Piel Island

I caught part of a Flog It programme today, where Paul Martin visited Piel Island and met the ‘King of Piel’. This intrigued me as I had never heard of the title before, and so I did a little research. Peil’s earliest known history is linked to Scandinavian settlers, who called it Fowdrey or Fotheray, derived from ‘Old Norse for fire island – meaning a fire beacon to guide boats’. (www.barrowbc.gov.uk/default.aspx?page=3487)

What I was most curious about was the concept of the ‘King of Piel’ mentioned on the Flog It show (www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00ny8m2). I found out that the tradition of crowning a ‘King of Piel’ is closely related to the Ship Inn, itself of a possible 300-year old vintage. The Inn continues to operate and welcome visitors today.

Piel was given to the people of Barrow-in-Furness by the Duke of Buccleuch in 1920. Barrow Borough Council now oversees the island, and it has provided some interesting information about the tradition of kingship on Piel. (www.barrowbc.gov.uk/default.aspx?page=3487)

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, in which they [sic] sit in an ancient chair, wearing a helmet and holding a sword while alcohol is poured over their head.  In early versions of the ceremony they also wore oilskins.  The early written references to Knights of Piel are in the first visitors’ book which started in 1856.  The early evidence for the ceremony is the graffiti carved into the chair.  The ceremony is said to be due to the landing of  [the pretender to Edward VI’s throne] Lambert Simnel in 1487 and is most likely to have begun as a slightly mocking homage to this event.   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.

Clearly at this stage the ceremony for knights and the king was the same, and over time there have been several variations.  References in the visitors’ books describe knights at one point as free members of “the Noble Ancient Castle of Piel”.  In 1914 there was an entire cabinet including Prime Minister and Lord Mayor of Piel and a whole royal family is listed.  One thread remains in common however – the king and knights of Piel were always expected to be “a free drinker and smoker and lover of the female sex”.

Barrow-in-Furness is about 45-60 minutes drive from Blenheim Lodge, so maybe Hubby and I will make the trip one day to see it. Visitors may access the island via ferry from Roa Island, a few miles southeast of Barrow. We have been to Barrow a number of times, mostly to shop. But perhaps one day we will be on that ferry to discover a place we had never heard of before despite having lived in the Lakes for the last ten years!

piel island

Crossing the sea to Piel Island. (Photo by Tony Richards, courtesy of www.visitcumbria.com.)

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