For a European head of state, His Royal Highness Prince Michael lives modestly. His principle residence is a bungalow on the Essex coast which also serves as the premises for Hair of the Dog, his daughter’s dog-grooming parlour.
But Michael Bates, as he is known to friends, is the prince of no ordinary principality. His domain, with a surface area roughly equivalent to two tennis courts, sits six miles off East Anglia, the wind-battered Second World War anti-aircraft platform and off-shore “outpost of liberty” known as Sealand.
On Christmas Eve 1966, Mr Bates’s father, Roy, an enterprising former infantry officer, took over the abandoned HM Fort Roughs with the idea of riding the wave of pirate radio then crashing on Britain’s pop-starved shores.
The concrete structure on a sandbar off Felixstowe was just outside the then limit of UK waters, in theory allowing its occupiers to take to the airwaves with impunity. When legislation killed unlicensed radio by making it an offence to supply the pirates, Major Bates came up with a different idea: he declared the fort a sovereign state and bestowed upon his beauty-queen wife, Joan, the title of Princess of Sealand. It was her birthday.
The subsequent five decades have been an at-times riotous melee during which the Bates family have repelled multiple attempts, including an attempted coup by German businessmen, to remove them from their North Sea perch. They have bestowed their possession with all the attributes of a fully-functioning micro-state, including running water, a constitution, a national flag, passports, a football team and the fishing pots necessary to ensure a steady supply of its most populous subjects – lobster. But now the passing of time and tide has put Sealand at a crossroads after its owners were allowed to cock an affectionate snook at Britain .
It was announced on Monday that Princess Joan, who had lived on Sealand for several years with her husband and their two children, had died at the age of 86, some four years after Major Bates.
Her passing leaves Michael, 63, who was declared Prince Regentafter his father’s death, in sole charge along with his two grown sons. Together, they are now pondering the future of the 74-year-old island, built in 1942 as one of five Maunsell Forts to defend the Thames approaches and the ports of Felixstowe and Harwich from Nazi attack.
Despite seven decades of relentless battering by the elements, the structure remains sound but its royal family are now appealing for new ideas for their statelet. Its motto, E mare libertas (From the sea, liberty) remains defiantly intact but Sealand still awaits formal recognition from any United Nations member, the United Kingdom included.
Sitting in his kitchen in Leigh- on-Sea Mr Bates told The Independent: “Since we’ve been in existence I’ve seen entire other countries come and go and Sealand is still there. A lot people have been inspired by what it represents – that sense of freedom and adventure. We have 100,000 Facebook followers and we’re very open to ideas about what happens next. The structure needs fairly constant maintenance but it would be an ideal environment for a small community. Who knows, maybe there is an oligarch out there who might be interested?”
Sealand has undergone several incarnations over the years, from serving as the Bates family home to a stint in the 1990s as an offshore server farm for those wishing to store their electronic data in international waters.
Now schemes to create an artificial island or a series of floating platforms anchored to the 30ft-wide platform legs are under discussion, though it is likely such a multimillion-pound project would be beyond the means of the Sealand Treasury – Mr Bates’s personal bank account – without outside investment.
Any such help would be treated cautiously. A previous entanglement with a supposed co-investor led to one of the more dramatic episodes in Sealand’s history when a German businessman, Alexander Achenbach, tabled proposals in 1978 to turn the platform into a luxury hotel and casino and was granted the role of prime minister.
The entrepreneur then “lured” Major Bates and his wife away to Austria and helicoptered in a group of investors to effectively stage a coup, briefly taking Michael hostage. It was only when the Major staged a pre-dawn counter-offensive with Michael, having enlisted the help of a James Bond film helicopter pilot to fly him in, that Sealand was restored to its owners.
It is these and other swashbuckling episodes, including an encounter with a Royal Navy minesweeper whose crew were dissuaded from an attempted landing by a shot across the bows from a shotgun held by Michael (a judge in Chelmsford ruled that the incident had taken place in international waters and was outside his jurisdiction), that have persuaded a Hollywood director to buy the film rights to a history of Sealand written by its current ruler.
But life proceeds at a more sedate pace now, largely financed from the proceeds of the sale of memorabilia and aristocratic titles (a Sealand peerage can be had for £29.99). Mr Bates helps to run the family’s cockle-fishing business supplying customers in Spain – Sealand is opposed to Brexit . He said there had been a “cessation of hostilities” with the Government over its failure to recognise Sealand. However, the original Prince and Princess of Sealand would not have been impressed by Google. A search produces: “Principality of Sealand, Middle of the Sea, United Kingdom.”
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies