Sealand, a decommissioned World War II fort off the coast of England is small — but has a big history.
The micronation of Sealand has its own constitution. It flies its own flag. Sealand even has an official motto, E Mare, Libertas which means “From the sea, freedom.” There’s just one problem — it’s not technically a country at all.
Sealand is a World War II sea fort, about seven and a half miles from the coast of England. In the 1970s, a British family lay claim to the territory. And they’ve clung to it ever since.
For such an odd and small place — if Sealand were a country, it would be the smallest country in the world — Sealand has a surprisingly big history. In the last fifty years of its existence, this micronation has had royal deaths, hostages, and helicopter battles.
The Birth Of Sovereign Sealand
The story of Sealand starts with pirates. Pirate radio, that is. In 1965, an army major named Paddy Roy Bates began Radio Essex, a renegade radio station which he broadcast from an abandoned World War II fort called Knock John.
During World War II, Britain built a number of sea forts like Knock John to repel any German attacks. After the war, however, the forts were decommissioned. And they became a popular outpost for pirate broadcasters like Bates, who chafed under the drawling monotony of the BBC.
When the British government sought to squash the pirate radio craze, Bates simply moved his operation from Knock John to Fort Roughs Tower — which lay just outside British territorial waters. On Christmas Eve 1966, Bates took control of the abandoned fort, which has an area of about 43,000 square feet.
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.
Instead, nine months after he’d commandeered the fort, Bates dubbed it the “Principality of Sealand.” He chose the date, Sept. 2, 1967, because it was his wife Joan’s birthday. Bates made Joan a princess. Before long, she and their two teenage children joined Bates in Sealand, the smallest country in the world.
How The Smallest Country In The World Stood Up To Big Foes
The establishment of an independent territory off the coast of England ruffled some feathers on the mainland. Government ministers darkly described Sealand as, “Cuba off the east coast of England.”
In 1968, the British military sent helicopters and boats to destroy some of the towers nearby. Sealand’s official history describes their activity 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’s son, Prince Michael Bates, fired off several warning shots. Sealand’s official history satisfactorily notes that this caused to British fleet to: “hastily turn and race away towards the U.K., amongst a large cloud of black engine smoke.”
As a result, Roy and Michael Bates were called to the mainland to answer for their actions. However, a judge stated that: “This is a swashbuckling incident perhaps more akin to the time of Sir Francis Drake, but it is my judgment is that the UK courts have no jurisdiction.”
The Bates took that as de facto recognition of Sealand.
In the 1970s, some 50 people came to live in the smallest country in the world. They were mostly friends of the Bates’s, who cheerfully bucked convention and wanted to live outside the reach of the U.K.
“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.”
Sealand’s 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.
But Sealand’s trials weren’t over. Despite “defeating” the British, the micronation next had to contend with a German upstart.
In 1978, a German man named Alexander Achenbach who claimed to be Sealand’s “prime minister” staged something of a coup. He flew to the island 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.
His father staged a counterattack, which repelled most of the Germans — although the citizens of Sealand kept one hostage. Remarkably, this became an international incident. The German ambassador to the U.K. flew to Sealand by helicopter to negotiate for his release.
“So, by negotiating, they in fact gave us de facto recognition,” Prince Michael said.
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 has 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 going strong — to this day.
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,” Prince Michael, who operates Sealand from his mainland home in Essex, noted. However, Paddy Roy Bates died in 2012. And Princess Joan Bates died in 2016.
Sealand has had a tough couple of years. 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 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 their existence.
Anyone who wants to become aristocracy in Sealand can do so — for a price. Interested parties can buy a title on Sealand’s website, alongside Sealand stamps, coins, mugs, and even a desk flag.
For now, Sealand remains a maritime curiosity. And, for the Bates, a proud part of their family history.
“I was only 14 when I first came out during my school summer holidays to help my dad,” remembers Prince Michael. “I thought it’d only be a six-week adventure. I certainly didn’t think it’d be a story that’d carry on for 50-odd years.”
After this look at perhaps the smallest county in the world, learn about the tiny sovereign nation of Forvik, located off the coast of Scotland. Then, read our series of interviews with people who have decided to make their own countries: the ruler of Zaqistan, a country in the middle of Utah, the Virginia farmer who became king of “North Sudan”, and the president of Liberland, a Tea Party paradise in Europe.