The Tomb of the Pirate King

If you are ever in Dorset, England, drive as far south as you can possibly go – across a shingle spit to the rugged stone island of Portland – and you may, if you are very determined, get a glimpse of the Pirate’s Graveyard.

Locals will chuckle at the name. The graveyard is all that is left of a church which has been clinging to the edge of the cliff since Saxon times. It was called St Andrews, and by all accounts it was a splendid one indeed. It had columns and an altar of Purbeck marble, and its construction was said to be of the highest standards.

Though it had its darker side. There is a well just outside the West Wall which is said to predate even the church. In excavations between 1978 and 1982 they found the well contained a large quantity of building rubble; above which sat several human skeletons.

Neither human loss of life nor splendour of construction could guarantee St Andrew’s immortality. It is a salutary lesson to realise that the clifftop was advancing towards it, inexorably, over the centuries. Not even God stepped in to save his splendid mediaeval house by the sea.

These days, it takes determination to find it. Walk past Pennsylvania Castle through a deep-green wooded dell until you hear the sound of the sea. Look for the arch which once formed the entrance to the church bell tower. And walk through to a strange enchanted world indeed.

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The stones are sinking with their church. Pillars, gravestones, once-splendid monuments are all time-limited.

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The place is called the Pirates’ Graveyard because of the preponderance of skull-and-crossbones motifs on burial monuments. They really are everywhere.

But we all know this is not unusual. Often, all over the country, the fragile mortality of the deceased would be expressed by skull and bones. Remember man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return. Indeed, locals will confirm that all of the people lying in this graveyard were respectable citizens of the island.

What I do find unusual – and bear in mind I visit a lot of graveyards – is the number of such motifs in such a small space. I might find one in five visits to ancient burial grounds in the UK. Here, they really were everywhere.

 

And there was one great, splendid tomb with the biggest skull and crossbones you have ever seen.

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This is clearly a very wealthy Portlander’s grave. Certainly, he who commissioned it must have had a bob or two.

How he made his bob or two, we will never know for sure.

But any pirate with such a monument to his demise would surely be the Pirate King.

 

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28 thoughts on “The Tomb of the Pirate King

  1. For some reason it gives me a creepy sort of feeling just looking at pictures of the site – and I don’t think it is due to the skull-and-crossbones motifs.

  2. You’re absolutely right about the ubiquity of the skull-and-crossbones motif and its rare association with piracy. In the last week I took a photo of one on a wall memorial in a Pembrokeshire church, and while he may have been a merchant fleecing his customers he certainly wasn’t a thief of the sea-borne variety.

    Is this the area where the young hero of Moonfleet hid while on the run from the authorities? That was, if I remember right, an area of Portland with concealed caves, conceivably the well you mention.

  3. Wow, that is amazing. I want to go traveling now! I love touring cemeteries, as the saying goes, they are such “fine and private” places. Hope I can visit this one before it falls into the sea.

    1. You have a little time, I’m sure, Michael. The lady at the museum said they had taken a school trip down there recently, and new gravestones had emerged as the result of land movement. A very dynamic place.

    1. Virginia, the weather was terrible for our visit. It started raining when we arrived and didn’t stop until we left. I took al these photos in rain, and going back in the evening seemed rather a soggy proposition!!

      1. Yeah contact them. If I didn’t have your posts emailed to me I’d have no idea you published. Your theme, no offense, looks very sparse to me. I’m wondering if it’s not showing on what I’m getting?

  4. I first saw skull and crossbones when we visited Boston. Neither of us had any idea what they were, but, there were many. A little investigation brought it all to the forefront and the early association with Great Britain. I’ve never seen them this far west, which isn’t all that far. Atmospheric. Indeed, it is, and I would have an interesting time exploring the Pirates Graveyard, Kate.

  5. You haven’t been appearing in my reader either, Kate. I unsubscribed and re-subscribed to see if that would solve the problem.

    That said, loved the post . . . especially the arch into the secret space beyond. Sorry to hear you had a soggy vacation, weather-wise.

  6. I’m reading the other responses, and I just want you to know that I, too, wasn’t getting any notification of your posts! I just thought it was part of your “pause” and didn’t’ think too much about it. Tonight I had some time and was thinking of you and went directly to your blog…which is now quite beautiful, I must say! I’m sorry I’ve been MIA…I will see what I can find out about why you aren’t appearing.

    That being said, it’s a little ironic, because you do have a way of digging up mysteries! 🙂 The Pirates’ Graveyard is really very intriguing in it’s mystery and age. And I recall when touring the Mission in Santa Barbara, CA that the skull and crossbones were representative of a Spanish tradition. I doubt that England was following a Spanish tradition, but I wonder if during those timeframes the skull and crossbones was very common, more or less across the board. Do you see them in other cemeteries? Gotta tell you, Kate. I could sit and ask you questions for hours. oxo

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