Thursday 19 June 2008

Deptford and the pirate flag

This skull and crossbones sits on the gatepost of St Nicholas’ Church, Deptford. You can see why, according to legend, the “jolly roger” pirate flag was inspired by the church.

However, the skull and crossbones wasn’t a new idea when it appeared in Deptford in the seventeenth century: the first use of the sculpted image was in 1558, on the tomb of Henry VIII’s ex-wife Anne of Cleves. It was meant not to make people frightened for their lives but to remind them of their mortality and the need to prepare for the afterlife. A similar use of skulls on a church entrance can be seen at St Olave’s in the City of London. Charles Dickens was inspired by this grisly gateway to rename the spot the ‘Churchyard of St Ghastly Grim’ in The Uncommercial Traveller:
One of my best beloved churchyards, I call the churchyard of Saint Ghastly Grim... It is a small small churchyard, with a ferocious, strong, spiked iron gate, like a jail. This gate is ornamented with skulls and cross-bones, largerthan the life, wrought in stone; but it likewise came into the mind of Saint Ghastly Grim, that to stick iron spikes a-top of the stone skulls, as thoughthey were impaled, would be a pleasant device. Therefore the skulls grin aloft horribly, thrust through and through with iron spears.

The jolly roger may or may not have been copied from a Deptford churchyard, but it certainly was a design used by real pirates. The very first person known to fly a skull and crossbones was Emanuel Wynne, a French pirate who mainly operated in the Caribbean. His jolly roger was spotted in 1700. Other users included Edward England, an Irishman who worked on the African coast until his crew mutinied because he wasn’t bloodthirsty enough; Englishman Richard Worley who was captured in Jamestown harbour; and Henry Avery who mutineed against his captain and went on to take enough loot in one vicious journey to retire.


Annaf said...

Hi Caroline, just seen your interesting site. We want to do some local pirate walks in Deptford and I was wondering whether you might be interested in this or know any one else who might be?


CarolineLD said...

Hello, and thank you. Pirate walks sound a brilliant idea, I'd definitely be interested!