Britain’s ancient pubs (or are they?)

The pub guide on this website has a category called Ancient Pubs. When I added it I was thinking about the very oldest pubs and I’d assumed that it would include those dating from maybe the 1100s up to the 1400s. Like most people, I was ready to believe claims made by pubs like “dates back to the twelfth century”, or “over 800 years old”. And why not, as these claims are repeated without question in dozens of pub guides from the early 1900s to the present day.

As you might expect, there are half a dozen pubs that claim to be the oldest in the country and it’s useful to look at these to get behind the process of dating pubs. The Olde Trip to Jerusalem in Nottingham claims “1189AD” and has it painted on its outside wall. The Bingley Arms in Bardsey in Yorkshire is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest pub in the UK with a date of 953. Ye Olde Fighting Cocks in St Albans has claimed to be an 11th century building on an 8th century site. 

But it soon became clear to me that none of these pubs would be in my guide’s Ancient Pubs category. In fact if I had stuck to the initial criteria of 1100-1499 there would only be two or three pubs in the category and none at all from before the late 1300s. I revised the category to include purpose-built pubs from the 16th century or earlier, but the list is still very small. The truth is, only a small handful of pubs can be described as ancient.

Olde Trip to Jerusalem, Nottingham: Full pub exterior
Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem: Not what it says on the tin

In Licensed to Sell, published in 2005, Geoff Brandwood and his co-authors dismiss a number of fanciful claims to be the UK’s oldest pub, including those mentioned above. Ted Bruning does the same in his book Merrie England, published in 2014. The Olde Trip isn’t even the oldest pub in Nottingham and the Bingley Arms was built, as shown on its datestone, in 1738. The Olde Fighting Cocks is a 16th century building and didn’t become a pub until the early 1800s. Boak and Bailey summarise the arguments in What is the oldest pub in England? on their blog in July 2020. 

These are famous example of pubs that claim to be older than they are, but hundreds of others do the same. Some claims of dates of origin are based on local evidence but most are pure fiction. I’m not sure where I read it but the assertion that most pubs are 200 years younger than they claim to be, has a lot of truth in it. 

So to work out which pubs are the oldest, let’s look firstly at the criteria, and then have a quick look at how pubs developed in Britain.

Definitions

The phrase “earliest surviving, purpose-built inn” is key here in narrowing down the search, because the first problem is defining what ‘oldest pub’ actually means. The most logical and reasonable definition is that suggested by Ted Bruning, who gives two conditions: One is that the candidate must have been in continuous or near continuous operation as a pub over the centuries; and the other is that a large part of the visible fabric must be original.

This rules out at least two contenders. The first is buildings which are very old but only became a pub later in life. This is actually applies to most pubs built earlier than the 1700s.  Almost all of these started life as a farmhouse or a town house before becoming a pub or alehouse. To be fair, it seems that none of the pubs that fall into this category claim to be the oldest inn the UK.  Two examples are: the Black Lion in High Roding in Essex which started life as a hall house in the 15th century, probably owned by a gentleman farmer, but was a coaching inn by the 18th century; and the Black Swan in York which was built as a house in the 1500s but became a pub in the 1700s.

The definition also rules out pubs built on the site of an older hostelry, maybe having taken over its licence. Or even pubs which have been built on the dateable foundations of the older building. This is a bit more contentious as those who support these claims will argue that surviving fabric is less important than the recorded history of an inn on the same spot. Fair enough I suppose, but I do think Ted’s criteria are more rational. An example is the The Olde Bell, Hurley, built in the late 15th century on the site of an a priory guest house dating from 1135.

Olde Bell, Hurley: Pub exterior
The Olde Bell, Hurley, Berkshire

We now we have a definition of sorts so let’s try and narrow it down a bit more. There were three types of medieval pub: alehouses, taverns and inns. In medieval times each type was quite different, and it was only later that the distinctions started to blur.

Alehouses

Alehouses were by far the most common and served peasants and agricultural workers in the countryside and workers and servants in the towns and cities. However the domestic buildings which housed medieval local alehouses were not built to last and probably all of them have disappeared. Ted Bruning in Merrie England notes that

few of the apparently ancient buildings that still dot our country lanes and high streets go back much further than 1550ish. 

We can be fairly sure that the oldest pub is not an alehouse.

Another complication in dating alehouses is that most pub buildings dating back to the 17th century or before started life as a farmhouse or a town house. It seems that in the 1500s and 1600s, very few alehouses were built as new, and it’s quite likely that the oldest surviving alehouse didn’t start off as one.

Taverns

Taverns were found in larger towns and cities and were for wealthier customers, selling imported wines rather than ale or cider. They were a lot sturdier than alehouses, but none of the earliest have survived. Most were in London and a large number were destroyed in the great fire of 1666. The Olde Cheshire Cheese off Fleet Street was built just after the fire and is the oldest tavern in London. They also existed in towns in the south of England and the Haunch of Venison in Salisbury, constructed in the 1400s, is probably the UK’s oldest tavern.

Inns

The first inns developed from monastic guest houses or hostels, the first of which were built in the 12th or 13th centuries. They were built for travellers, and especially pilgrims, heading for several shrines across the country. By the 1400s many of the the inns built by the wealthy monasteries were sturdy enough to survive to the present day. We’ve seen that alehouses weren’t built to last, and that no medieval taverns still survive, so we can be pretty certain that the oldest surviving pubs in the country were once inns.

Geoff Brandwood contends that the George Inn in Norton St Philip in Somerset is “believed to be the earliest surviving, purpose-built inn….” and so has the best claim to be the oldest pub in Britain. Ted Bruning is less precise, naming the George plus three others: the Shaven Crown in Shipton-under-Wychwood, Oxfordshire, the Angel & Royal in Grantham, Lincolnshire and the Crown in Chiddingfold, Surrey. 

The George was built in 1397 century by the monks of Hinton Charterhouse as a guest house for travellers and pilgrims and much of it, especially the courtyard and gallery at the back, still survives. The Shaven Crown was built slightly before the George, in the late 1300s, but spent some time as a hunting lodge for Henry VIII before becoming an inn again. The Angel and Royal was built in the mid 1300s but only the gate and some interior fireplaces date from this time. The Crown was functioning as an inn in 1383 but it’s not clear how much, if any, of the original building survives.

Take your pick from any one of these four. Mine is probably the George, because it has always been a pub and because a substantial portion of the original structure survives. The Shaven Crown though is earlier, but may be disqualified because of the 40 year period when it was not an inn.

So it looks like there are very few really ancient pubs that date from medieval times. All of the oldest were once inns and there are probably a dozen or so others, in addition to those listed above, that date back to the 15th or 16th centuries. There may also be a few pubs that were once classed as taverns that date from this period.

It also looks like most claims from pubs about their antiquity are false. Does it matter and do we care? For most of us no, we either believe it or just raise our eyebrows and enjoy the ambience. But if you have a 17th century pub is it worth it to say you are 15th century? Both seem pretty old to me, but what do I know?

Sources

Brandwood, Geoff & others. Licensed to sell: the history and heritage of the public house, English Heritage, 2004
Boak, Jessica & Ray Bailey. What is the oldest pub in England? Blog article, July 2020 
Bruning, Ted. Historic inns of England, Prion, 2000
Bruning, Ted. Merrie England: the medieval roots of the great British pub, Bright Pen, 2014

2 responses... add one

Great post, I would seek out any pub from antiquity. For me, yes it is important; my local (an alehouse less than 200 years old) was carpeted over floorboards for the 10 years that I knew it until the late 1990’s but is now frequently mentioned in online reviews as having original flagstones… what isn’t mentioned is these flagstones date from the millenium dome period when they were installed c2000. What a con!

Yes, they do try it on don’t they, and you have to wonder why bother? Still, if it brings them more trade…….

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