Church Ale – Pub signs with an ecclesiastical theme

by Esmerelda Weatherwax (May 2013)


In some cultures the religion bans alcohol. Methodists and strict Chapel disapprove – Islam forbids entirely. No religion condones drunkenness and alcohol abuse. But with Christ Himself offering wine at the last supper and the wedding at Cana and St Paul’s advice to ‘take a little wine for thy stomach’s sake’ we have an example in the Church of England that alcohol can be enjoyed in sensible moderation. In the Middle Ages one of the ways the parish priest could supplement his income was by brewing Church Ale to be drunk at wedding and christening celebrations which could take place in the church, straight after the event. In later centuries the twin hubs of a village are the pub and the church.

In Cathedral towns the church owned property and provided accommodation for pilgrims; some of these hostelries and inns later became pubs.

Some pub names and signs are obvious. Like the many Railway pubs near railway stations they have taken their name from the nearby church, or a nationally famous church.

The Minster Tavern Ely – opposite the great Ship of the Fens, noted for its octagon lantern and one of my favourite English Cathedrals. The Fountains Abbey near Paddington Station in London.

The Crooked Spire Chesterfield which is next to the Parish Church of St Mary’s, which is noted for its crooked spire. The pub and sign are not crooked – but my sharpest photograph happened to be the one where I was standing at a very odd angle trying to get the spire and the pub into one shot.

St Brides Tavern in the City of London is just behind St Bride’s church in Fleet Street. This is one of Wren’s finest (in my opinion) city churches. There are two things said of the spire. One is that it inspired the design of a proper tiered wedding cake made of rich fruit, marzipan and icing (and not a profiterole nor a cupcake in sight). The other that the spire was originally intended to go on top of the dome of St Pauls but was considered to be a bit excessive, but too good a design in its own right to waste.

The separate sign on the Cathedral Bar at the Fountains pub in Gloucester.

There are the obvious ecclesiastic connotations of bells and angels. I have featured a few of these over the years during postings around Christmas as part of either an Advent Calendar or The twelve Days of Christmas. These are a couple of new ones spotted since.

The Angel Braintree. The Angel BramfordThe New Angel Rainham. The Blue Bell Barton on Humber. The Six Bells in Cambridge and the Eight Bells at Putney Bridge. You can never be sure that a pub called the Eight Bells hasn’t also got a seafaring connection.

Pubs called the Crossed Keys have always got some connection with St Peter whose symbol they are. In Dagenham the ancient pub is next to the Parish church dedicated to SS Peter and Paul. Reference to the Cross needs no explanation.

The Cross Keys Dagenham. The former Cross Keys Bolsover. The Cross Keys St Albans. The Silver Cross Whitehall. The Old Cross Tavern Hertford. The Bell Wimbourne Minster (taken on a very wet day)

Other pubs are named for church figures. The Monks Walk Beverley. The Old Monk Westminster.  

The Crutched Friar in Crutched Friars in the City of London. The Crutched Friars, or Fratres Cruciferi, or Brothers of the Cross are a Roman Catholic religious order who still exist in Portugal and the Czech Republic. They had a house in London near the Tower of London which gave its name to the street (and later the pub) from the 13th century until the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century. Other houses in Europe were purged under the counter-reformation.

Brighton loves diversity; The Druid’s Head Brighton.

The Six Templars at Hertford. The Order of the Knight’s Templar had several houses in Hertfordshire. When the order was suppressed in 1307 six of them were arrested and held in Hertford castle. It is known that there two or three underground tunnels linking several important buildings in town. Rumour has it that there are many more, some still in use, and that they are connected to the order literally going underground. The next time a hole appears in the High Street you know who to blame.

The Cardinal in Westminster about which I posted in 2010 is no more. It originally showed portraits of Cardinal Wolsey and Cardinal Manning (not Cardinal Newman as I erroneously thought until corrected) After refurbishment it was renamed The Windsor Castle.

Bishops are also represented.

The Wykeham Arms Winchester named for William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester, Chancellor of England, founder of Winchester College and several University colleges. His famous motto was Manners Mayketh Man. This was revolutionary in its day. First because it was in English not Latin. More importantly because it does not refer solely to manners as in polite etiquette but that a man (includes woman) should be defined not by position or wealth but by how he (or she) behaves. Put in another way, judged by the content of their character.

The Mitre in Ely Court EC1 is next to St Etheldreda’s Church. Ely Court was the site of the palace of the Bishop of Ely where he resided when on business in London. St Ethledreda’s was his private chapel; it is the oldest Catholic church in England. The street is a little bit of the City of Ely surrounded by the City of London. More fascinating history here.

The Mitre side of The Wig and Mitre Lincoln. The Bishops Finger Smithfield. Known to some of the young men who used to drink there as ‘The Nun’s Delight’. If you don’t understand ask your Dad – I’m not explaining it. The Mitre Cambridge.

There are pubs named for Bible passages. The most common is the Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve is also Cockney rhyming slang for believe (would you Adam and Eve it?! ) Bermonsey, Lincoln, Norwich (opposite the Law Courts with the Cathedral spire in the background) and Petty France Westminster.

Then there is the Ark Tavern in Brimington Chesterfield. The Rainbow and Dove in Hastingwood. The Good Samaritan in Whitechapel behind the London Hospital. The Lamb and Lion in Bath. Also in Bath is The Trinity. The sign features ingredients of the brewing process which are also elements of the Eucharist. Some pubs called the lamb think directly of sheep farming. Others, sometimes as the Lamb and Flag, (in London associated with the Middle Temple – the Templars again) recall that Christ is Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God. The Lamb Romford.

Amongst my favourite pub signs are those which are named after some inspiring saints. Without interfering  with those explored by my colleague John Joyce in his weekly series I have photographs of a few and I’ll make them the subject of a separate article for another month.

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Photographs (other than Rainbow and Dove) E Weatherwax and family.


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