Pirate Flag History


Beware of the Jolly Roger

The iconic “Jolly Roger” black flag with a white skull and crossbones is the most recognized sign for Pirates, but did you know about the history behind the flag?

It’s thought that Pirates originally used a red flag, which was a common sign that no mercy would be given in war at sea. The red flag was called Joli Rouge (translation: Pretty Red) by the French, and was probably translated poorly by the English to eventually become known as Jolly Roger instead.

While red flags stood for no mercy, black ones were a sign for a quarantined ship with disease and death on board. Pirates started using black flags instead of red to symbolize death, and began to modify the skull and crossbones graphic for their own personal tastes.

In addition to skull and crossbones, Pirates also put other emblems on their flags to spread fear among other ships they encountered. Common graphic symbols included:

  • Skeletons
  • Spears
  • Swords
  • Cutlass
  • Hourglass (to show the enemies’ time was up)
  • Initials of the Pirate Captain
What kind of flag will you design for your Pirate?

Pirate101 Ship Flags

Real Flags From Famous Pirates in History

Pirates loved to put their own personal flair to the standard Jolly Roger Pirate flag. The Pirate flag designs shown below were flown by real Pirates on the seas!

Bartholomew Roberts Pirate Flag

Bartholomew Roberts

Christopher Codent Pirate Flag

Christopher Codent

Edward England Pirate Flag

Edward England

Edward Low Pirate Flag

Edward Low

Thomas Tew Pirate Flag

Thomas Tew


Learn more about Pirates!