Pub names and what they mean?
There's probably an entire website devoted to pub names, and rightly so. Therefore what follows is an outline and is in no way definitive or scholarly. There are literally thousands of pub names, too many to list or describe here.
Nowadays we accept pub names at face value, unless we come across something unusual, but even the most common of pub names often have a long and complex history, their origins obscure and their meanings cryptic. Pubs have a habit of changing their names too, which makes tracing their history nigh impossible.
"Pub with no name, visual reference only"
Naming a pub and putting up a sign illustrating that name is a fairly modern concept. In the Middle Ages, alehouses, like other trades premises, were recognised by a familiar object; the shoemaker might hang a shoe or boot outside his workshop, the farrier a horseshoe and the alehouse an 'alestake', this was a wooden pole which jutted out from the alehouse to show it was brewing. The alestake had another purpose; it was a signal to the 'ale-conner' or 'ale-taster', that a brew was ready for testing. As early as the 13th century it was an offence to sell a brew without showing an alestake and without it having passed a quality test. If wine was available, branches of a bush would be attached to the end of the alestake, a direct reference to the Roman practice of hanging vine leaves above the door. The alestake was not a name but merely a signal.
The naming of pubs was a slow, evolving process. An alehouse near the market place would be simply known as the 'the alehouse by the market'. Possibly as a result of increasing numbers, signs were put up; but unlike the shoemaker or farrier, alehouses and inns began to put up random signs which had little or nothing to do with their establishment. An illustration of the sun or a holy symbol such as an angel might be displayed. They would then be known as the 'inn at the sign of the angel' but not as the Angel Inn.
Name that pub
If you opened a brand new pub, what name would you choose? Perhaps your family name; or the town where it's situated or where you were born; or perhaps someone famous or a person you admire; maybe even your pet?
Ancient pubs naturally have old historic names that we may not fully understand. New pubs are often built on the site of old pubs, regenerating over many centuries, but each new pub retains the name of the original. Pubs named in a different era may not make much sense to us today, but those names have been passed on in pub tradition and are part of English heritage.
New pubs, say for example The Tower in London's West End, was built in the 1960's near the Post Office Tower and so its name makes perfect sense. However, renaming old pubs with frivolous new names causes much irritation to pub traditionalists.
Some names appear obscure but can be simply explained; for example, the Kings Head and Eight Bells, Chelsea, was originally two adjacent pubs that were merged into one. The Fox and Grapes is easy to explain if you have knowledge of Aesop's Fable of the fox who couldn't reach the grapes on a vine and concluded they must be sour and therefore not worth having. The Fox and Anchor is a little less straightforward, but could be derived from a sailor named Fox who opens a pub or a ship called the Fox and the anchor a nautical add on. Both are a complete guess, but several pubs of the same name could have different derivations.
Royalty & Aristocracy
If we take a look at the Smith and Jones of pubs names; the Red Lion, King's Head and the Queen's Arms, we don't give them a seconds thought. But even these common or garden names have a story behind them. The common use of 'Arms' is a reference to 'coats of arms', the heraldic symbols adopted by knights to distinguish each other in battle. Whilst trussed up in a suit of armour and viewing the world through a slit, it would be easy to attack a friend unless they stood out by the markings on their arms, most likely on a shield.
"Most common pub name"
The Red Lion is the most common of all pub names, over 500 or so nationally, but why? In the 14th century the most powerful man in England was John O' Gaunt, a red lion was part of his heraldic coat of arms. When the Scottish king James VI became James I of England in 1603 the heraldic red lion of Scotland was brought south and put on public display. Both these references were probably adopted by alehouses as a sign of loyalty.
Other pub names connected with royalty are all straightforward compared with the use of heraldic symbols; the Crown, Crown and Sceptre, King's Arms, Queen's Arms, King's Head, Queen's Head, The Victoria, Prince Albert, Princess Louise and Prince Alfred are all common examples. Less obvious is the Royal Oak, which refers to Charles II's escape from capture during the English Civil War, by hiding in the hollow trunk of an oak tree.
Lesser mortals but in the same context are the Dukes, Earls and Marquis's who are either chosen because they are local, or popular with the masses. The Marquis of Granby is a common pub name but few know that this 18th century general provided for his men in their retirement, some used the funds to buy a pub which they named after their benefactor. The aristocracy were fond of building pubs on their estates and wouldn't flinch at advertising their own coat of arms or ancestral name on the pub.
Churches and monasteries have an ancient connection with pubs. Lodgings used by masons whilst building churches were occasionally converted into pubs when the building work was finished. The monasteries of course were instrumental in providing the first inns for pilgrims. A suitable pub name would be chosen, with an ecclesiastical twist, such as the Cross Keys, which refers to St. Peter; the Lamb (Lamb of God) referring to Jesus, or the Mitre referring to the bishop.
"St. Peters Cross Keys"
The Bull has a Christian reference too, representing the papal 'Bull' insignia, the Pope's Head was not uncommon, but names of Catholic origin would be hard to find following the Reformation, the Cardinal might have then become a patriotic (Tudor) Rose and Crown. Other pub names connected with the church are common, such as the Six Bells.
It's also a truism that where you'll find a church there will be a pub nearby. Long sermons are known to cause dry throats, particularly for the congregation.
Heroes and Battles
Apart from monarchs, dukes and earls, prominent figures have been honoured with a pub names, Winston Churchill and W.G. Grace for example. Military heroes such as Lord Nelson or the Duke of Wellington are well represented. However others may not have approved, Florence Nightingale and Edgar Wallace have pubs named after them but they were both tee-total.
"The Iron Duke"
Trafalgar, Waterloo and Alma are battles celebrated in pub names, not only as a source of national pride but in honour of those who fought. Some returning soldiers and sailors became pub landlords so may have chosen the name for more personal reasons.
More obscure names come from long distant history, such as Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, Nottingham. This old pub, built in the castle walls, claims to have been a recruiting station for the Crusades of the 12th & 13th centuries. Pubs with names like the Turk's Head or Saracen's Head are also a direct reference to the Crusades.
Mythical Beasts and Cattle
Animals, either real or mythical, have been a favourite source of pub names for centuries. Many of the connections refer to the unfortunate animals being either hunted or baited. The Red Deer and Roebuck are often found near royal hunting grounds; the Dog and Duck, Pheasant, Fox and Hounds or Hare and Hounds, are hunting references, many hunts start and finish at a pub.
Pubs called the Bear or the Bull may seem like an affectionate reference, but in many cases have their origins in baiting, usually with dogs. Similarly the Cock appertains to cockfighting, the Cockpit in the City of London leaves no room for doubt.
The White Hart is an heraldic device; it became popular during the reign of Richard II (1377-99) it being his heraldic symbol, although it was used before this time. The mythical Unicorn, which appears with a Lion on the official coat of arms of the United Kingdom, is also used as a pub name.
The Pub Tradesmen
Working people have always gathered in pubs, indeed trades unions were founded there; so it's not surprising that certain pubs became associated with particular trades. The Plumbers, Carpenters and Builders Arms are common, they adopted the names of their customers' trades, but some pubs were not only meeting places but acted as labour exchanges too.
I hope the above gives a brief insight into the complexity of pub names and their place in local and national history. The modern tendency to attribute arbitrary, silly or meaningless names to pubs is an opportunity missed. A pub's name need not be old or historic, but if it has no connection with its locality, its people or its time, then its name is of no consequence or interest. A thoughtful and fitting name however, means the tradition is continued, to be enjoyed and puzzled over for generations to come.
Further reading The Dictionary of Pub Names
The Old Dog and Duck: The Secret Meanings of Pub Names