So, I was visiting a churchyard in North Wales over the weekend. The church was Victorian, but it had been built on the site of a much older church, and many of the gravestones in the churchyard predated the present church.
Right by the front door to the church was what was probably the oldest stone, referred to in the church’s information leaflet as the “pirate grave”.
The description of “pirate grave” obviously derives from the skull and crossed bones, which, due to age and erosion, is all that can be made out of the inscription on the stone today.
Pirate graves are found across the country, the majority of them don’t, and never have, contained pirates. The skull and bones mark are traditional symbols of mortality, reminding the living that they too will one day find themsleves lying under a tombstone. On some stones the skull and crossbones are accompnaied by an hour glass, symbolising the flow of time. The stone I saw has another carving above the skull, which may be an hourglass, it may be the coat of arms of the incumbent or some other decoration, the weathering is to great to make it out clearly.
The skulls and bones are often linked with another frequently found medieval carving or illustration, that of animated skeletons performing the “Dance of Death”.
The skull and crossed bones marks have a long tradition. I have read that they were originally used by the Knights Templar in the early middle Ages as symbols of death and resurrection. After the crusades some of the Knights took up piracy as a living and flew the symbols on their ships as a flag. The marks were also taken up as symbols of free masonery, so maybe the grave occupant may have been a master mason.
Of course, this one may really be a pirate. The church is close to the sea, and pirates had to be buried somewhere. I read once that you could distinguish between real pirates graves and others by the placement of the bones. If they were below the skull then the grave was not that of a a pirate, behind the skull, as in this case, then the remains really were those of a pirate.
But then, weren’t many pirates captured and executed, and if so would they even be allowed burial in a churchyard, yet alone pride of place by the doorway? Would a prirate want to advertise his profession in such a way, did a tailor have shears or a farmer a plough engraved on his tomb? Was it a warning to others to avoid the life of crime, or was it a marking for the future – pirates were buried along with their treasure and this X marked the spot for it to be reclaimed long after the pirates and owners were dead?
These pirate graves, whatever the truth behind the symbolisim, often encourage alternative superstitions to grow up around them. Children playing around the church may invent stories, and these will grow and persist long after those who invented them are gone. Pirates graves are often supposed to be haunted, other pirates graves are special in that there are superstitions in the way you must approach them, bow to them, walk around them three times or whatever to avoid disturbing the unsettled spirit.
Searching around the internet , I have found a few more examples, credit is given where possible, but sorry if I have upset anyones copyright on these.
here are a couple I found visiting Bwlch-y-Cibau church in Powys