Pub signs first appeared in England after the Roman invasion some 2,000 years ago. Taverns would hang up a bush outside to let passers-by know that refreshments were available within!
It was a simple step from hanging up a bush to hanging up a sign depicting a natural feature like...... well, ‘The Holly Bush’, which remains a common pub name to this day. In fact, within a mile of my home here in Derbyshire one can find ‘The Thorn Tree’, ‘The Laburnum’, ‘The Sycamore’, and ‘Ye Old Oak’.
For hundreds of years pub signs were just pictures, since most people could not read. Early variations included natural features, such as ‘The Rising Sun’ or ‘The North Star’. Later additions featured animals, wild, farm, and exotic – ‘The Black Horse Inn’, ‘The Swan’, ‘The Bull’, ‘The Peacock’, or ‘The Red Lion’.
In 1393 King Richard the Second decreed that all premises selling ale must display a pub sign. (Whosoever shall brew ale in the town with intention of selling it must hang out a sign, otherwise he shall forfeit his ale). I’m not sure that has ever been repealed.
There are a good many pub signs with reference to ancient myths (‘The Green Man’, ‘Camelot’, ‘The Merlin’) and lots referring to the heraldic, the historic, the religious and the sacred. A great many names have come down to us from the days of Richard the Lionheart and the Crusades (‘The Moor’s Head’ or the ‘Trip to Jerusalem’). From the times when pilgrims walked the British Isles to historic holy sites, there also remain many pub names (‘Pilgrims Rest’, ‘Thomas a Becket’ and ‘The Dirty Habit’ , an irreverent reference to passing monks).
As well as serving as a focal point for the dramas of everyday life in England, the local pub has been the source of plots and uprisings, intrigue of every description, and chicanery without bounds! As a result, the subject matter of historic, antique pub signs range from the religious, through the heroic and the sentimental, to the profane!