. King Richard II made it compulsory for inns and pubs to have an inn sign outside so that authorised ale tasters could identify the establishment. Since King Richard II passed this act in 1393, the inn sign has been intertwined with British history and reflection of life at the time. British inn signs depict anything from historical battles and royalty to animals and sports.

The Red Lion is probably the most common name used, with an estimate of over 600 pubs across the county using it. So, what’s the meaning and origins of this name and inn sign? Well, it has a deep connection to heraldry, either way we look at it. Some historians believe it comes from James I of England. On his arrival in England, he ordered the Red Lion of Scotland to be displayed on all buildings of public importance. Others believe it comes from the heraldic coat of arms of John of Gaunt. However, both explanations have little evidence, and with John of Gaunt being a disliked figure among the population, it is unlikely to be true. So, if the previous explanations are false where does it come from? The Red Lion is perhaps one of the most common heraldic symbols used in England by many families across various counties. These families would have been a part of the English aristocracy and important figures in the local area, being the landowners and lords of the manor. With many inn signs reflecting the local area’s history, it’s no surprise that the Red Lion, the most used symbol in heraldry, would also be echoed in our inn signs.

Arundel has its own Red Lion on the high street. Having opened its doors in the 17th century, the pub still stands today. Local artist and prolific inn signs painter Ralph Ellis was commissioned by Henty & Constable to paint a new inn sign for the pub in 1937, as seen below. Ralph was one of England’s most prolific inn sign painters during the 20th century, having painted over 600 signs nationwide. If you want to see more inn signs and paintings by Ralph Ellis, we have an exhibition about his work, from the 16th of march to the 2nd of May.

Inn sign painted by Ralph Ellis for the Red Lion at Arundel