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The Bear, Oxford.

The Bear, Oxford.

The Controversial History of The Bear, Oxford

21 February 2024

The Bear claims to be the oldest pub in Oxford. However, the pubs colourful history makes substantiating this claim somewhat tricky!

Is The Bear the oldest pub in Oxford?

While The Bear claims to date from the 15th century, the name and location of the pub have changed at various times in its history, leading some to question whether the 15th century Bear Inn and the modern day pub on the corner of Alfred Street and Blue Boar Street should be considered the same pub.

The original Bear Inn was in a different location to the present day pub. It stood a few hundred metres away on the corner of the High Street and Alfred Street. The exact date it opened is not known, but by 1432 it was trading as an inn and known as Le Tabard, and by 1457 it had changed its name to The Bear Inn.

The Bear, Alfred_Street, Oxford

Looking up Alfred Street past the modern Bear in the direction of the old Bear Inn. Credit: Photo by Cameraman, licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The land on which the modern-day Bear stands housed the inns stables, and later a house for the Ostler (the man employed to look after the horses). This house was then converted into a pub in its own right in 1774, and given the name The Jolly Trooper.

For a quarter of a century the two inns appear to have operated as separate establishments, but in 1801, after trading for nearly 400 years, the original Bear Inn on the High Street was demolished and rebuilt as shops and housing.

To confuse matters further, at this point The Jolly Trooper changed its name to The Bear, and has traded off the former pubs reputation as 'the oldest pub in Oxford' ever since! It's not clear what motivated the name change, it's possible that the landlord of the former Bear Inn took over The Jolly Trooper and changed the name in the hope of attracting his previous loyal clientele, but this is just speculation.

So is the modern-day Bear really Oxford's oldest pub? Some would argue that if a pub changes both its name and its location then it no longer qualifies as the same establishment, but I'll leave you to decide!

How did The Bear get its name?

Like the age of the pub, the origin of the name 'The Bear' is also a matter of some debate. One oft-repeated explanation is that the pub, like the nearby Bear Lane, were named for their proximity to Oxford's bear pits, where the cruel 'sport' of bear-baiting was once practiced.

However, I've found nothing to substantiate the claim that there was ever a bear-pit in this area. The only reports of bear-baiting in Oxford that I've found refer to the practice taking place at Magdalen college, some distance away.

Another claim as to the origin of the name is that it was inspired by the 16th century landlord Matthew Harrison (1556-1630) who kept a pet bear named Furze. This pet bear's name was likely inspired by Sir Reginald FitzUrse, one of the notorious four knights who killed Thomas Becket in 1170, and whose family shield featured a bear. While charming, the idea that this pet inspired the name is somewhat contradicted by the fact that The Bear Inn had been trading under that name for over a hundred years before Matthew Harrison's birth!

The Bear pub sign, Oxford, May 2023

The Bear's pub sign. Credit: Photo by Gazamp, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A final, and in my opinion more convincing, explanation is that the pubs name is an abbreviation of Bear and Ragged Staff, a fairly common English pub name inspired by Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick. Neville 'rose' to prominence (if you'll forgive the pun) during the War of the Roses, during which he gained the nickname 'The Kingmaker' and he enjoyed much popularity with the English public. This happened around the time that the original Bear Inn on the High Street changed its name from 'Le Tabard' to 'The Bear'. The family crest of the Earls of Warwick features the same 'bear and ragged staff' motiff that can be seen on the pub sign of The Bear to this day.

A pub built over a churchyard

If we delve further back into the history of the site on which the current Bear pub stands, then some more sinister truths are revealed. In fact, drinkers today may not be aware of the large amount of human remains buried beneath their feet!

The land used to be the graveyard for St. Edward's church, which, until the Dissolution of the monasteries, stood on land now occupied by Christ Church college. In 2018, human bones were found in the cellars of the pub that were identified as having come from some of the people buried on the site over 700 years previously.

If the number of bodies unearthed during the construction of the nearby Lincoln College Library is anything to go by, these grizzly finds could be merely the tip of the iceberg.

Miscellaneous shenanigans at The Bear

The Bear has had a number of notable visitors over the years, including European royalty such as Crown Prince Christian of Denmark, who stayed at The Bear in 1662.

His visit is remembered more fondly than the man who arrived wearing mourning clothes on 9 April 1691 and booked a room for the night. The man proceeded to order huge amounts of food and drink to be delivered to his bedside, insisted on silver cutlery, and then disappeared during the night taking the whole lot with him! The man's escape was apparently so well planned that he even put down straw to muffle the sound of his horse's hooves as he made his getaway!

In 1642, when Oxfordshire was on the verge of becoming a major battleground during the English Civil War, a musket was discharged in a barbers shop near the the inn. The bullet travelled straight through the wall of the shop, through a butchers stall and through the wall of The Bear, where it struck an unlucky female patron in the leg! This incident is surely a testament to either the power of 17th century firearms, or to how flimsy buildings were at the time, perhaps both!

In 1586, Henry Norris, 1st Baron Norreys, was staying at The Bear when he and his men were attacked by a gang of students. The students were angry that Henry, in his role as High Sheriff of Oxfordshire and Berkshire, had a number of Magdalen men imprisoned for poaching in Shotover Forest.

The ties that bind

Today, The Bear is best know for the eclectic collection of over 4500 neckties (or rather, the severed ends of neckties) on display. This collection was started by landlord in Alan Course in 1952, and was originally made up of just 11 of his own ties. However, soon customers began offering up their own ties as tribute, and the collection exploded in size.

A cabinet of labelled tie ends at the Bear Inn, Oxford

A cabinet of tie ends on display at the Bear, Oxford. Credit: Photo by gruntzooki, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

For a time, anyone donating a tie was rewarded with a drink, though I imagine that today, with the high cost of alcohol and low cost of ties, this tradition is reserved for special guests and special ties only!

The only comparable collection I can think of in an Oxfordshire pub would be the collection of celebrity footwear on display at the Boot Inn at Barnard Gate, though I imagine that the collection of ties at The Bear is considerably more manageable (and less stinky)!

Is The Bear, Oxford haunted?

Given its long and storied history, perhaps the most mysterious thing about The Bear is that it doesn't seem to have produced a single ghost story, supernatural event or other unexplained happening. By contrast, the Bear Hotel in Woodstock is absolute rammed with ghosts, completely monopolising the county's bear-based supernatural antics!

While it might not be one for your ghost-based pub crawl, it's definitely worth giving The Bear a visit to enjoy a drink, soak up the atmosphere and maybe dream up a few ghost stories of your own.



  1. 'Oxford Pubs Past and Present' by Paul J. Marriott (Self-published, 1978, ISBN: 0950573027)
  2. 'The Secret History of Oxford' by Paul Sullivan (The History Press, 2013, ISBN: 9780752499867)
  3. 'Oxford's Exotic Animals' by Caroline Grigson (Oxford University Press, 2018, ISBN: 9780198714712)
  4. The Bear, Oxford (Wikipedia)