The King’s Head in 1904

The great debate: What is Canterbury’s oldest pub?

It’s reasonable to say that any village, town, or city in Britain is going to have enjoyed a very long period of social history.

Given the nature of the people that we are in these islands of ours, there’s more than a fair chance that much of this history involved a social glass or two of ale, wine, mead, cider, or the new kid on the block, beer.

For as long as we’ve enjoyed a tipple with our friends, there’s been the need for somewhere other than our own homes to meet up, chew the fat, comment on life’s ups and downs and generally say and do what we like – within reason – in a public house.

Being such an ancient city, Canterbury has played host to Roman tabernae, Jutish olhuse, Saxon alehouses and the whole gamut of later inns, taverns and tap rooms, all of which may be viewed as worthy forerunners of that great British institution: the pub.

The question is then, which is Canterbury’s oldest established pub? Ask this in your local on a busy Friday night and you’ll be assured, 100% pal, that it’s the Red This, or definitely the King’s That, perhaps even the Crown and Wotsit on Giblet Street, for sure mate. There always someone sitting at the bar who claims to know: he’s usually called Dave and he’s invariably wrong!

The King’s Head in Wincheap

These days, the great and final arbiter in many a pub dispute is Google but putting “what is Canterbury’s oldest pub?” into your phone will just offer you all sorts of porkies, sadly masquerading as semi-credible factoids.

The reason being, that if a pub website states (erroneously) that it’s the oldest pub in town, then that’s what Google will report: fake news!

The old GIGO maxim applies: garbage in, garbage out.

Now, before I’m howled down, I’m not actually suggesting that licensees and breweries are deliberately manipulating the interwebthingy (perish the thought!) but merely highlighting a weakness in the system.

By way of a local example. Simply because Shepherd Neame’s website states that one of its tied houses, The Parrot, is Canterbury’s oldest pub, doesn’t actually make it true, even if Google also tells you it is.

In point of fact, The Parrot is one of Canterbury’s newest hostelries, albeit in a very old building, and as Simple Simon’s only opened its pub doors for the first time just over 30 years ago, when Mike Patten took over what had previously been Radigund’s Restaurant.

All right smartarse, I hear you cry, so which is Canterbury’s oldest pub?

Well, had it not been for Hermann Goering and his friends in the Luftwaffe, there would probably be no real argument. The Royal Fountain Hotel, which stood on St. Margaret’s Street at more or less where the Marlowe Arcade is now and traded under various names for more than 900 years, prior to its destruction in the 1942 Baedeker Raids.

The Fountain Tavern, or Tap (it didn’t acquire its Royal prefix until the mid-19th century) was already older than many of Canterbury’s current pubs are now, when, in 1170, four knights reputedly popped into the bar for a quick pint, en route to the Cathedral, for a rather one-sided meeting with the then Archbishop of Canterbury: one Thomas Becket.

Had the Royal Fountain survived WW2 – and the city council’s own, equally destructive, blitz in the 1950s/60s – it would be celebrating it’s thousandth birthday in about 10 years.

In objectively assessing which is Canterbury’s oldest pub and to try and make the playing field as level as possible, I’ve employed one important criterion: continuous trading as a pub or inn.

Pubs don’t very often move premises but history shows us that their names get altered, sometimes for sociopolitical reasons, quite regularly. I’ve discounted all name changes, as well as minor address tweaks, structural modernisations, rebuilds and extensions.

Starting then, at 1700 and going back in time, here’s a representative list of some of Canterbury’s oldest pubs and inns.

  • Bishop’s Finger (late 17th c) Originally the George & Dragon
  • Cricketers (late 17th c) Originally the Cherry Tree
  • Unicorn (mid 17th c)
  • Three Tuns (early 17th c)
  • Ye Olde Beverlie (early 17th c) Originally the Beverlie Arms
  • Maiden’s Head (late 16th c)
  • Seven Stars (mid 16th c) Originally the Fox & Seven Stars
  • Falstaff (mid 15th c) Originally the White Hart
  • King’s Head (early 15th c)

So, it would appear that the King’s Head on Wincheap can make the best claim to be Canterbury’s oldest, continuously trading, pub or inn.

Within the city walls, there may be a squabble between the Seven Stars and the Three Tuns – depending on who/what you believe – but on the evidence currently available, the former pub wins by a nose.

As ever, I’m open to debate on this subject, provided that any “incontrovertible” evidence isn’t just a direct quote from “Dave at the bar!”

Should you have any old photos, or images, of Canterbury’s pubs, inns and taverns, I’d love to see them.

3 responses to “The great debate: What is Canterbury’s oldest pub?”

  1. Alastair says:

    The Maidens Head in Wincheap dates back to 1466

  2. rory kehoe says:

    Hi Alastair.

    Thanks for your comment. The key word in the Kent Pubs listing is “apparently” As with one or two other Canterbury’s Oldest Pub contenders, the Maiden’s Head building (or part of it for sure) is definitely older than the earliest reference to it being used as a pub/inn. Parts of the Maiden’s Head (and for that matter, the Three Tuns, Falstaff Hotel, Shakespeare et al) are 14th century, or probably even earlier. Indeed, the Shakespeare frontage onto the Buttermarket (formerly the Black Boy Inn) is based on a Roman footprint: the cellars there are amazing.

    However, the criterion I set was that a building must have had continuous use as licensed premises, which places the Maiden’s Head (as a pub) in the latter part of the 16th century.

    The Cathedral Archives hold the mediaeval licensing rolls for Canterbury and as far as I know, that’s the earliest record of local pubs that there is. There may be older records at the British Library and as a member I have reading rights. Be assured, it’s on my “to do” list!

    Apart from the Fountain Tap/Inn, the Falstaff (then known as the White Hart Inn) and the King’s Head, no other mediaeval pubs make it from the Cathedral Archives’ 14th century records into the Tudor period, wherein we find the first references to the Fox & Seven Stars and the Maiden’s Head.

    Canterbury must be one of the few places in the world, where half a dozen of its current pubs have cumulatively racked up upwards of 2,000 years’ continuous licensed trading. Whichever way you look at it, that’s an awful lot of pints!

  3. Alastair says:

    Hi Rory,

    I was told that the Maidens Head building was taken down and moved along the street at some point in its long history and that it is called the Maidens Head because knights visiting the Cathedral used to leave there ‘Maidens’ there when they went into the City. There are some fantastic ancient beams in the loft space and bar area, it is amazing to think what the building has seen while enjoying a pint at the bar!

    It would be good to know what you find out as you work through your ‘to do’ list!



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