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Tiny British Island Will Make Anyone The King Or Queen, But There’s A Catch

May 7, 2022

Image: Monarch of Piel Island –
If you look past the shoreline in Barrow-in-Furness, England, you’ll spot a small patch of idyllic land sitting alone in the water according to This is Piel Island, and it boasts a quite remarkable — and unique — history. In fact, just about anybody could be its king or queen — but one with very peculiar responsibilities...
A popular spot
Despite its location, you see, Piel Island’s become something of a tourist hotspot over the years. The area measures around 50 acres in size and houses an ancient castle that’s been standing since the 1300s. It’s also got a pub and a quartet of privately owned cottages.
Seal spotting
Plus, Piel Island’s the perfect spot to drop by if you love seals. The animals frequently pop up around the area — pretty neat, right? But it’s the history of the place that’s arguably the biggest draw. You’d be hard-pressed to name an ancient site in England with a more unique past!
According to Piel Island’s official website, people began to settle on the land roughly three millennia ago. It’s suggested that both the Romans and Celts would’ve made their presence known at some point, while Nordic colonists gave the place its earliest name. They called it Foudray.
“Fire island”
Now, that wasn’t just a random name plucked out of the sky. In the ancient Nordic language, Foudray roughly translates as “fire island.” Yes, early settlers essentially saw Piel Island as a giant lighthouse, helping old sea vessels navigate the nearby waters to safety. Foudray could have been home to the settlers’ grazing animals, too.
Monk control
But some of the most significant moments in Piel Island’s history took place a bit later. For instance, in the 1120s, the area came under the control of Savignac monks. The plan was to use “fire island” as a boatyard for nearby Furness Abbey, which could be found roughly five miles inland.
“Port of Furness”
Piel Island then earned a new moniker: the “Port of Furness.” It was now harboring valuable shipments from boats traveling between England and Ireland in a building that acted as a storage facility. And to say things were hectic there in the 1200s would be a gross understatement!
A pivotal moment
But as traders continued to use the island going into the 1300s, those at Furness Abbey made a bold decision. In an attempt to better protect the shipments stored on the island, the authorities gave permission to “crenelate” the building there. In other words, that meant its defenses could be strengthened.
The castle
So just like that, the storage facility was transformed into a castle. That’s one way to scare off any thieves or pirates! But the new fortifications also made some other people wary — namely, customs workers. Yes, folks, the process that we’re all too familiar with on our travels today was already up and running back then.
Breaking the law
Because the customs workers were unable to get too close, the people of Furness Abbey saw an opportunity. The Piel Island website says that the officials took full advantage of the situation — and started smuggling goods such as wool via the castle. Bet you didn’t see that coming, right? And the area became notorious as a result.
Meeting Lambert Simnel
Piel Island’s infamous reputation only grew as time progressed, with Furness Abbey upgrading the castle in 1429. Another turning point occurred nearly 60 years later when a young boy named Lambert Simnel came ashore. His dad was a merchant from Oxford, England, but he had much higher aspirations than that. Simnel wanted the country’s crown.
The rightful king?
Simnel maintained that he held the title of Earl of Warwick — and that in his eyes made him England’s “true” leader. So, after recruiting a band of soldiers from Germany, he and his allies set up a base on Piel Island. And the plan was as audacious as you can get: the men looked to overthrow King Henry VII by attacking London.
Stopped in their tracks
Simnel and his mercs left Piel Island for the mainland, beginning their march south. The group didn’t get very far, though. Henry VII’s army intercepted them in Stoke, and then there was a swift battle. It lasted for just one day in June 1487, with the country’s existing ruler emerging victorious.
A royal pardon
Simnel was taken prisoner on the battlefield and eventually transported to London. From there, Henry VII went on to give the young boy a pardon before offering him a kitchen servant position. What a crazy story! And Piel Island’s part in it hasn’t been forgotten.
Big changes
Following this attempted coup, Piel Island continued to take in shipments as the years rolled on. But changes were coming. And the days of smuggling were well and truly over in 1669 when a customs worker was finally stationed there. Going into the 18th century, then, a new business was opened on the island.
The Ship Inn
While details are somewhat sketchy as to its precise history, the Ship Inn pub made its bow after a lease was granted for its construction in 1746. And it’s still running today, sitting opposite the old castle on the island. In fact, a big announcement was made in January 2022 by the local authorities.
Looking for a landlord
The Ship Inn needed a new manager. The person who had previously looked after the pub had decided to cash in on their retirement, opening up the vacancy. But here’s the thing: this position is unlike any other in the United Kingdom — and perhaps the world. That’s because it brings with it responsibilities that extend beyond the bar.
“King of Piel”
To give you a better idea of the position’s importance, the Barrow Borough Council website shared the following passage. It reads, “One of the most enduring aspects of the Ship Inn is the tradition of the king and knights of Piel. The tradition holds that each new landlord is crowned ‘King of Piel’ in a ceremony of uncertain origin.”
Island royalty
Yes, you’re reading that correctly. The landlord becomes island royalty! And this isn’t just reserved for men — women can take on the position and become the Queen of Piel. Given the area’s crazy history, it doesn’t really feel out of place, right? In fact, it’s weirdly fitting.
The ceremony
As for the ceremony, the council website goes into more detail, saying, “[The landlord will] sit in an ancient chair, wearing a helmet and holding a sword while alcohol is poured over their head. By the 19th century, it [had become] an important aspect of the island’s history to such an extent that responsibility for looking after the helmet and chair fell within the tenancy agreement.”
Why did it start?
If you’re anything like us, you’ve just got to ask: why did this tradition start on the island? What prompted it? Well, the answer isn’t all that clear in truth. Yet one guy believes the disastrous campaign waged by Lambert Simnel could be tied to it all.
“A bit weird”
Speaking to The New York Times, English Heritage’s Mark Douglas suggested that Simnel’s failure might’ve served as inspiration for the idea during the 1800s. “Sort of a looking back to the good old days, and reinventing some kind of arcane ceremony,” he mused. “It’s a bit weird.”
The tenancy agreement
Regardless of the answer, the responsibilities of the Ship Inn’s landlord have remained the same for a long time, and it’s all laid out in that tenancy agreement. So, what’s expected of you once you’re crowned king or queen of the island? Quite a bit, actually.
A huge commitment
For one thing, you’ll have to be prepared to stick with the role for the long haul. The landlord’s contract spans ten years. No joke! But there’s plenty to keep you occupied during that time. Yup, caring for the pub is just one of the jobs that the king or queen will need to fulfill.
The jobs
In addition to overseeing the Ship Inn, the landlord is responsible for looking after large parts of Piel Island. The “campground” tourist areas and the stretch of public bathrooms all come under the landlord’s remit, for example. Without question, it’s a lot of work. But the idyllic surroundings are a very nice bonus.
Yes, there are seals in the water, but Piel Island is home to lots of other gorgeous fauna, too. And the scenery! It’s like a postcard picture come to life. There are certainly worse places to spend your time. The Ship Inn landlord isn’t responsible for every inch of the 50 acres, either.
King of the castle? Nope...
Take the castle, for example. Even though the landlord is “royalty,” they aren’t required to care for the building. Instead, that responsibility falls on English Heritage. But as cool as it might sound to run your own island, it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. There are potential drawbacks.
“Periods of quiet”
Ann Thomson shed some light on that when she spoke to The New York Times in January 2022. She’s in charge of the local council, and she revealed, “While there are periods when the pub and the island is bustling with people, there will be periods of quiet, too. [That’s] something the successful applicant will need to embrace.”
Yes, between April and September, the island’s a hive of activity. In the months after that, though, it’s a very different story. The area essentially shuts down over fall and winter, leaving the landlord by themselves for large stretches. Only two other people live there “full-time.” That’s six months of isolation!
“Be a Robinson Crusoe”
A guy named John Murphy offered his thoughts to The New York Times, too. He’s been running tours of the island for around 40 years. “It’s a very tranquil place. If you don’t have any customers, you have to be a Robinson Crusoe and enjoy the facilities that you’ve got in your mind,” Murphy explained.
Nasty weather
Murphy also mentioned one of the other big drawbacks of the job: dealing with the weather. “[Winters are] very harsh indeed,” he told the newspaper. “We’re not talking about St. Lucia or the Hawaiian islands [here]. We’re talking about a small and very isolated island in the north of England.”
Getting back to the mainland
And good luck making return trips to the mainland outside tourist season. It isn’t a particularly easy journey, and that’s putting it mildly. You see, while only a couple of miles separate Piel Island from the coast, quick back-and-forths between the two aren’t very feasible. And you’ve got to be very cautious.
Relying on the tide
A sandy pathway does open up once the tide goes back, but you need to be aware of the correct route. A few missteps could spell disaster. And if you don’t return to the island before the water comes in, a tiny vessel’s your only option. “[It’s] a rowing boat with a little engine on the back,” Murphy admitted.
So how does the landlord go about getting their food shopping, then? We wouldn’t want to take the chance on foot! Murphy told The New York Times that one of the other people living on Piel Island gets in touch with a local grocery store. They put an order in and pick it up themselves by car.
“Ancient rights”
Yes, it’s possible for vehicles to cross the pathway when the tide recedes. To do that, though, the Duke of Buccleuch needs to give you a “special license” first. Murphy revealed that the duke possesses the territory surrounding Piel Island “through ancient rights.” The fact that this isn’t the strangest thing we’ve heard in this story is pretty telling!
Anyway, those are arguably the toughest aspects of taking on the job. Think you could do it? Regarding the application process, council representative Tony Callister told The New York Times, “It’s an opportunity for somebody who’s really open-minded, loves that style of business, loves the outside, [and] loves history.”
Lots of applicants
 “At the end of the day, when we all get a little bit older, you think, ‘I wish I’d have done that,’” Callister added. “Don’t pass that opportunity over.” And the search for applicants came to an end early in February 2022. Overall, close to 200 people put their names forward to the local council.
Global appeal
Not all of those applicants were based in England or the United Kingdom. One request came in from Africa, highlighting the global appeal of the unique role. So, with the window closed now, officials had some time to pore over their options. Who stands out from the crowd?
The clock’s ticking...
Well, the local authorities are apparently looking to have someone in place in spring 2022. That way, the new landlord will be ready for the next raft of tourists visiting the famous island. We can’t wait to see who nabs the role! Murphy confirmed that it wouldn’t be him, though, despite his huge affection for the area.
Plenty of love
Speaking to The Guardian, Murphy said, “I absolutely adore Piel Island. I adore its isolation. I also love the fact that Barrow still is an industrial town, and yet we have this gorgeous, isolated island within spitting distance.” But without the proper landlord — or “monarch” — the island could suffer the same fate as an island named Changuu in Africa.

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