This quiet and seemingly remote island with only one permanent resident, the King of Piel, belies its busy past when, at one time, 250 ships were anchored in its harbor. It boasts a chequered history. First visited by Celts and Romans, it was also settled by Scandinavians, possibly for grazing animals. I was thy neighbor once, though rugged Pile!
The island stands guard over an excellent harbour, at one time considered the best between Milford Haven in Wales and the Scottish border. King Stephen granted the island to Furness Abbey in 1127 to provide the monks of Furness Abbey with a safe harbour—needed due to the many raids by the Scots.
A wooden tower was built on the island in 1212, when King John allowed the Abbey to store provisions there. Thereafter, ships used the island to unload cargo destined for the abbey. Royal protection was given to the Abbey’s ships. In the early part of the 14th century, a motte and bailey castle, Piel, was added when Edward III gave Furness Abbey a license to crenellate the tower. Stones for the castle were taken from the beach and roughly worked, although red sandstone from the quarries around Furness Abbey was used to provide architectural detail.
Situated on a low mound at the highest point on the island, the castle was designed with a large three storey keep, inner and outer baileys, and towers at three of its corners. A ditch surrounded the entire structure. Today, trees and shrubs enfold the moss-covered ruins of the keep, and the ditch surrounding the inner and outer baileys is overgrown with shrub. Tumbling towers no longer guard the Castle. Curtain walls have collapsed onto the beach where their remains still lie.
Piel Castle not only provided safe storage from pirates, it also was a creditable defense from the King’s customs men—the abbey itself had a roaring trade in smuggling. Although King Henry IV at one time held the island, his power there was short lived. Smuggling continued until 1487 when Lambert Simnel, the pretender to the throne, (he claimed to be the Earl of Warwick) landed on Piel Island with an army of German and Irish mercenaries, then crossed Furness on his march to London. After his capture, smuggling resumed. With the dissolution of the monasteries, King Henry VIII sounded the death knell for Piel Castle, already in a state of disrepair. William Wordsworth wrote about Piel Castle, after visiting the island in 1805:
Four summer weeks I dwelt in sight of thee:
I saw thee every day! and all the while
Thy Form was sleeping on a glassy sea.
So pure the sky, so quiet was the air!
So like, so very like, was day to day!
Whene're I looked, thy Image still was there;
It trembled, but it never passed away.
The Parliamentarians took charge of the island in the Civil War and anchored their fleet there. There were later instances of smuggling, but, in 1727, Revenue Officers were successful in shutting down the trade. Piel Island continued to be used as a harbour when the Furness area became involved in the iron industry. The pub and homes for ships’ pilots were constructed in the late 1700’s.
The landlord of the Ship Inn is traditionally known as the King of Piel. This custom dates back to Lambert Simnel’s time when he declared himself king upon landing on the island. If you have ever fancied yourself a knight, all you have to do is sit in the Ship Inn’s oaken chair and have the King of Piel perform a ceremony. Then buy everyone a drink, declare you are of good character and are an ardent lover of the opposite sex. If you become a knight and are shipwrecked on the island, you may claim a free night’s lodging at the pub, along with all the food and drink you can hold.
Only the overgrown and haunting remains of the castle, the Ship Inn, a few primitive 18th century homes (updated since our visit) and one modern one today dot the island.
On Piel Island, (3 ¼ miles southeast of Barrow); reached by driving from Rampside over the mile-long causeway to Roa Island; on far side of Roa, catch small boat, subject to tides and weather
Tel. 0 7516 453 784 or 0 7798 794 550 for boat times
Open: all hours in summer
English Heritage property
Roa Island facilities: Yacht Club, café, Life Boat station.
All photos © by Barbara Ballard
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