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Tales of the Ostrich

I’ve now written over a dozen posts for my living-history blog. So it’s time. “Time for what?”, you may ask. Well, any amateur historian worth their salt  has to tackle eventually a folk history topic that’s loved and loathed in equal measure. And that is the history behind…. pub signs. So, here follows my first post on this very visible part of English culture. Be warned, there’s more to come after this….

If you find a church…..

I have always loved how, in any typical English village or hamlet, you find the local pub and the church next to each other. It’s like there’s a link between the two that is unspoken, yet understood. So, in this initial post about pub names, I want to look at a way that these two very English institutions may be linked.

But first, let’s do a potted history of the drinking establishments themselves. We use the terms inn, pub and tavern pretty much interchangeably.  But there are subtle differences in how the terms were used of old. 

Taverns and Ale Houses

The name tavern derives from the Latin taberna, bought here by the Romans, and originally applied to a place very much devoted to the sale of wine. There were taverns a-plenty in Roman Britain, but they competed with the ale-house, which were more favoured by the indigenous population. They preferred their native-brewed and cheaper beer, to imported  and expensive wine. 

Indeed, the Saxon King Edgar issued an edict in around 970,  attempting to limit the number of alehouses in any single village.  Apparently, the patrons of those establishments were far too rowdy for the peace of  the good citizens nearby. Those were the days.

Pubs and Inns

Pubs are of course, public houses – in other words, private dwelling houses which could, by licence, open a room to the public in order to sell beer. And  inns were places where you could eat and drink, but also stay overnight. The standard of accommodation varied considerably. The affluent could afford a private room. The not so rich often shared a bed, or even a corner of the attached hay barn or stable.

Down at the old Bull and Bush

So let’s look at how these various establishments advertised their presence. Of course, the signs needed to be visual, since the vast majority of patrons were illiterate.  From Roman times onwards, the universal sign outside an establishment to show that a drink or two could be had within its walls, was a bush hung outside the door.  This was a pragmatic  British adaptation of the Roman custom of hanging a bunch of vine leaves, (these being in relatively short supply in northern parts). That’s why we still see pubs called names such as  the Bull and Bush and  the Holly Bush.

Tied to the land

Off to pilgrimage

People have always needed to travel, and find a place to eat, drink and sleep – even in a time when common folk were very much tied to the land. There were mainly two legitimate reasons to travel from home ground; to go on pilgrimage, or to join the crusades.  And in both cases, you’d need food, drink  and accommodation – in other words, hospitality.

The hospitality business

What an interesting word hospitality  is. It is inevitably  derived from the Latin – in this case hospes, which can mean both a guest and a host. It’s from where we get the English words hostel and hotel.  The latter derives from the French hôte. Whenever you see the capet, or circumflex over a vowel in a French word, you know that the letter “s” has been taken away. That’s the French for you.

And hospes is also the root of our words hospice and hospital. Now, in medieval times, hospitals were attached to abbeys and monasteries. Yes, they were there to house the sick. But. equally important – the religious institutions had a religious duty to provide hospitality to travellers. Any pilgrims wending their way to one of the great sites of pilgrimage and finding themselves in need of sustenance could look to the hospital or hospice attached to the local monastery or church or abbey for their accommodation. 

Do turbot have ears?

As they had a religious duty to provide hospitality to all travellers,  the customs and practices of hospitality were carefully documented in  rule-books, some of which have survived until now. Mind you, the level of hospitality and the quality of food and drink you received, very much depended on your social standing.

Writer Julie Kerr mentions a contingent of guests descending on Ensfrid, Dean of Cologne Catherdral. Hospitality was required. Kitchen supplies were scarce, and so Ensfrid apparently told his cook to mash the scant meat available, and serve it up disguised as turbot. Why? Probably because it was a Friday, or in Lent, and so eating meat was forbidden. All was fine, until a guest found a pig’s ear in his mash. At which, Ensfrid calmly announced that, of course, turbot have ears. That’s a bit of cool for you.

Did you say Ostrich?

And now we get back to pub names.  With time working its usual magic in changing the meaning of words, and corrupting our understanding of things, the hospice and hospital became – the Ostrich. There are several pubs and inns scattered around this country that proudly display the sign of the ostrich, but which originally bore the old name and meaning

Cross keys and Unicorns

So the hospices and hospitals attached to the abbeys and monasteries and churches would denote their religious origins in the signs they used to advertise their accommodation, and of course  their food and beer. You can still see the continuation of this religious tradition in modern pub signs, echoing their medieval predecessors. 

There’s the Adam and Eve, found in Norwich and elsewhere throughout England. The Cross Keys, seen everywhere,  is actually the symbol of St. Peter.

Animals and birds, both real and mythical, with religious symbolism, appear in signs. The Pelican: at least half a dozen of these, including in Nottingham and Hull. – and Peckham.  The pelican  was thought to feed its young with blood from its own breast in times of starvation, and so it had become a Christian symbol of sacrifice. Or so medieval folk believed.

 Likewise the Unicorn, examples found in Manchester and Malvern. In legend, it could only be captured by a virgin, and so it came to symbolise purity in Christianity.

Hope and Anchor

You’d think that a pub with such a name as the Hope and Anchor would have a nautical history;  not so. It was actually a religious symbol, and is derived from the book of Hebrews in the old Testament:

Which hope we have as an anchor of the soul

And a further pub name, which you might not immediately recognise as  originating in those religious hospices: The Salutation. There are pubs with this name scattered everywhere in England, such as the one in Hammersmith.   The name derives from the salutation which the angel Gabriel gave to Mary. He announced her impending role in the birth of Christ, and which of course starts with the words “Hail, Mary…..”

Look for a church and…

When out on long walks in an unknown area, you might need refreshment.  Good advice is to look at the Ordnance Survey map and find the symbol for a church. Invariably, a pub will be nearby. (Let’s hope the same is true when our current lockdown nightmare is over). 

As written at the beginning of this post, it’s as if there is an invisible link between the two institutions. Of course, this could well be due to the pub having originally  attached to the church as a hospital, or hospice.  And sometimes this link manifests itself, by the pub taking the name of the saint to which the local church is dedicated.

Cat and Wheel? Or Catherine Wheel?

So, you can find plenty of pubs with saints names, and often, with the pub sign illustrating the symbols associated with the saint. So, there is the Catherine Wheel pub in Oxford, Norwich and many other places. Saint Catherine was martyred on a wheeled torture contraption. You can find corruptions of this name, like in the sign shown here.

Also, in a nice piece of serendipity, there is St. Brides Tavern, near to the same named church in Fleet Street ( I talk about Saint Bride in my earlier post, Swan Songs). 

Richard Rich 

And in Great Leighs in Essex, there is  a pub called the Saint Anne’s Castle. Great Leighs is the site of a priory, which was a stopping place for hospitality for travelling pilgrims.  They would be on a journey  from the shrine of Mary at Walsingham in Norfolk, to the shrine of Saint Thomas à Beckett, in Canterbury. A bit of a grand tour. So Saint Anne’s would have originally been a hospice,  attached to the priory. 

Incidentally, following the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1540s, the priory of Great Leighs was “appropriated” by Richard Rich of Shardlake fame,  an original Essex bad boy, who set up home there – the topic of a future post.

Off to Jerusalem

As well as pilgrimage,  medieval folk travelled from their home base to join the Crusades. Their  quest was to gain (or regain) the Holy Land – modern day Israel, Lebanon and and Syria – from the occupying Muslim forces. This was a sacred duty for European monarchs, who consequently needed to drum up recruits . It was the inns and hospices of medieval England which provided accommodation and hospitality for the soldiers and their followers on the start of their long journey east.  They also stood as centres for recruitment for volunteers for the crusades. 

Jerusalem and Jericho

The Olde Trip to Jerusalem

In fact, the allegedly oldest pub in England, is supposed to have been used for that very purpose, at the time of Richard the Lionheart’s Crusade in 1189. It’s in Nottingham and it’s called – The Olde Trip to Jerusalem. As with many folk memories, there is no verifying documentation to support this – but it’s a romantic notion nevertheless.


And incidentally, I wonder if Jericho priory (see my post “He’s gone to Jericho), was actually named after a memory of the crusades, rather than directly from a reference to the bible? 

Another clue to a pub’s origin as “crusader” hospitality is one with the name of Saracen’s Head. There are many of these, scattered around the country. Often, pubs with this name were run by those fortunate soldiers who actually managed to return.  Hopefully, with a nest egg with which to set up a modest drinking establishment. Likewise, there are numerous pubs simply called The Crusader.

Hiding in plain sight

Well, the history is there, in plain sight, brightly painted, hoisted on a post at the side of the road, advertising the hostelry nearby. Hopefully, this post might cause you to ponder the origins of the many hundreds of pubs whose names lead you back to a jolly monk with a foaming tankard in his hand.

A good read

A great dictionary of pub names
Scholarly, but worth the effort.

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