Pirates? The Truth Behind Skull & Crossbones Gravestones

Romanticised on the flags of mighty seafaring vessels on Hollywood screens, to being written about in daring novels, the skull and crossbones symbol has often been associated with the age of piracy.

However, those taking a peek in some of the old cemeteries of Britain, may come across this seafaring symbol in an unusual place – on gravestones. 

There are many examples of graves adorned with skull and crossbones symbols across the UK, with notable instances in Dorset and the south of Scotland.

This motif, offering a macabre reminder of mortality, is even associated with graveyard symbolism as far afield as Spain.

Myths and legends have arisen as to the meaning of these recognizable motifs, and, particularly in coastal regions, the question has been raised as to whether these graves mark the final resting place of pirates. 


Historic Britain was the birthplace of many of the seafaring outlaws of yesteryear.

skull and cross bones gravestone
Gravestones bearing the skull and crossbones have become points of interest for historians, tour guides, and visitors due to their association with a particular era and the beliefs of that period.

The graves of some of Britain’s pirates can be found as far afield as off the coast of Madagascar, while others pirates met a watery grave at sea. 

So found across the UK, why are there graves adorned with the skull and crossbones motif? 

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Myths of Pirates and Plagues 

The presence of skull and crossbones motifs in the old graveyards of the UK, have, for generations, sparked myths and legends as to their meaning.

In coastal areas, such as at the graveyard at Church Ope Cove in Portland, Dorset, tales of pirate burials have arisen.

Reminiscent of the stereotypical Jolly Roger flag, skull and crossbones adorned these often elaborate graves, which date back hundreds of years.

Counties such as Dorset were the birthplace of many that would embark in the piracy trade.

Pirate's Grave, Church Ope Cove, Portland
Pirate’s Grave, Church Ope Cove, Portland

This included the likes of the notorious pirates, privateers and smugglers such as Henry Paye, who attacked Spanish and French ships, and plundered gold, exotic fruit and alcohol.

The coastline of Dorset, which is known for its many inlets, bays and coastal caves, also provided a well known location for pirates and smugglers to store their bounties. 

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As Dorset has such a strong historical link to the piracy and smuggling trades, it is little wonder that skull and crossbones motifs on gravestones in Dorset gave rise to the popular belief that these denoted the final resting place of pirates. 

This often explained the use of a skull and crossbones symbol on a gravestone.

Others have theorized they were employed as a sombre remembrance to plague victims or even to indicate the grave of a member of the Knights Templar. 

The Graves of Scotland and Spain 

The skull and crossbones symbol being displayed on gravestones isn’t something that is unique to Dorset or to England but is instead a somewhat common occurrence in parts of Spain and Scotland.

Historically, skull and crossbones motifs were placed at the entrances to Spanish cemeteries, a custom that dates back many hundreds of years. 

skull and cross bones gravestone
The rise of Puritanism in parts of the UK influenced gravestone symbolism. The Puritans emphasised the fleeting nature of life and the certainty of death, which made symbols like the skull and crossbones popular.

The custom also can be seen in some areas that had Spanish influence in historical periods.

In Argentina at the Nuestra Señora del Pilar church that looks over the Recoleta Cemetery, this practice can be observed.

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Dating back to 1732, the church has not just the depiction of a carved skull and crossbones symbol, but an example of an actual human skull and bones arranged into the classic skull and crossbones motif. 

In Scotland, particularly southern Scotland, the skull and crossbones symbol is also a common motif on gravestones.

Many historic Scottish graveyards, in both coastal and inland areas, show examples of this somewhat macabre symbol.

In some cases, other additions such as wings or hourglasses were added to the otherwise classic skull and crossbones motif. 

A Watery Grave 

Despite the romanticised view of the golden age of piracy that has been popularised in the modern era, the life of a pirate was one that was difficult and dangerous.

While some pirates lived to old age and died back on their homeland, many met their end while at sea.

skull and cross bones gravestone
Despite the popular association of the symbol with pirates, on gravestones, it signifies death and mortality rather than piracy or danger.

As well as the violent activities that pirates often engaged in, sea storms, starvation, dehydration, injury, and illness all posed a major threat to the life of an average brigand.

Even just a simple lack of access to fresh fruit and vegetables turned out to be a major killer for those that lived much of their lives at sea, with scurvy claiming in excess of the lives of an estimated two million sailors between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. 

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With sea deaths a common occurrence, many pirates didn’t get the luxury of a land burial and a gravestone to be remembered by, but were instead simply lowered overboard after their demise.

Studies into historical maritime deaths have indicated that as many as half of those that met their end at sea received a sea burial in lieu of being taken to land and buried once ashore. 

The Symbol of Death 

While many legends have arisen as to the meaning of the skull and crossbones symbol, including stories of pirate graves, in actuality the truth is rather simpler.

The skull and crossbones motif was a common addition to British gravestones throughout history as it was a symbol representative of death.

This design is thought to have originally come into existence in the late Middle Ages and was adopted around the world as a symbol of the dead.

skull and cross bones gravestone
Given their age and the erosion of stone over time, efforts are being made to preserve older gravestones bearing the skull and crossbones, as they represent an important part of the UK’s cultural and historic heritage.

The addition of a skull and crossbones symbol to a gravestone served as a reminder of the mortality of all people and was added to the gravestones of people from a variety of backgrounds, occupations and levels of society. 

While there is evidence and examples of gravestones adorned with skull and crossbones symbols over many decades of British history, in many areas of the country it became particularly popular in the 18th century.

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Some noted examples of graves with skull and crossbones motifs can be found at St. Giles Hill in Hampshire, Portland in Dorset, and Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh.

In Greyfriars Kirkyard, the grave of seventeenth century anatomist James Borthwick has an even more impressive skeletal decoration with an image of a full skeleton depicted on his grave, often referred to as ‘the dancing skeleton’.

This elaborate grave decoration is as well as a small skull and crossbones motif also displayed on the grave of James Borthwick. 

A Real Pirate Cemetery 

One of the most notorious pirate cemeteries is actually found thousands of miles from Britain’s shores, located on the tiny island of Ile Sainte-Marie just four miles off the coast of Madagascar.

For approximately a century, Ile Sainte-Marie served as the seasonal residence for an estimated 1,000 pirates.

This little known tropical island formed a haven for pirates when they weren’t plundering the seas. So many pirates lived on and visited the island, with a 1733 map even listing Ile Sainte-Marie as ‘the island of pirates.’

This name comes as little surprise when it is estimated that up to a thousand pirates called this nearly sixty kilometre long strip of land home. 

This tropical oasis was perfectly located for those engaged in the piracy business.

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Ile Sainte-Marie has hidden inlets and bays in which pirate ships could be docked and hidden, and is in close proximity to the East Indies trade route which was well known to be a prime target for pirates.

As such, pirates from all corners of the globe, including of course the British Isles, made Ile Sainte-Marie their home.

So, while many of Britain’s cemeteries may not be the final resting place of the seafaring outlaws of old, the hilltop cemetery of Ile Sainte-Marie most certainly is. 

While only a few dozen headstones still exist in the historic graveyard, some of these notorious pirate graves are even adorned with the famous skull and crossbones motif. 

Toxic, Dangerous, and Deadly 

The skull and crossbones symbol, while not commonly displayed on gravestones anymore, is still a well known motif in the modern era.

The image has evolved to become an international symbol meaning death and danger and is a common warning symbol on the labels of toxic and poisonous substances. 

skull and cross bones gravestone
Occasionally, the symbol appears on children’s graves, emphasizing the unpredictability and fragility of life, irrespective of age.

However, throughout history, poisonous substances weren’t always required to display a skull and crossbones symbol.

As recently as the 1870s, brightly coloured blue bottles were used in some parts of the world to symbolise poisonous substances, while prior to the 1850s a number of symbols including the image of full skeletons were used to indicate toxic substances. 

A Reminder of Mortality 

The skull and crossbones motif is a symbol that is so strongly associated with piracy that it is easy to see how its presence on gravestones gave rise to the idea that these were the final resting places of pirates.

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While the reality of a skull and crossbones adorned gravestone is more centred in a macabre depiction of death, there are real life pirate grave sites that can be found around the world.

The tiny island of Ile Sainte-Marie was a famed pirate haunt and the reported site of many pirate graves, while many of these seafaring outlaws simply found a watery grave at sea. 

While skull and crossbones graves, such as those found in Dorset, may not have links to the pirate trade, there is no doubt that they still serve their purpose as a foreboding reminder of our own mortality. 

“Pirates’ Graveyard” in Portland, Dorset. It’s more formally known as the “Rufus Castle Churchyard” or “St. Andrews Churchyard.”

Here are some details:

  1. Location: This churchyard is situated near Rufus Castle on the Isle of Portland in Dorset, England.
  2. Famous Grave: One of the most noted graves in the churchyard is of a pirate named Thomas Masterman Hardy. However, it’s worth noting that Hardy wasn’t actually a pirate. He was a naval officer and the flag captain of Lord Nelson. The association with piracy likely arises from the romantic and adventurous notions people have about the sea and its history.
  3. Decommissioned Church: St. Andrew’s Church was decommissioned in the 18th century, and now only its ruins remain. The site has been eroded over time, and some graves have been lost to the sea.
  4. Skull and Crossbones: Some gravestones in the churchyard feature the skull and crossbones symbol. While this symbol is often associated with pirates, as mentioned earlier, in the context of gravestones, it traditionally symbolizes mortality and is a memento mori, a reminder of human mortality.
  5. Tourist Attraction: Due to its historical significance and the romantic tales associated with pirates, the churchyard and the nearby Rufus Castle have become tourist attractions on the Isle of Portland.

It’s always fascinating how legends and myths can build up around historical sites, and the “Pirates’ Graveyard” in Portland is no exception. If you ever have a chance to visit, it’s a beautiful and historically rich site, even if actual pirates aren’t buried there!

The history of pirates in England is vast and spans several centuries. Piracy in English waters and by English seafarers is intertwined with broader political, economic, and maritime history.

Here’s a brief overview of the history of pirates in England:

Medieval Period:

  • Early Pirates: Vikings, who raided the coasts of England from the 8th to the 11th centuries, can be considered some of the earliest pirates that the English had to contend with.
  • Cinque Ports: These were a confederation of maritime towns in southeastern England. While they were essential for England’s defense in the medieval period, some sailors from these ports were occasionally accused of piracy.

Elizabethan Era:

  • Privateers: During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, privateers like Sir Francis Drake were sanctioned by the English crown to attack and loot Spanish ships. While they were officially state-sanctioned corsairs, the Spanish considered them pirates.
  • Spanish Armada: Privateering and piracy played a role in the broader context of naval warfare, especially during the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.

17th Century:

  • Golden Age of Piracy: The late 17th and early 18th centuries are often referred to as the ‘Golden Age of Piracy’. English pirates, alongside their European counterparts, were very active in the Caribbean, Atlantic, and even the Indian Ocean.
  • Notable Pirates: Captain William Kidd began as a privateer before being accused of turning pirate. He was tried and executed in London.

18th Century:

  • Piracy Decline: As the 18th century progressed, the British Navy increased its efforts to suppress piracy. The Piracy Act of 1717 and the Piracy Act of 1721 were legislative measures to combat piracy.
  • Blackbeard & Calico Jack: While not English, some pirates, like Blackbeard (Edward Teach) and Calico Jack (John Rackham), had associations with England or English colonies.

Modern Era:

  • Maritime Law: England, and later the United Kingdom, played a significant role in establishing modern international maritime laws that combat piracy.
  • Literature & Culture: The image of the pirate in popular culture, especially the romanticized version, has roots in English literature. Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” and J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan” have had a significant influence on shaping the modern perception of pirates.

Places of Interest:

  • Port Royal: While located in Jamaica, Port Royal was a significant base for English pirates in the Caribbean during the 17th century.
  • Execution Dock: Located in London, this was where many pirates, including Captain Kidd, were executed.

Throughout its history, England’s relationship with piracy has been complex, ranging from state-sanctioned privateering to leading global efforts in suppressing pirate activities. The legacy of this relationship can still be seen in modern culture, laws, and literature.