In 1967, a British pirate radio broadcaster named Paddy Roy Bates took over an abandoned World War II sea fort off the coast of England — and declared it the Principality of Sealand.
Measuring about 43,000 square feet — less than the size of a football field — Sealand claims to be the smallest country on Earth.
A sea fort off the coast of England, Sealand was once used by the Royal Navy during World War II. But in 1967, a British man named Paddy Roy Bates decided to take over the fort — and claim it as a sovereign state.
For the past 50 years, his family has run this “micronation” as if it were a real country, even though it’s never been officially recognized as such.
Today, Sealand has its own constitution, its own flag, and even its own official motto, E Mare, Libertas, which means “From the sea, freedom.”
For such a small place, Sealand has a surprisingly big history. In the last five decades of its existence, this micronation has seen royal deaths, hostage situations, territory disputes, and even helicopter battles.
This is the little-known story of the Principality of Sealand — and how it became the world’s smallest “nation.”
How The Principality Of Sealand Was Founded
The story of Sealand started with pirate radio. In 1965, a former army major named Paddy Roy Bates began Radio Essex, a renegade radio station that he broadcasted from an abandoned World War II fort called Knock John.
During World War II, Britain had built a number of sea forts like Knock John to repel any unexpected German attacks. But after the war was over, these forts were decommissioned. And they became popular outposts for pirate radio broadcasters like Bates, who despised the monotony of the BBC.
When the British government tried to squash the pirate radio craze, Bates simply moved his operation from Knock John to Fort Roughs Tower — which lay just outside of British territorial waters. On Christmas Eve 1966, Bates got the idea to name the fort “Sealand” and give it to his wife Joan as a gift.
When British authorities made it even more difficult for Bates to broadcast, he gave up on his radio career. But he didn’t give up on Fort Roughs Tower.
On September 2, 1967, Bates dubbed the fort the “Principality of Sealand.” He chose the date because it was Joan’s birthday. And before long, she and their two children joined Bates in the smallest “country” in the world.
How A Small “Country” Stood Up To Big Foes
Unsurprisingly, the establishment of an independent territory near England ruffled some feathers on the mainland. British authorities darkly described Sealand as “Cuba off the east coast of England.”
In 1968, the British military sent helicopters and boats to destroy some old military towers that were close to Sealand. And apparently, the micronation saw this activity as a threat to their new way of life on the fort. Sealand’s official history describes the incident in action-packed terms:
“The Bates family looked on as huge explosions sent the massive structures hurtling hundreds of feet in the air, and twisted and buckled debris floated past Sealand for days… Helicopters that had carried the explosives buzzed menacingly above, and the navy tug carrying the demolition crew passed close by our fortress home and shouted, ‘You’re next!’”
In defense of Sealand, Paddy Roy Bates’ son, Prince Michael Bates, fired off several warning shots in the air. Sealand’s official history satisfactorily notes that this caused the British fleet to “hastily turn and race away towards the U.K., amongst a large cloud of black engine smoke.”
As a result, Paddy Roy Rates and Michael Bates were called to the mainland to answer for their actions. But since Sealand was outside of British territorial waters, the men were let off the hook. A judge said, “This is a swashbuckling incident perhaps more akin to the time of Sir Francis Drake, but it is my judgment is that the U.K. courts have no jurisdiction.”
The Bates family took that as de facto recognition of Sealand as an independent country. But of course, the British government disagreed.
In the 1970s, some 50 people came to live in the so-called smallest country in the world. They were mostly friends of the Bates family, who cheerfully bucked convention and wanted to live outside of the reach of the U.K.
During this time, the Bates family took several steps to make the fort as hospitable as possible for their citizens. For instance, they installed a wind-powered generator on the platform’s flattop, which provided electricity to the space heaters in the 10 rooms inside Sealand.
These 10 rooms include a kitchen, a living room, and a chapel. As for the sleeping quarters, most citizens slept within the fort’s cylindrical, windowless legs — mostly beneath the waterline. “It’s quite big, although it does not look it from the outside,” Prince Michael noted.
On a somewhat regular basis, a boat would bring food, drinks, newspapers, and other goods to Sealand. However, citizens were always careful to stock up since the boat’s schedule could be a bit unpredictable.
“It was a strange upbringing,” Prince Michael later recalled. “Sometimes we stayed for months on end, waiting for the boat to bring supplies from the mainland. I’d look out at the horizon and all I could see from morning to night was the North Sea.”
But Sealand’s trials weren’t over. Despite “defeating” the British, the micronation would soon need to contend with a German upstart.
In 1978, a German man named Alexander Achenbach claimed to be the real “prime minister” of Sealand — and staged something of a coup on the fort. He flew to Sealand by helicopter with a group of mercenaries while Paddy Roy Bates was away, and took Prince Michael hostage.
“They were basically terrorists who locked me up with no food or water for four days,” remembered Prince Michael.
In response, his father staged a counterattack, which caused most of the Germans to flee. However, the citizens of Sealand decided to keep one man hostage. Remarkably, the German ambassador to the U.K. had to fly to Sealand by helicopter in order to negotiate for the man’s release.
Sealand took this as a sign that their state was finally being taken seriously. “By negotiating, they in fact gave us de facto recognition,” Prince Michael said.
However, Sealand’s existence still wasn’t entirely secure. In the 1980s, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea extended the U.K.’s territorial waters to include the fort. And the U.K. Foreign Office flatly denied Sealand’s legitimacy since the fort “cannot constitute a separate independent state since it has none of the characteristics of a state.”
Despite this, Sealand is still standing today.
The Principality Of Sealand Today
The founding family of Sealand remains deeply involved in its operations. “My boys are all grown up now and very much involved with the whole thing,” said Prince Michael, who operates Sealand from his mainland home in Essex. However, Paddy Roy Bates died in 2012. And Joan Bates died in 2016.
And in recent years, Sealand has encountered some troubles. In the 1990s, the Bates family had to rescind Sealand passports because they were being used for fraud. And in 2006, a fire on Sealand completely destroyed the main power generator. Sealand was even briefly for sale in 2007.
“I suppose everything’s for sale, at the right price,” said Prince Michael. “There were huge amounts of money talked about.”
But the citizens of Sealand have come up with some creative ways to support the existence of the micronation, even if they don’t spend as much time on the fort as they used to.
For instance, anyone who wants to become a Sealand aristocrat can do so — for a price. Interested parties can buy a title like “lord” or “lady” on Sealand’s website. And if they want a little piece of Sealand at home, they can also purchase stamps, coins, mugs, and even desk flags.
But despite all the fanfare today, there are just a couple of people who actually live on the fort on a full-time basis. Two caretakers, Mike Barrington and Joe Hamill, alternate two-week shifts on Sealand as their full-time jobs. And much like the royal family members — who mostly run the operation from England — they take their work very seriously.
Other than employees, journalists, and close friends of the Bates family, very few people will ever get the chance to visit Sealand. But everyone who has visited says that it’s like nowhere else on Earth.
It’s no wonder why Sealand remains a maritime curiosity and an inspiration for people who wish to live more independently someday. And, for the Bates family, it’s a proud part of their personal history.
“Our story still fires people up,” Prince Michael said. “We don’t live in a society where people like being told what to do, and everybody loves the idea of liberty and freedom from government. The world needs inspiring territories like us – and there aren’t many places like this that exist.”