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Pirates: The Skull and Crossbones

Last modified: 2012-01-14 by rob raeside
Keywords: pirate | skull and crossbones |
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[Flag of Pirates] image by Antonio Martins

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About the Skull and Crossbones

Also looking at your website under the pirate category; it is my belief that the skull and crossbones originated with the Knights Templar who at their zenith were the founders of long distance banking. Hence, extremely trustworthy. By using this symbol the pirates could approach shipping a lot closer before showing their true motives.
Baldur Nelson, 15 January 2005

This is an interesting theory but it does raise a number of questions, not least of which is that the announced object of a pirate flag was to inspire terror rather than trust and even if that were not the case, there were certainly many rather more well known and trustworthy symbols (at least to seamen and Medieval seamen at that) than that of the Knights Templar? There again I am no expert on the origins and symbolism of pirate flags, and could well be wrong?

This reminder of mortality was a constant theme during the Medieval period, and the Templars almost certainly used it (although I personally doubt that it was ever seen on flags in this context). The death's head insignia of the SS was, most probably, a direct result of (and reference to) that symbol's use by earlier units of the Prussian later German army (the Death's Head Hussars spring immediately to mind). We should, perhaps, remember that the Nazi regime's military symbolism (particularly regimental colours), was (for obvious reasons) very closely based on Imperial models.
Christopher Southworth, 16 January 2005

Since the Knights Templar were suppressed in the 14th century, it would have been completely useless to try to use one of their flags as a ruse to lull the unwary in the 17th and 18th centuries, which is when we have most of our reports of the use of skull & crossbones flags.
Ned Smith, 16 January 2005

The skull and crossbones flag being regarded as the "Pirates' Flag" is possibly no more accurate than describing the "Southern Cross" flag as the Confederate Flag. If i remember correctly, the term "Jolly Roger" for the pirates flag originated with the French term "Drapeau Jolie Rouge" - i.e., pretty red flag, since that was the colour of flag many pirates used (particularly around the Arabian Gulf). Exactly how widespread the use of the skull and crossbones was, I don't know.
James Dignan,
16 January 2004

The legend of the Skull of Sidon dates from the 12th century when introduced by Walter Mapp who did early histories of the Knights Templar, specifically the aftermath of the violation of a dead lover by a Templar from Sidon. However, the attribution of the skull and crossbones to the Knights Templar in general apparently did not take place until the trials of the order in the 14th century.
Phil Nelson, 17 January 2005

Contemporary use of the pirate flag

The old destroyer USS Kidd (DD-661) flew the Jolly Roger as an unofficial battle flag as described at I believe the more modern USS Kidd (DDG-993) may have done so as well. AFAIK, there's nothing in any US Navy rules that would prohibit a ship from using this flag for such unofficial purposes, although the official guardians of good taste would probably sputter at the prospect.
Joseph McMillan, 15 August 2001

During wartime, Royal Navy submarines have flown a Jolly Roger on returning to port after a successful patrol. The practice commenced during the First World War. The Jolly Roger was modified by various symbols, for such things as vessels sunk, raiding parties landed, and even on one occasion, babies delivered.
Ian Sumner, 17 August 2001

The "Jolly Roger" flag of a British submarine in World War II was a pictorial record of the boat's achievements. The flag of HM Submarine Ursula, is one of a number of such flags on display at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum Gosport. Bars indicate ships sunk by torpedo, stars those sunk by gunfire.

The oil storage tanks, lighthouse and railway locomotives would have been destroyed by coastal bombardment (one assumes), while the dagger represents a commando raid, and the flaming torch participation in Operation Torch.
David Prothero, 17 August 2001

A fairly clear bit of evidence that US authorities, at least, don't care if recreational boaters fly the Jolly Roger: I just started a new assignment this week that has me working within a few hundred meters of the US Coast Guard headquarters building. I walked over there at lunch today and saw, docked at the National Park Service marina immediately in front of the USCG building, a houseboat flying a large Jolly Roger--upside down--as its ensign. You have to figure that, if anyone in authority in the US objected to this usage, it wouldn't be flaunted within sight of the commandant's office.
Joe McMillan, 17 August 2001

Norwegian Propaganda Poster use of the Skull and Crossbones

[Skull and Crossbones - Norwegian Propaganda Poster] image by Antonio Martins

This British "black ensign" was shown in a World War II Quisling propaganda poster (Norway), "Hjelpen fra England".
António Martins, 7 January 2004