Having risen to the rank of major in the British army and survived several campaigns and serious injury in World War II, Roy Bates was living a quiet life in an Essex, England, village when he decided to turn to pirate radio in the 1960s. This led him to co-opt an old World War II outpost in the North Sea as his own country, the Principality of Sealand, and declare himself and his family the reigning monarchs.
Certainly there was no fanfare that a new monarch was born when Paddy Roy Bates came into the world on August 29, 1921. Born to a meat market salesman and his wife in the western London, England, suburb of Ealing where he also grew up, Bates joined the International Brigade to fight against Franco in the Spanish Civil War when he was 15 (but lying about his age).
After later officially joining the British army in the first battalion Royal Fusiliers, Roy Bates rose to the rank of major while serving on various fronts in World War II, including campaigns in Italy and with the Eighth Army in North Africa. "He survived frostbite, malaria, snakebites and a German bomb that shattered his jaw so badly a surgeon told him no woman would ever love him," noted National Public Radio correspondent Scott Simon.
After the war, however, Bates proved the doctor wrong by marrying a beauty queen named Joan and settling into civilian life in Essex, where he built fishing boats and imported beef and rubber into his war-weary country.
That is, until 1965, when Bates got it into his head that he wanted to be a disc jockey pirate. Perhaps emboldened by the launch of Radio Caroline, he staged a coup at Radio City on Knock John Tower—another of the many naval defense platforms the British had built during WWII—and founded the first pirate radio station to provide 24-hour entertainment, which included the Beatles and the Kinks, music doled out in small doses by the BBC.
His venture, called Radio Essex, which used an old United States Air Force radio beacon to broadcast, was renamed Britain's Better Music Station in October 1966, but was short-lived. Bates was convicted of violating the Wireless Telegraphy Act of 1949 and fined for illegal broadcasting, causing the station to go off the air.
But Bates was undeterred and moved to another abandoned offshore outpost farther out: Fort Roughs Tower, located outside England's territorial waters in the North Sea. Instead of making it a radio station, however, Bates declared Fort Roughs its own sovereign nation, the Principality of Sealand, on September 2, 1967, dubbing himself Prince Roy and his wife Princess Joan (it was her birthday).
As sovereign ruler of Sealand, Prince Roy created a national flag, passports, stamps, coins with Joan's profile and a motto, "E Mare Libertas" ("From the Sea, Freedom"). He even commissioned a national anthem.
But claiming a country is not without some strife, even if it is only a 5,000-square-foot steel platform on top of two concrete pilings with nary a tree in sight. In 1968, British authorities hauled Prince Roy into court on weapons charges for firing warning shots at a British crew that was disposing of similar offshore outposts. Bates was vindicated, however, when a judge labeled it "a swashbuckling incident" and stated that Sealand was out of the United Kingdom's jurisdiction since the "country" was in international waters.
Another coup attempt on Sealand entailed a group of Germans trying to take over in order to build a luxury casino on the platform. They held Bates's son, Michael, hostage for several days before Prince Roy swooped in dramatically, via a helicopter raid led by a stunt pilot who had worked on James Bond movies.
After that, it was country business as usual: Among many issues, Bates needed to figure out how to fund his newly founded nation. Plans for everything from casinos to a headquarters for Wikileaks were entertained, but the primary revenue stream ultimately became internet licenses and title opportunities for other wannabe royalty, in the form of count/countess of Sealand packages.
Death and Legacy
The burly, bushy-browed Paddy Roy Bates remained Prince Roy until his death, on October 9, 2012, at the age of 91. Although Alzheimer's disease prevented him from living in the tiny country, he served as its monarch for 45 years, leaving behind an unusual story of adventure and entrepreneurship, as well as his beloved wife, a son and a daughter. His children, a prince and princess, plan to preserve Sealand's mini-monarchy for posterity.
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