A Victim of Fashion in Rottingdean

A pirate’s grave.  That is the allure.  It is a romantic notion.  And not a pirate’s grave in some far-flung and forgotten corner of the Caribbean, but a pirate’s grave in a quiet corner of sleepy East Sussex.  A place so inherently virtuous that it must be true; after all, the good folk of Rottingdean would surely not sanction an enduring lie?

The local children believe the story.  Here lies the body of John Norris.  Buccaneer.  Scourge of the Seven Seas.  A brigand scarcely less notorious than Blackbeard or Henry Morgan.

Except… it may not be true.

I have returned to the pirate grave regularly.  It is a familiar pilgrimage; a popular way-station and point of focus for my visits to St. Margaret’s churchyard.  Short and white; lichen encroaching; slowly obliterating.  I consciously ignore all the other headstones to the exclusion of John Norris, pirate chief.

400 pirate grave

So, what is it about John Norris’s grave that fosters this romantic notion?  He does not proclaim himself a pirate.  Does not claim anything for himself except that he died aged 59 years.  The motif, which gives John Norris notoriety is the skull and crossbones he chose to adorn the top of his gravestone.  The pirate connection is inescapable, surely?

Perhaps; perhaps not.

During the 18th century, it was quite fashionable to include a skull and crossbones, or the Grim Reaper’s scythe, or an hourglass running out, as a memento mori on headstones.  The message was clear: I may be dead, but don’t think that you can escape the same fate for very long.

Various interpretations may be placed on John Norris’s grave: Knights Templar; Freemason; smuggler and pirate of the high seas.  The reality is probably more mundane: 18th century fashion victim.

© E. C. Glendenny


E. C. Glendenny is quick to applaud a romantic yarn.

Check out a selection of E. C. Glendenny’s travel writing, now published in the volume Easy Come, Easy Go, available on Amazon.

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