It isn’t commonly known that the UK has three royal families. You may have heard of a motley bunch called the Windsors, but how about King Steve and Queen Sheila of Piel Island?
This 50-acre island off Barrow-in-Furness in north-west England has it all: a castle, a pub and a monarchy. Piel has been ruled peacefully for more than 500 years, with divine sovereignty automatically bestowed on whoever’s running the Ship Inn. Each year, a new Knight of the Realm is chosen. This title is not acquired, as some believe, by simply having a pint poured over your head and getting a round in. According to Queen Sheila, “myself, the king and a few princesses select whoever’s done something outstanding for our community. The last person we knighted rescued 10 people from drowning. One year it was Harry H Corbett of Steptoe and Son fame: he was a frequent visitor and created great treasure hunts for the kids.”
Six miles off the Suffolk/Essex coast lies Sealand, formerly Roughs Tower, one of many sea forts built during the second world war and abandoned. In 1966, it was “claimed” by former pirate radio operator Roy Bates. He declared his new home an independent principality, with himself as Prince Roy and his wife Princess Joan. Three nautical miles outside England’s legally controlled waters, Sealand was answerable to no laws except its own. Soon it had its own flag, postage stamps and currency, all bearing the image of Princess Joan’s head.
The Principality of Sealand, realm of Roy and Joan. Photograph: Kim Gilmour/Alamy
Over the decades Sealand has faced a major fire and an attempted coup, after which a German lawyer and Sealand passport holder was convicted of treason and given a life sentence. (They pardoned him after seven weeks.) In 1987, in accordance with new international laws, Britain extended its territorial waters to 12 nautical miles, drawing Sealand back into British waters. In response, Prince Roy extended Sealand’s territory by the same distance. If Britain owns Sealand, it in turn now owns Felixstowe, Harwich and the nice parts of Clacton-on-Sea. An unspoken stalemate remains.
Visitors wishing to meet Piel Island’s royals will have to wait until 2021, when ferries are expected to restart and its medieval castle and pub reopen. Sealand remains rather impenetrable, isolated in the North Sea, and can only be visited by direct invitation. Its monarchy, however, is less selective than Piel’s in bestowing titles on its subjects. For a modest £29.99, “official” documents signed by current reigning monarch Prince Regent Michael guarantee instant ennoblement as Lord, Lady, Baron or Baroness of Sealand.