Principality of Sealand: The Smallest Nation in the World?

The Principality of Sealand represents a self-proclaimed, unrecognized nation in the North Sea, 12 kilometers from England. Read on to discover its fascinating history!

Jun 2, 2024By Tsira Shvangiradze, MA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l Relations

principality sealand smallest nation world


In 1967, British citizen Major Roy Bates declared the independence of the Roughs Tower, a former World War II sea fort, and named it the Principality of Sealand. Populated by only a few individuals, Sealand represents a constitutional monarchy with its own passports, stamps, and currency. The national motto of the micro-nation is E Mare, Libertas (From the Sea, Freedom), symbolizing the challenges and controversies it has faced internationally.


Roughs Tower & World War II

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Sealand Fort (The Roughs Tower). Source: Colchester Gazette


During World War II, Great Britain built four Maunsell Naval Sea Forts to secure its coastlines against possible attacks by Nazi Germany. One of them was the Fort Roughs Tower.


The Roughs Tower was built in 1942 on a dry dock at Red Lion Wharf. Two concrete towers connected by a deck had seven floors each, providing dining, sleeping, and storage spaces. The Red Lion Wharf was intentionally submerged beneath the water to level The Roughs Tower with water.


During the war, the Fort Roughs Tower accommodated up to 300 personnel and military equipment, including radars, guns, and anti-aircraft ammunition. As World War II was over, the naval sea forts lost their significance, and Britain’s Royal Navy eventually abandoned them. The Roughs Tower remained unoccupied until the early 1960s.

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Paddy Roy Bates: Becoming the Pirate Prince of Roughs Tower

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Roy Bates in the British media. Source: Radio Kaleidoscope


Paddy Roy Bates was born in London on August 29, 1921. All four of his siblings passed away either during childbirth or in their early childhood. Roy Bates, the only survivor, was “born to be an adventurer,” according to the Principality of Sealand’s official website. Because of his adventurous nature, Bates relocated to Spain to fight on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939, supporting the governmental forces. At that time, Bates was only 15.


At the end of the Spanish Civil War, Bates returned to London as an apprentice at Smithfield meat market and planned to emigrate to Argentina. However, due to economic difficulties, Bates chose to instead deploy with the 8th India Division in Iraq and Syria, as well as in North Africa, Italy, and the Middle East. He was able to advance to the rank of infantry major in the First Battalion Royal Fusiliers during this time.


In the course of these military adventures, Roy Bates suffered multiple injuries, surviving frostbite, malaria, snakebites, and a German bomb that fractured his jaw. Reportedly, the surgeon ironically told Bates that no one would ever marry him due to the severity of his injury. Nevertheless, Roy Bates soon married model Joan Collins and later made her the princess of his country.


Roy Bates returned to his native country after World War II and earned a living by bringing fish and meat from Ireland and rubber from Malaysia into England. Bates also had a small fleet of Essex-based fishing vessels. He discovered the abandoned former naval forts during this period; among them was the Roughs Tower, located in international waters approximately 12 kilometers off the Suffolk coast.


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Rough Towers Radio Essex, late 1960s. Source: Radio Kaleidoscope


In 1965, Roy Bates and his fleet landed on the Roughs Tower, set up the necessary radio equipment, and started to operate a pirate radio station. Operating the pirate radio was not a new experience for him. Before, Bates ran pirate Radio Essex on Knock John Tower. After the British government fined him £100 for illegal activities, Bates relocated to Roughs Tower.


The early 1960s have been considered a golden age in the operation of pirate radios. To avoid the strict anti-piracy laws in England, pirate radios were frequently positioned in international waters close to the British coast, giving people—especially the younger population—nonstop access to pop music. The Beatles, the Kinks, and Rolling Stones, for example, were only broadcasted at certain hours on legal radio stations in Britain.


The Marine Broadcasting Offences Act, passed by the British government in 1966, outlawed the broadcasting of pirate radios. Determined to continue broadcasting, on September 2, 1967, Bates declared the Roughs Tower an independent country named Sealand, free from British jurisdiction. It was his wife’s birthday.


Bates declared himself as Prince Roy, his wife Princess Joan, and settled on The Roughs Tower together with their daughter Penelope, aged 16, and son Michael, aged 14.


The Principality of Sealand

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Titles of Lord or Lady. Source: Principality of Sealand


The competing pirate Radio Caroline broadcasters presented the first significant challenge to the self-proclaimed Principality of Sealand. In 1967, Radio Caroline owners attacked Sealand and tried to seize control of the fort. Using guns and homemade bombs, Bates and his son launched a counterattack. The British Royal Navy was also notified of the incident. Unexpectedly, Bates shot at the authorities as well, citing the trespassing of Sealand’s waters as the main reason for his attack.


The Royal Navy detained Bates and his son on firearms charges. However, in 1968, the court ruled that since the fort was beyond the three-nautical mile limit of country waters, British jurisdiction could not apply to the case, referring to it as the “swashbuckling incident.” Bates and his son were released.


For Bates, the court’s decision meant the de facto recognition of Sealand’s independence. To complete the nation-building process, Bates created Sealand’s national flag, which depicts Mount Everest, the anthem, stamps, currency (the Sealand Dollar, printed with Princess Joan’s face on the front), a passport, a constitution composed of seven articles, and even a football team. The official language of Sealand is English.


Invasion of Sealand: The Sealandic Rebellion

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Roy and Michael Bates: Source: Colchester Gazette


An attempted putsch took place in Sealand on August 8, 1978. It was led by Alexander Achenbach, a former diamond dealer who helped Bates draft the constitution in 1975 and who claimed to be the Prime Minister of Sealand. While Roy Bates and his wife were away negotiating with Dutch and German businessmen on the construction of a luxury hotel and casino on Sealand, Alexander Achenbach hired Dutch and German private soldiers and organized the takeover. Michael, the son of Bates, was captured and left on the fort for four days without food or water. Michael was later sent to the Netherlands. Eventually, he escaped and joined his parents in Essex.


Roy Bates carried out a helicopter raid on August 16, 1978, intending to recapture Sealand. Achenbach surrendered. Bates held him and several Dutchmen hostage as prisoners of war. The Essex police’s spokesman reported in a press statement that since the Roughs Tower was in international waters, the British government was not obliged to investigate the incident or take any further action.


Paddy Roy Bates with his wife, Joan, and daughter, Penny, 1966. Source: NPR


Bates freed the majority of the hostages by the end of August. Gernot Puetz, a German lawyer, was the only person still in prison. Germany requested assistance from the British government in negotiating the release. The British government, however, refused once more, pointing to the court’s 1968 decision as a justification.


A diplomat from the West German Embassy in London, Dr. Christoph Niemoller, Head of Legal and Consular Affairs, took on the responsibility of conducting negotiations with Bates. Puetz justified his involvement in the invasion by being misled by Alexander Achenbach. As Puetz held the passport of Sealand, Achenbach convinced him to assist in leading negotiations and promised they had the right to operate the Sealand. Although Bates demanded the payment of a £20,000 fine, he eventually released Puetz. Bates declared the appointment of an official diplomat to mediate the dispute as Germany’s de facto recognition of the Principality of Sealand. Achenbach established a “government in exile” – sometimes known as the Sealand Rebel Government – in Germany.


Economy of Sealand

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Principality of Sealand’s 100 Dollars. Source: NGC


In the early 1970s, Sealand was home to about fifty people. The majority of them included Bates’s friends and extended family, in addition to maintenance staff.


Despite being cut off from the mainland, the Bates family had been able to establish a variety of sources of income. One of them was to provide safe havens for internet service providers who sought to evade government regulations. Reportedly, WikiLeaks also considered relocating its servers to Sealand.


The family also operates the official Sealand website and offers royalty titles, cards, stamps, and other associated products for sale. Like his father, Prince Michael owns and operates fishing boats, and his sister, Princess Penny, owns a dog grooming business.


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The Principality of Sealand. Source: MyLondon


The family also disclosed that a total of $1.4 million was allocated for maintenance. Tenants of Sealand produce their freshwater from seawater and, as stated, get 99% of their energy from renewable sources. Being an unrecognized sovereign nation, Sealand is excluded from international customs and immigration laws. After a fire in 2006, Sealand was temporarily abandoned but promptly rebuilt. In 2010, it was on sale for USD $906 million (about $1,245,193,000 in 2023).


In October 2012, Roy Bates, then 91, passed away from Alzheimer’s disease. Eighty-six-year-old Princess Joan died in March 2016. Michael, their son, took over.


As of today, members of the Bates family do not live on Sealand permanently. Only one maintenance worker occupies the place. Sealand provides 22 living rooms, a kitchen, a chapel, and a gym. Interested people have the opportunity to visit the Principality of Sealand upon Prince Michael’s invitation.


International Challenges of the Principality of Sealand


Bates and his family have encountered difficulties regarding the issuance of Sealand passports. In 1997, due to money laundering and human trafficking cases in Russia and Iraq, Bates was compelled to cancel all Sealand passports (there were reportedly 150,000 in circulation at the time) that had been issued during the 22-year history of its existence.


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Principality of Sealand in the 21st century. Source: The Times UK


Achenbach, the architect of the 1978 coup on Sealand, was also involved in criminal activities, selling fake Sealand diplomatic immunity and passports to the citizens of Hong Kong. The situation became more tense when, in July 1997, the authorities associated the Bates family with the murder of Italian fashion icon Gianni Versace. Police discovered the Sealand passport in a Miami houseboat, where Gianni Versace’s assassin committed suicide.


The Principality of Sealand is not acknowledged as a sovereign state by the United Nations or its members. It is not involved in diplomatic relations and naturally has minimal impact on global affairs. Even though Sealand’s location in international waters and its status have raised juridical questions regarding the territorial claims, Sealand remains the subject of curiosity. There are, however, a few cases when the hope of international recognition was high. Sealand passports were once accepted as identification documents by France and Spain, and the Belgian postal service delivered letters bearing Sealand stamps.


The official Web site of the Principality of Sealand states:


The history of Sealand is a story of a struggle for liberty, Sealand was founded on the principle that any group of people dissatisfied with the oppressive laws and restrictions of existing nation-states may declare independence in any place not claimed to be under the jurisdiction of another sovereign entity.”


Indeed, the Principality of Sealand has drawn interest and curiosity from the general public as well as radicals and rebels. Roy Bates once remarked, “I might die old, or I might die young, but I won’t die bored.”

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By Tsira ShvangiradzeMA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l RelationsTsira is an international relations specialist based in Tbilisi, Georgia. She holds a MA in Diplomacy and International Politics and a BA in International Relations from Tbilisi State University. In her spare time, she contributes articles in the field of political sciences and international relations.