Lifestyle & Belief

Former "Prince" of Sealand—an independent nation in the ocean—dies in Essex (VIDEO)

The Prince of Sealand has died at the age of 91 in a nursing home, reports the BBC, ending the career of one of the more colorful characters of 20th century England.

"Prince" Roy Bates passed away after a long struggle with Alzheimer's disease, says the BBC—but it is unlikely he will be forgotten any time soon for the pivotal part he played in establishing an independent nation in a very strange setting.

The Principality of Sealand, as it's formally known, was founded in 1967 a mere six miles off England's eastern shores, built upon a steel and concrete "sea fort."

The fort, known during the war years as HM Fort Rough, had been built to help protect the Essex Coast during the tense days of World War II, but was closed after hostilities ended—and was appropriated by one Roy Bates, a former infantry major in the British armed forces and radio show host. (A number of the forts were used for underground radio shows, writes the New York Times Frank Jacobs).

Bates, something of an iconoclast, determined that he would declare the island fort an independent nation to counter the 1967 Marine Broadcasting Act, which barred English citizens from participating in pirate radio operations. 

He dubbed his new nation Sealand, and then declared his wife "Princess Joan," according to the Sealand website's account of the nation's history.

What followed Bate's declaration of independence from the Crown turned into what is indisputably one of history's weirdest separatist movements.

The British government did not take kindly to the notion of having an independent nation off their shores, and threatened Sealand with demolition, as was the fate of the other WWII-era Maunsell sea forts, which had proved dangerous to shipping.

Bates went to the courts, where the judge, to everyone's surprise, concluded that the UK did not in fact have jurisdiction over Sealand—and compared Bates to Sir Francis Drake, rather high praise indeed.

The fort in the middle of the sea was safe from the incursions of the Crown, and Bates soon capitalized on the remarkable possibilities of owning a tiny, rather conveniently placed independent nation.

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The iconoclastic chief despot of Sealand cleverly realized that people were willing to purchase the title of Sealand Lord, Lady, or Baron from him, and Sealand even begun to issue passports—though the practice had to stop in 1997, as they were widely abused. 

Bates weathered a number of challenges to his control of Sealand, says Jacobs of the New York Times, but managed to outsmart and outlast them all, maintaining control of his lonely nautical outpost. You can see a complete, if insanely complicated, chronology of threats to Sealand's autonomy here.

By the time the Internet era hit, Bates and family were selling a dizzying array of Sealand merchandise on their website, including national ID cards, personalized e-mail addresses, and even a square foot of Sealand's remote, cement-constructed landmass.

Sealand's motto? "Facts are the enemies of the truth," attributed to one Miguel Cervantes. 

Wikileaks has contemplated moving their controversial servers to Sealand's isolated (if claustrophobic) location, says the New York Times, and gambling operators have also expressed interest.

Oh, and Sealand sells mugs. You've absolutely got to have the mugs. Or maybe you fancy something more in the way of a Sealand Support Band, if you find that Livestrong twaddle a little too mainstream?

Will Sealand and its hard-fought if rather oddly conceived autonomy survive the death of Prince Roy?

Only time will tell, although his son, Prince Michael, theoretically retains control of the nation—though he doesn't live there anymore, according to the New York Times.