The Jolly roger

pirate costume fancy dress

Pirates have been roaming the seas for centuries! The earliest documented instances of piracy were back in the 14th century BC.

The Jolly Roger is the traditional English name for the flags that were flown to identify a pirate ship on the verge of attack, during the early 18th century.

The design of the Jolly Roger was not always the fearsome image that we see today on films. Many of the early Jolly Rogers was not necessarily black in colour, and the designs were as different as the pirates themselves.

The flag of Christopher Moody (1713) was red, reflecting his attitude for not sparing any lives on the ships he attacked. It featured a gold skull and crossbones, a golden hour glass with black wings and a white hand holding a cutlass in the middle! Very distinctive.

There are mentions of Sir Francis Drake flying a black flag as early as 1585, but the accuracy of this has been questioned. The skull and crossbones on a black background, commonly known as the jolly roger today, was not used until 1710s. Blackbeard (the most terrifying pirate around) is thought to have used the traditional skull and crossbones around this time on his ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge.

Pirates did not fly the Jolly Roger constantly. They had a whole collection of different flags (greedy sea rovers) and would usually fly false colours to lure in prey. Once the poor victims were within range of the canons, up the Jolly Roger would come, alongside a warning shot.

The intention of this was to get other ships to raise those white flags of theirs and surrender without a fight. If a ship then decided to resist, the Jolly Roger was taken down and a red flag was flown, indicating that the pirates intended to take the ship by force and without mercy, aaaaarrrrrrggghhh. The salty seadogs would then hop onboard to nab all of the treasure, food and weapons from the enemy ships!

Have a look at our Pirate costumes to wear aboard your ship and wave your Jolly Rogers to your heart’s content.