The Fleece & Flagon: The Sheepish History of British Pubs

The Fleece & Flagon: The Sheepish History of British Pubs

Engrained in the very essence of our culture, pubs are an incontestably British institution - in the same vein as the Royal Family, the BBC, The Wool Company, and Love Island. As a good patriot (and enthusiastic amateur researcher of craft ales and fine wine), I've visited many pubs over the years to enjoy good company, a game of pool, and locally-brewed beer. But, I've always found a part of the experience slightly strange.

Boot & Castle. The Bird in Hand. White Boar. The Lamb & Flag...

Why do they have such odd names? And why do these names often include animals - particularly sheep and lambs? 

Pub names in Britain carry a rich heritage, telling stories of historical events, local myths, royal connections, and ancient symbolism - each sign unveiling the hidden stories of our communities.

Is It A Cloud or a Sheep?

In the Middle Ages, pubs weren't known as pubs. First appearing in the 11th century, they were called Public Houses - distinguishing them from private residences. Later variations became known as inns (they included overnight stay), alehouses, or taverns (large alehouses).

In 1393, during the reign of King Richard II, an Act was passed which made it compulsory for pubs and inns to have a sign in order to identify them as official watering holes. During this period, the vast majority of the working population were completely illiterate, pictorial signs were used rather than lettering to promote the inns. The proprietors often chose easy-to-distinguish symbols that referenced the king (The Crown), Christianity (The Angel), or nearby hunting grounds (The Greyhound).

The wool industry was a big deal in the Medieval period, and flocks of sheep would have been abundant across the country. Many public houses chose to associate themselves with the local industry to attract local tradesmen, so The Golden Fleece and The Lamb became commonplace.

Golden Fleece York, York – Updated 2024 Prices

The Golden Fleece in York dates back to the early 16th century

The added benefit was that lambs are easy for innkeepers to draw on their signs - although I wonder if they were ever confused by the patrons thinking the pub was called 'The Cloud'. The impact of this is still felt in the 21st century. In the UK today, there are still thirty-two pubs simply known as The Lamb

Pitstops for Crusaders

Some inns acted as stopover points for the Crusaders, or Pilgrims as they were then known, serving  as crucial resting places for the Crusades forces before heading on to the Holy Land. These historical inns derive their names from this role: The Turk’s HeadThe Saracen’s Head, and The Lamb and Flag.

Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem in Nottingham established in 1189AD.

Whilst on the face of it, The Lamb and Flag sounds like it has no connotations with Holy War. In fact, the name comes from the symbol of Christ as the victorious Lamb of God (Agnus Dei) of the Book of Revelation, carrying a banner with a cross, and often gashed in the side.

A Local Delicacy - Fried Sheep Heads

When I was reading up on the history of medieval pubs, I came across the fantastic story of how the Sheep Heid Inn in Dunningston (Edinburgh) acquired its name and just had to share it. From the 14th century, sheep herds that weren't lucky enough to go on to the sheep fair were slaughtered in Dunningston and transported on to the Fleshmarket in Edinburgh's Old Town.

Due to the lack of significant demand for sheep heads (referred to as "heids" by the Scottish), Duddingston's residents took a 'waste not, want not' approach. Notably, two dishes stood out: sheep heid broth, known as "powsowdie", and singed sheep heid, both of which received local acclaim. The mention of the latter's local fame can even be found in Mrs Beeton's renowned cookery book.

What It's Like to Drink in Edinburgh's Oldest Pub, the Sheep Heid Inn
Sheep Heid Inn is perhaps the oldest surviving licensed premises in Edinburgh
As late as the 19th century, the use of sheep heads was so common that locals repurposed the skulls as paving material for their pathways. However, a more plausible (and boring) explanation is linked to a royal event in 1580 when King James VI of Scotland presented an elaborate ram's head snuff box as a gift. This event likely had a lasting impact on the local community and may have influenced the naming of the pub.

More Posts


Leave a comment

All blog comments are checked prior to publishing