Boswell relates how, in one of his numerous communicative moods, he informed Dr. Johnson of the existence of a club at “the Boar’s Head in Eastcheap, the very tavern where Falstaff and his joyous companions met; the members of which all assume Shakespeare’s characters. One is Falstaff, another Prince Henry, another Bardolph, and so on.” If the assiduous little Scotsman entertained the idea of joining the club, a matter on which he does not throw any light, Johnson’s rejoinder was sufficient to deter him from doing so. “Don’t be of it, Sir. Now that you have a name you must be careful to avoid many things not bad in themselves, but which will lessen your character.”
Whether Johnson’s remark was prompted by an intimate knowledge of the type of person frequenting the Boar’s Head in his day cannot be decided, but there are ample grounds for thinking that the patrons of that inn were generally of a somewhat boisterous kind. That, perhaps, is partly Shakespeare’s fault. Prior to his making it the scene of the mad revelry of Prince Hal and his none too choice companions, the history of the Boar’s Head, so far as we know it, was sedately respectable. One of the earliest references to its existence is in a lease dated 1537, some sixty years before the first part of Henry IV was entered in the Stationers’ Register. Some half century later, that is in 1588, the inn was kept by one Thomas Wright, whose son came into a “good inheritance,” was made clerk of the King’s Stable, and a knight, and was “a very discreet and honest gentleman.”
Far greater interest attaches to the Bull inn, even were it only for the fact of its association with Thomas Hobson, the Cambridge carrier whom Milton made famous.
But Shakespeare’s pen dispelled any atmosphere of respectability which lingered around the Boar’s Head. From the time when he made it the meeting-place of the mad-cap Prince of Wales and his roistering followers, down to the day of Goldsmith’s reverie under its roof, the inn has dwelt in the imagination at least as the rendezvous of hard drinkers and practical jokers. How could it be otherwise after the limning of such a scene as that described in Henry IV? That was sufficient to dedicate the inn to conviviality for ever.