The Red Lion

A war waged through pub names

One of the most popular pub names in Britain, the Red Lion has an interesting history behind it. One theory claims the reason there are so many Red Lions was due to James VI of Scotland becoming James I of England and Ireland, on 24 March 1603. The red lion was the Scottish king’s personal crest and a prominent part of his coat of arms and it is recorded that he ordered the emblem to be displayed at all public places to remind his English subjects that the Scots now held power in the south. Many innkeepers throughout England felt it wise to follow the new rules in case the king and his army happened to ride by one day. While it is certainly due to James I that a red lion became part of the coat of arms of the British monarchy, the idea that this is the source of all those pub and hotel names is, however, doubtful.

The Red Lion was in fact a popular choice of name long before 1603. England’s first permanent theater, built in Mile End in 1567, was called the Red Lion and that was a full thirty-six years before James turned up in England claiming the throne. As many other Red Lions pre-date his reign, we need to look elsewhere for the origin of the name – to an earlier royal family, in fact, and another coat of arms.

In the fourteenth century John of Gaunt (1340–99) was the most powerful man in England. The third son of King Edward III, he was twenty-seven when his ten-year-old nephew, son of his brother the Black Prince, inherited the English crown as Richard II. Gaunt exercised great influence in the early days of Richard’s reign, and not always positive. It was his unwise decisions about various taxes that brought on the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, as the rebels recognized when they ransacked Gaunt’s Savoy Palace in London (built on the site of today’s Savoy Hotel).

In 1386 John of Gaunt left England to claim the throne of Castile (he had married Infanta Constance of Castile fifteen years before), whose coat of arms, consisting of a Spanish castle and a red lion, he had incorporated into his own crest. During his absence things soon fell apart, however, and England teetered on the brink of civil war as a result of misrule by the young king. It is thought that many places, including taverns and inns, then began displaying John of Gaunt’s coat of arms in order to show their preference for Edward III’s surviving son. Highly sensitive to this public vote of no confidence, Richard II responded by ruling that every publican and landlord close to London must display his own crest, the White Hart, instead. Not so different from today, when you think about it, with signs for political candidates popping up everywhere, just before an election, instead of royal coats of arms.

Rather than take advantage of the situation and seize the crown for himself, Gaunt returned to England to support his nephew and help restore stability. Recognized as the real power behind the throne, he enjoyed the wealth and riches of rule and was astute enough to avoid making serious enemies along the way. Even so, he was unable to prevent his ambitious son Henry Bolingbroke being sent into exile by the king in 1398. A year later, Gaunt passed away, dying peacefully in his bed at Leicester Castle. Rather unusually for the time, it was from natural causes. With that his family crest, red lion included, passed over to Henry, while Richard claimed all his lands for the crown.

Henry invaded England in June 1399 with a small force that quickly grew in numbers. Claiming initially that his goal was only to reclaim his patrimony, it soon became clear that he had his eyes on the throne itself. Meeting little resistance, partly thanks to the reputation of his father and partly due to the king’s unpopularity, Bolingbroke was able to demonstrate he had enough strength and support to force Richard to hand over the crown, and he became King Henry IV. Richard died in captivity early the next year; it is thought he was probably murdered. The White Hart had finally, and very definitely, given way to the Red Lion.

Extract from My Favourite Pub – Thirty Great Pub Name Histories

Albert Jack books available for download here

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