A Tiny English Island Is Looking for a New Monarch to Run its Pub

Piel Island needs its ruler to manage its inn and maintain its campgrounds

Aerial view of very small green island in ocean
The tiny Piel Island has an inn and pub and an ancient castle. Robert Harding / Alamy Stock Photo

A tiny English island is looking for a new landlord-king or -queen, according to the New York TimesAlan Yuhas. The Barrow Borough Council says Piel Island—a 50-acre landing half a mile off England’s northwestern coast—needs a “monarch” to care for the island’s pub, the Ship Inn. Duties also include maintaining the grounds, and managing a small campsite and toilet block, reports Stephen Jones for Insider.

According to Rachel Treisman for NPR, the previous landlords quit during the rise of the Covid-19 pandemic. The move prompted supporters to start a petition to save the historic pub, and island officials initiated a search for new managers to run the site. The council hopes to find a qualified candidate to sign a 10-year lease and start this April, when tourist season begins. So far nearly 200 applicants have applied since the vacancy announcement in December, reports Lucy Thackray for the Independent

Piel Island has hosted various inhabitants for nearly 3,000 years, reports NPR. In 1127, the Savignac monks constructed a new abbey on the land. The clergymen used the stronghold to store goods and smuggle valuables, like wool, during the 14th century, according to the Piel website. During the late 17th and 18th century, the island became an important stop for the shipping industry, both for customs collections and as a ship yard. In 1920, the island was given to the town of Barrow-in-Furness in memoriam of those killed in World War I.

According to English Heritage, Piel’s most famous visitor was Lambert Simnel, a low-born 10-year-old boy from Oxford who made a claim for the English throne by pretending to be the Edward, Earl of Warwick. Simnel's supporters backed him with an army of 8,000 mercenaries and established a base at Piel in 1487, largely due to its close proximity with other allies. When Simnel marched on London on June 4 of that year, he was quickly defeated 12 days later by Henry VII, and spent the rest of his days as a royal kitchen servant.

Piel Castle
The remains of Piel Castle Public domain via Flickr under CC BY 2.0

Some suggest Simnel’s stay inspired the some 300-year-old tradition of the “King of Piel.” (The Ship Inn was established three centuries ago.) Likely originating from a 19th-century pub game, the official ceremony has the new “monarch” sit in an old chair donning a rusty helmet and sword as a gallon of beer is poured on their head. The ruler swears an oath to be a good smoker, a good drinker, and “to give anyone found dead on the sands free refuge in the pub,” according to the New York Times. At the completion of the ceremony, the new landlord gets the official title of King (or Queen).

According to Insider, most of the landlord’s duties are during the tourist season from April to September. Visitors can ferry over to grab a pint at the inn while watching the island’s seals, or tour the Savignac monk-constructed Piel Castle, which is managed by English Heritage and does not fall under the landlord’s purview. The island is fairly isolated the rest of the year and hosts just two full-time residents, reports the New York Times.

Ann Thomson, the leader of the Barrow Borough Council, tells the New York Times monarch-hopefuls need to be realistic about the loneliness involved in the job.

“While there are periods when the pub and the island is bustling with people, there will be periods of quiet too,” says Thomson. “Something the successful applicant will need to embrace.”

Area tour guide John Murphy describes Piel Island’s rainy and windy winter as “very harsh indeed,” telling the New York Times, “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.”

There are only two ways off the island, Murphy says. At low tide, it’s possible to walk to the shore across the sand (one of the residents makes their Tesco supermarket runs by driving across the sand with a special permit from the Duke of Buccleuch, who owns the sands “through ancient rights”), but otherwise, the only way to shore is on a small 12-person ferry  during tourist season, which Murphy describes as “a rowing boat with a little engine on the back.”

Murphy told Mark Brown of the Guardian back in December that while he’d love the opportunity to be the new pub-monarch, the task would be better suited to someone younger. Still, at 73 years old, Murphy says he plans to continue sharing stories of his experiences on Piel.

“I must have slept on every blade of grass on that island, drunk or sober, and I just love it,” he said.