The Fleur de Lys pub and the French king: fact or just tradition?

Plaque on the Snug in French Row
© Tony Berk, 2019

In September 2019 the Society received an interesting enquiry from an historian asking about a plaque he remembered, from long ago, fixed to ‘a small … house’ in our city telling of the King of France’s stay there. We assumed this is the plaque on the ‘Snug’ (still the Fleur de Lys to most of us) in French Row.

This tells us that, after his capture by the Black Prince at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356, King John of France was accommodated in an inn which existed on the site of the current Fleur de Lys (’Fleur’). This piqued our interest and four of us, Ann Dean, Sheila Green, Jon Mein and I met to review the literature and discuss the validity of this story.

The captured King of France brought to St Albans

Firstly,  we examined ‘John, King of France; a prisoner at Hertford Castle’, a paper published in the Transactions of the East Herts Archaeological Society vol. 6 (1915–22) p. 178, and found the following passage. It refers to King John II of France;

During his brief halt at St Albans, the king is reputed to have stayed at the Fleur de Lys, and experienced hospitable entertainment at the hands of Abbot Thomas de la Mare. Only a meagre account of the visit has been preserved, and that by Dugdale’s later editors, who repeat with slight additions the information given by Newcome.

The two footnotes to this paragraph refer to Dugdale’s Monasticon Anglicanum, (1846) book ii, p. 198 and to Revd Newcome’s The History of the Abbey of St Albans (1795) p. 250. Unfortunately, on examination, neither refers to the Fleur story. Instead each simply repeats the original account in Thomas Walsingham’s Gesta Abbatum Monasterii Sancti Albani that King John stayed in 1356 in St Albans after capture by the Black Prince at the Battle of Poitiers.

There are two strong indications that, in this age of chivalry, the abbot accommodated the French king in comfort in the Abbey and not in the Fleur. First, the Gesta tells us that Abbot Thomas de la Mare entertained the King at his own table in a chivalric and suitable manner to which a king would be entitled.

Secondly, the abbot and the French king were great friends. Indeed the abbot wrote to ask him to intercede with the pope to let him resign the abbacy and become a simple monk again. However, as the Black Prince told him that the abbey would be destroyed without Thomas as abbot, he refused.

Literary allusions to the Fleur de Lys

So, what is the origin of the Fleur association? We checked our earliest guide books to St Albans, Gibbs’ Illustrated Handbook of St Albans (1866 and 1884), as well as antiquarian texts by Chauncy (1700) and Clutterbuck (1815-27). None mentions the Fleur in this context. The earliest text we found that links the Fleur to the French king is C.H. Ashdown’s book, St Albans Historical and Picturesque (1893) p. 242. This simply states: ‘tradition asserts that … the captive King John was temporarily detained [in the Fleur] when first intrusted to the care of Abbot de la Mare by the chivalric victor of Poitiers’.

A useful authority about the city’s pubs, F.G. Kitton’s ‘The Old Inns of St Albans’ (SAHAAS Transactions, (1899–1900), pp. 252-3), simply cites Ashdown on this point. So, there is seemingly no firm factual basis to the story. There is much in Ashdown’s book of importance but the story of the Fleur de Lys and the French king is perhaps one of its more picturesque elements! Was the Fleur even in existence in 1356? Kitton presents documentary evidence for the current building (sometimes known as the Fleur-de-Luce or Luse) dating to 1420– 40. In architectural terms, the late J.T. Smith could find nothing suggesting pre-1520 construction when he assessed the building in 1988.

Our conclusion

In conclusion, we find no primary evidence for the French king’s staying in or on the site of the Fleur. We’d be delighted to hear of any sources confirming the story.