There are those who believe the origin of the skull and crossbones on a black flag, also commonly known as the "Jolly Roger," is unknown. I would like to offer what I believe is a plausible possibility as to the origins of the pirate flag.
The legend is grizzly and horrific, but it must be told nonetheless; "A great lady of Maraclea was loved by a Templar, A Lord of Sidon; but she died in her youth, and on the night of her burial, this wicked lover crept to the grave, dug up her body and violated it. Then a voice from the void bade him return in nine months time for he would find a son. He obeyed the injunction and at the appointed time he opened the grave again and found a head on the leg bones of the skeleton (skull and crossbones). The same voice bade him "guard it well, for it would be the giver of all good things", and so he carried it away with him. It became his protecting genius, and he was able to defeat his enemies by merely showing them the magic head [skull and crossbones]. In due course, it passed to the possession of the order."
The "Templar" in the story refers to an individual in the order of the Knights Templar which was founded around 1118 by French knights. Veterans of the First Crusade, Hughes de Payens and Godfrey de St. Omer are credited as the founders. The Order was created for the protection of pilgrims on the road from Jaffa and Jerusalem. The original nine knights of the order relied on gifts to sustain themselves, therefore they were originally known as the Poor Knights of Christ. King Baldwin II gave them a headquarters on the Temple Mount of Jerusalem. This area was above what was believed to be the ruins of the Temple of Solomon. It was from the location, Temple of Solomon, combined with their original name, Poor Knights of Christ, that the Order adopted the name, Knights Templar.
The order became rich housing the wealth of the crusaders and receiving copious gifts from its supporters. The Order created the first banking system with checks and credit card-like transactions. It also built and maintained a fleet of ships that transported goods and pilgrims to and from the Holy Land. They quickly became experts in commerce and their non taxpaying status only helped build their prosperity.
On October 13, 1307 King Philip and Pope Clement V had the Templars arrested on grounds of heresy. The King and Church could then attempt to seize the Order's money and assets. They were not successful. Many knights slipped through the devious net of entrapment. The knights, their fellows and their fleet, along with the bulk of their wealth, slipped away to sympathetic England and Scotland.
Before their Order was abolished by the Catholic Church, they had become experienced mariners. The Knights Templar used their fleet of ships to move cargo about their areas of influence. Maritime operations during that time were subject to little regulation and open to a variety of hostilities on the open seas. Remember the first acts of piracy were recorded in 2000 B.C. by Phoenician pirates!
The Templars however, were an ingenious order. They created cutting edge societal standards and practices that are still largely in place today. I believe one very simple solution they adopted, rather than falling prey to maritime piracy, was the use of their battle flag of the high seas, the skull and bones. Let us revisit a very important part of the Skull of Sidon legend. "It became his protecting genius, and he was able to defeat his enemies by merely showing them the magic head [skull and crossbones]." Is it possible that because there was only one "magical" relic, the Order recreated the white skull and crossbones on a cloth of pitch black? This flag became the nautical battle flag of the Knights Templar. It said several things all in one simple design:
This is a ship of the Knights Templar.
To attack us is surely defeat for you.
You now face at least one "warrior monk" that will not surrender or hand over the goods.
In other words, the flag became a talisman that boldly warned others to go pick on someone else! The Knights Templar were the best trained and most formidable warriors of their time both on land and sea. Their maritime battle flag undoubtedly struck fear and awe into the hearts of any sailor who saw it flying from the flagstaff. They used their influence, a legend and a bold marketing technique to keep their ships safe from pirates.
The Order was officially ended on March 19th, 1314 when the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar, Jacques de Molay, was burned at the stake. The maritime battle flag of the Knights Templar was officially retired forever…or was it?
Approximately 150 years later we see the resurrection of the Templar nautical battle flag. The very individuals it was used to ward off were now using it as their very own standard! This stands to reason. Privateers and pirates adopted ways, means, and ideals that worked. Pirates were the first to practice true democracy. Each hand had a vote and all votes were equal. They were also the first organization to implement a retirement program should a sailor be hurt on the job. Pirates incorporated the use of the most efficient weapons and tactics available to them. Further, they were masters of deception!
Pirates used psychological warfare against their marks as often as they could. They would yell insults and slanderous accusations at their target to their victims. Then they would yell out to them all the horrible things they were going to do to the sailors who put up a fight against them. They would do this, all the while flying the "Jolly Roger" [skull and crossbones] from the flagstaff. Sailors would see the age old standard and muse:
This is a ship of a very powerful enemy.
To fight them will only end in our demise.
We now face free and able seamen who will not surrender!
Pirates were known to adapt tactics and procedures that had proved effective and efficient in the past. They used not only cannon with various size and type projectiles, but they incorporated rifle use as well. They carried multiple pistols and more than a few blades into battle. Some pirates incorporated theatrical effects (think Blackbeard) to gain a psychological edge in combat. Pirates were the first to use hand grenades at sea as a weapon. Surely they would borrow the most renowned and feared nautical battle flag that was known almost world-wide and no longer in use!
Part of me also wonders if the once proud Knights Templar turned rogue did not take some of their now free time and seek out French ships or ships sailing under the Vatican standard and target them for plunder. The once renowned Knights Templar would make excellent pirates now that they were marked for execution. (After all, what did they have to lose?) Might the fallen Order have set the standard themselves by using the once revered Templar nautical battle flag when they attacked these ships as a way of saying, "Hey King Philip and Pope Clement we're still here and we are now your enemy!"? Piracy after all, was alive and well long before the Golden Age of Piracy.
The theory above is mine
alone. I have little data to back up any of my speculation. Time, a King full
of greed and a puppet Pope made sure that all Templar records, teachings, and
beliefs were effectively wiped out during their dissolution. Little if any factual
data survives from that time of turmoil. I believe my theory is as plausible
as any I have heard. I believe the famous "Jolly Roger" (and many variations
thereof) to be a direct adaptation of the legend, Lord of Sidon and thus, the
once revered and feared Templar nautical battle flag. To me, the connection
is as clear as a sail on the horizon!
Pirates by Joshua B. Feder; ISBN:0-7924-5690-4