Pubs are fertile ground for tall tales, with many claims to be the oldest pub in England. Here are the facts.
Several pubs claim to have been mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086. Spoiler alert: no pubs are mentioned in the Domesday Book.
Others claim Anglo-Saxon origins or links to the medieval Knights Templar. Where evidence is absent, the imagination often fills in the gaps.
Often, anywhere that claims to be ‘England’s oldest pub’ almost certainly isn’t.
What is the oldest pub in England?
The pub, as we think of today, emerged in the middle of the 19th century.
It incorporated elements of earlier types of buildings: the alehouse, the tavern and the inn. These had provided drink, food and shelter for centuries since the Middle Ages.
No medieval alehouses, and few taverns, survive in England. So if you want to find the oldest place where you can still buy a drink, you need to look at the great medieval inns.
First, however, here are the contenders for the oldest pub by modern definition.
Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, St Albans, around 1600
Reputedly the ‘oldest public house in England’, Ye Olde Fighting Cocks in St Albans, Hertfordshire, has the most substantial claim to be England’s oldest pub.
Unfortunately, however, its claim to be an 11th century structure on an 8th century site doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny.
Archaeological excavations suggest the present building dates from no earlier than about 1600. And while there may once have been a medieval brewhouse on the site, this is not the same as a pub.
The first recorded licensee appeared in 1822, so Oliver Cromwell, who died in 1658, likely didn’t stable his horse here either, another local legend.
Before 1872, the Fighting Cocks was known as the Fisherman, based on the idea that monks stored their fishing tackle in this waterside spot.
Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, Nottingham, after 1680
In bold black letters, Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem claims to be from 1189AD and ‘the oldest inn in England’.
However, records suggest there wasn’t an inn in the city until at least 1483, and even this is unlikely.
An inn appears to have been built on this site around 1680 when the first Duke of Newcastle was rebuilding the castle above.
By 1760 there was definitely an inn called the Pilgrim, and by 1799 someone had changed the name to imply a trip to the Holy Land.
The Bingley Arms, Bardsey, around 1738
The Bingley Arms near Leeds in West Yorkshire claims to be of Anglo-Saxon origins, previously known as the ‘Priest’s Inn’ and ‘officially’ the oldest pub in England. It’s not.
No records support the Bingley Arms being of 10th century origins. It’s more likely from the 18th century, consistent with a surviving 1738 datestone.
Bardsley church does have an Anglo-Saxon tower, and the town itself is mentioned in the Domesday Book.
But locals probably had to wait a little longer for somewhere to have a drink.
What is the oldest inn in England?
The inn was a house for accommodating travellers. It probably first appeared in the 12th or 13th centuries.
Inns were different to taverns, which sold wine and food to the well-off. They were also different to alehouses, which sold ale, and later beer, plus simple food, to the lower classes.
But inns have the best survival rate from medieval times, making them the true answer to ‘what is the oldest pub in England?’ Here are the best contenders.
The George Inn, Norton St Philip, Somerset, after 1345
The George Inn in Norton St Philip, Somerset, has the strongest claim to be England’s earliest surviving purpose-built inn.
This likely makes the George Inn the oldest site where you can still buy a drink today.
The inn appears to have been built in the 14th century (sometime after 1345) by the Carthusian monks of Hinton Charterhouse, to provide accommodation for merchants attending the monastery’s markets and fairs.
The earliest phase that can be tree ring dated suggests the use of timber felled between 1430 and 1432, although some of the stonework might be earlier.
It was modified and extended in the 1st half of the 15th century.
The New Inn, Gloucester, around 1440
The New Inn in Gloucester is the earliest surviving example of a ‘courtyard’ inn.
It was built between around 1430 and 1450 by Gloucester Abbey for pilgrims visiting the cathedral, under the supervision of 1 of its monks, John Twynnyng.
Tree ring dating suggests the use of timber felled in 1432, placing it very close to the materials used in the George Inn in Norton St Philip, Somerset. The building is referred to in a rental of 1455 as the New Inn.
There were once more than 20 bedchambers. Given that each could have held several beds, the New Inn could accommodate nearly 200 guests.
The Angel and Royal, Grantham, around 1450
The Angel and Royal in Grantham, Lincolnshire, is another of the few remaining English medieval inns dating to the mid 15th century.
Several Royals are claimed to have stayed here, including Richard III. However, Kings are more likely to have stayed with noblemen than in travelling inns.
The Angel and Royal also claims to stand on land once belonging to the Knights Templar.
The King’s Head, Aylesbury, around 1450
The King’s Head is one of the oldest inns in England, located in Aylesbury Market Square in Buckinghamshire.
The oldest part of the current structure of the building was built around 1450.
The George and Pilgrim’s, Glastonbury, around 1480
The George and Pilgrim’s Inn was built around 1480 to accommodate pilgrim visitors to Glastonbury Abbey.
The building became the George Hotel in the 19th century. The current name preserves both.
Have you enjoyed a drink in any of these pubs or inns? Do you disagree with any of our claims? Let us know in the comments below.
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