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Meet the daring royal family behind Sealand, the world's smallest nation

Welcome to Sealand: World’s smallest state
Welcome to Sealand, the world’s smallest state | 60 Minutes 13:32

Prince Michael Bates, reigning monarch of the Principality of Sealand, has a unique plan if the British Navy rolls up to reclaim his micronation off England's coast: bring out his best china and make them a nice cup of tea. 

His family's kingdom, which has just one permanent resident, was declared an independent state in 1967 by his father, Roy Bates —an enterprising, swashbuckling World War II veteran. Sealand's brief history is packed with tales of piracy, coups, countercoups, rogues and off-shore Internet hijinks.

What is Sealand?

Sealand, which has a land mass the size of roughly two tennis courts, got its start as "His Majesty's Roughs Tower." It was a hastily constructed artillery fort built in the North Sea during World War II. Marines manned it during the war to shoot down German warplanes flying bombing raids on London.

Sealand has an unusual history. 60 Minutes

By the 1960s, the North Sea was the center of the burgeoning unlicensed commercial radio business in the U.K. The BBC, which had a monopoly on broadcasting in Britain, gave rock bands just an hour of airtime a week. Pirate radio stations filled the gap in the market and launched on ships and old forts. 

Bates took over a North Sea fort in 1965 and set up Radio Essex, Britain's first 24-hour pirate radio station. Soon after, the British government enacted a law rendering pirate radio illegal. Bates was forced to shut down Radio Essex, but he came up with an even more audacious plan. 

He seized Roughs Tower, which was outside U.K. territorial waters, and on Sept. 2, 1967, his wife's birthday, he declared it an independent state: Sealand. Bates declared himself prince and his wife, Joan, princess. 

"It was, of course, a hugely romantic gesture to make my mother a princess," Prince Michael said. 

Prince Roy, Princess Joan and their two children, Michael and Penny, set up a home on Sealand. Despite their titles, it was not a cushy life. 

"It was freezing cold, and it had no electricity," Princess Penny said. "To flush a toilet, you'd have to chuck a bucket over the side, drop it down about 80 feet, pull it up, and flush the toilet."

The challenges of running the world's tiniest state

The Bates family had ambitions to turn Sealand into a tax haven, a luxury island, and a casino. They went all-in on the trappings of statehood, fashioning a flag, stamps, currency, an anthem and even a national motto: E mare libertas, or "From the sea, freedom."

They also dealt with periodic invasion attempts from rivals and buccaneers. Teenaged Michael and Penny would fire off warning shots and toss Molotov cocktails overboard to defend their home. 

Prince Michael Bates and Jon Wertheim
Prince Michael Bates and Jon Wertheim 60 Minutes

The rogue state remained a nuisance to the British government. The British Ministry of Defence even had secret plans, now declassified, to take Sealand by force..

But it wasn't just the British government that wanted to dislodge the family. In August 1978, a band of rogue German and Dutch lawyers and diamond merchants launched a coup d'état with designs of founding their own offshore casino. They arrived by helicopter with a film crew in tow, taking Prince Michael by surprise.

"They tied my elbows together, my knees together, my feet together, my hands down to my knees," he said. "And they picked me up, and one said to the other in German, 'Let's chuck this bastard over the side. He's too much trouble.'"

Prince Michael was released three days later. He and his father Prince Roy returned via helicopter, fully armed, and flanked by a group of bruisers, to take back Sealand. Prince Michael swung down a rope carrying a sawed-off shotgun.

"I jump, and landed crash in the middle of the Germans," he said. 

They disarmed the plotters and released all of them except for one man, a German citizen named Putz. He held a Sealand passport, so he was tried for treason. Putz was made to clean the bathroom and make coffee. He was also hit with a $37,000 fine. 

His imprisonment brought a German diplomat to Sealand, which Prince Michael considers to be "de facto recognition" of his nation by another country. 

An international treaty signed in the 1930s established four requirements for statehood: one is recognition by another state. Sealand had already met the others: it had a government, a defined territory, and a permanent population. 

Sealand today

Today, Sealand's permanent population is mostly just one man, Mike Barrington.

Barrington wears many hats on Sealand. He does electrical and engineering work, but he also handles immigration, customs and homeland security. He said he's ready to bear arms and defend Sealand if need be. Just who is he protecting Sealand from? 

"Well, the British government or anybody else that decides to take us over," said Barrington. "We are a country, after all, a small nation."

While Barrington lives on Sealand, the royal family lives in the small English resort town of Southend-On-Sea. Prince Michael's sons, James and Liam, run a business harvesting cockles. 

Prince James and Liam
Prince Michael's sons, James and Liam, run a business harvesting cockles.  60 Minutes

The royal family tried to turn Sealand into an offshore data haven in the early 2000s. They partnered with fringe internet entrepreneurs and hosted gambling and porn sites, Prince James said. 

"We had a few dubious people asking us to do things that we didn't really agree with," Prince James said. "There was an organ transplant company, like, human organs, that wanted to host out here, which my father was against."

That venture failed dismally, but to keep Sealand afloat, they sell noble titles online. 

People can become a lord or lady of Sealand for $29.99. The highest available title, duke or duchess, retails for $622. Prince Liam says people buy the titles for a variety of reasons. 

"I think it means so many things to so many different people," he said. "Some people love the act of political defiance. Some people love the love story that ran through it with my gram and grandpa."

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