Elizabeth Ist coat of arms

Pirate Flags

Picture of Calico Jack Rackhams Pirate Flag

Picture of Calico Jack Rackhams Pirate Flag

Real Pirate Flags

Were there real pirate flags? Yes. They were not ancient myths or legends. Pirate flags were not introduced in pirate movies! Pirate flags were not the figments of imagination from writers like Robert Louis Stevenson who wrote Treasure Island. Pirates flew real pirate flags.

The real pirate flags were customised for a specific pirate captain and crew such as the real pirate flags flown by Blackbeard and Calico Jack Rackham. Every pirate ship wanted to fly its own version of a pirate flag.

Pirate Flags History
The most famous of the pirate flags was the 'Jolly Roger' but there were many other different designs and pirate flags. Flags were used by legitimate sailing vessels. During the great age of exploration it was imperative to be able to distinguish enemy ships from friendly ships.The Elizabethan English ships sailed with flags showing the National emblem such as the Tudor Rose whilst the Spanish ships were distinguished by Catholic crosses. The history of flags developed and National flags were adopted. Pirates had their own Code of Conduct and their own traditions. Adopting their own pirate flags was a natural progression in the pirate culture and history. The pirate flags were used to wage 'Psychological warfare' on their enemies. Pirate flags were designed to threaten, intimidate and spread fear & dread amongst all that encountered the pirate. Pirate flags history was an important element in building the fearsome reputation of the pirate vessels.

The Colors of Pirate Flags - the Red Pirate Flags and the Black Pirate flags
The background colors of real pirate flags were either red or black. Although black is most associated with pirate flags, the very first pirate flags were in fact red. The colors of red and black both held symbolic significance. The early pirates sailed under the Red  Flags. The color red in pirate flags symbolised bloodshed. Red pirate flags also symbolised a warning.The red pirate flags were a symbol that little or no quarter ( mercy ) would be given. The pirates were looking for an early surrender and an easy conquest through fear and intimidation. The French name for the red flag was the Jolie Rouge ( a cynical term translated as Pretty Red ). The red pirate flags were quickly replaced by black pirate flags. It was a natural progression for the pirates. The color black symbolised death. Black flags were traditionally flown on Plague ships as a warning to other ships. The pirates flew under flags called the 'banner of King Death'. The black and red pirate flags were further embellished with more graphic symbols of death...

Picture of a Red Pirate Flag of John Avery

Pirate Skull Flags - the Skull and Crossbones
The pirate flags were designed to threaten, intimidate and spread fear & dread amongst all that encountered the pirate ships. The black pirate flags were further embellished by other graphic symbols of death and destruction:

  • The Skull
  • Crossed bones - crossbones
  • A Skeleton
  • Spears
  • Swords
  • Cutlass
  • An Hourglass ( indicating the enemies time was up)
  • Clothing or Apparel associated with pirates and the initials of the Pirate captain

Pirates believed to be those flying the "skull and crossbones" were Edward England and Edward Teach - Blackbeard. A skull and crossbones is still a modern symbol used as a warning for something that is dangerous or deadly, usually poison.

Jolly Roger Pirate Flags
The Jolly Roger is the general name given to pirate flags. The Jolly Roger is  the most famous of all pirate flags.

  • Description of the Jolly Roger Pirate flag
    • Black Background
    • White graphic on the center of the black flag picturing a white skull
    • Underneath the skull are two crossed bones (crossbones)
    • The Jolly Roger pirate flags are also called the Skull and Crossbones
There are a number of theories about the origin of the Jolly Roger name - the truth is that its probably a combination of most of them.

  • The Jolly Roger was derived from the English pronunciation of the 'Jolie Rouge'
  • The Jolly Roger was a derivation of word rogue describing a vagabond, beggar or thief
  • The Jolly Roger was a derivation of the English colloquialism 'Old Roger' which was an English slang term for the Devil

The Pirate Flags of Calico Jack Rackham
The Pirate flags of Calico Jack Rackham included the picture of a skull with crossed cutlasses on a black background.

Picture of Calico Jack Rackhams Pirate Flag

Pirate Skull Flags - the Pirates of the Caribbean
The above picture of the Pirate flag of Calico Jack Rackham with a skull with crossed cutlasses was used as the pirate flag in the movie Pirates of the Caribbean.

The Pirate Flags of John Avery ( aka Avary )
The pirate flags of John Avery (AKA Every, Long Ben) the included the skull and crossbones. The skull was further embellished with an earring and a bandana which was strongly associated with traditional Pirate Clothing. The following picture depicts the pirate flag of John Avery on a red background.

The Pirate Flags of Blackbeard
Blackbeard is one of the most famous and notorious pirates of all time. His pirate flag featured a skeleton holding an hourglass in one hand, a spear in the other hand standing beside a bleeding heart.

Picture of the Pirate Flag of Blackbeard

Pirate Flags
Additional details, facts and information about Pirates in the Age of Exploration can be accessed via the Elizabethan Era Sitemap or the following links:

Famous Elizabethan Pirates
Famous Pirates
Famous Women Pirates
Famous Pirate Ships
The Pirate Song
Pirate Clothing
Pirate Code of Conduct
Anne Bonney
Mary Read
The Age of Exploration
Elizabethan Era Index

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