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Pirates: The Skull and Crossbones

Last modified: 2023-11-11 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

From | By

When the USS Jimmy Carter [submarine SSN-23] sailed into its home port in Washington state in September 2017, it was flying an unusual flag: the distinctive skull and crossbones of a Jolly Roger. There's no telling exactly what the Jimmy Carter was doing at sea, as its missions are probably among the most closely guarded secrets in the U.S. Navy, but submarines fly those pirate flags when they return from a mission after some kind of "operational action." While no one outside of the crew can tell you what that "operational action" entailed, the history of Western submarines flying the Jolly Roger upon a successful return is a funny bit of history.

Submarines haven't always been an accepted part of naval warfare. When they first became a viable technology, some old sailors thought they were a less-than-gentlemanly act of war. They compared the idea of silently striking the enemy from under the waves to an act of piracy. Whether the old salts liked it or not, submarines were here to stay. And as if to prove you can't just call sailors anything you happen to find derogatory, those early submariners adopted the pirate theme and made it their own.

Sir Arthur Wilson was the first sea lord of England's Royal Navy [c. 1910] when submarines entered active service. He was a great naval officer and Victoria Cross recipient while at sea. But by land, even as first sea lord, Wilson wasn't impressing anyone. He's mostly remembered for a short tenure, marked mostly by being a loud crank. No matter how cranky Wilson was, he was still in charge. If he thought submarines were a dirty way of fighting, one would think he'd ax the program. Instead, he did the opposite, actually promoting the use of submarines as a future for the Royal Navy. Being the first sea lord that no one seemed to like might have been the reason he gets credited for saying submarines were "underhanded, unfair and damned un-English." There's no actual proof he said this, but history isn't kind to unlikable people. What Wilson did say about submarines came long before he was the one making the decisions for the navy, because it also flies in the face of what he actually did as first sea lord:
"They'll never be any use in war, and I'll tell you why. I'm going to get the First Lord to announce that we intend to treat all submarines as pirate vessels in wartime and that we'll hang all the crews."

When World War I broke out in 1914, the Royal Navy's submarines got its first taste of naval combat. A contemporary of Wilson's, Lt. Cmdr. Max Horton was out to sea aboard one of England's earliest submarines, the HMS E9. Horton and the E9 were off the coast of German islands in the North Sea when they came upon the German light cruiser Hela. Horton torpedoes Hela from 600 yards, and the cruiser was soon at the bottom of the sea. The E9 evaded German anti-submarine efforts for the entire voyage back to safer waters, but once it arrived back in port, Horton hoisted a large Jolly Roger flag, a nod to Wilson's threat of hanging his triumphant crew. For every subsequent enemy he sunk, Horton intended to raise another pirate flag, but he ran out of room. Instead, he increased the size of his boat's Jolly Roger and started adding symbols and other information to denote the submarine's victories, similar to how airmen marked their kills on the nose of an aircraft. Thus, a new tradition for submarines was born. By World War II, the practice not only grew, but pirate flags actually were issued to submarine crews. Submariners from Allied nations also joined in on the practice and have flown their Jolly Rogers ever since.

While some of the markings on these pirate flags are self-explanatory, others will be known only to the crew. When the [USS] Jimmy Carter returned to its Washington port flying one, there was a symbol on the flag -- but good luck finding out what that means.

[Utmost] image located by William Garrison, 26 November 2023

The personnel of the British submarine HMS Utmost showing off their Jolly Roger in February 1942. (Royal Navy/Imperial War Museum)
William Garrison, 26 November 2023

[Pirate flags] image located by William Garrison, 26 November 2023

There are numerous examples of skull-and-crossbones flags from Royal Navy submarines at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport, UK.

The image above includes part of a display there. This includes the flag from HMS Seraph which undertook several secret operations during WW2. The link here (Operation Mincemeat: The Jolly Roger of HMS Seraph): includes an explanation of the dagger symbols (as in "cloak-and-dagger").

For residents and visitors to England with any interest in military history, the RN Submarine Museum is recommended.
Simon Gardner, 28 October 2023