The King of Hay reigned over his independent nation on the border between England and Wales from 1977 to his death in 2019: Forty-two years is a long reign by any standard of monarchy.
On 1 April 1977, second-hand bookshop owner Richard Booth donned a homemade crown, marched through the streets of Hay-on-Wye and declared himself “King of Hay” outside the gates of the Welsh town’s Norman-era castle. Canon fire from the micro-nation’s “gunboat” (in reality, a small oar-powered dingy on the River Wye) marked the declaration of independence; a flag was unveiled in front of Hay Castle; and Booth was crowned “King of Hay”, as the new national anthem was played.
Holding a regal sceptre fashioned from brass plumbing and with the freshly stitched green-and-white flag of the new “Kingdom of Hay” flying behind him, Booth informed bemused residents, and the attendant press, that with himself as “king”, independence from the United Kingdom would encourage tourism and revitalise the town’s declining economy.
Booth issued passports, stamps and currency for his new “nation”, his “cabinet ministers” were elected after a few too many drinks in the local pub; he would later appoint his horse, Goldie, as prime minister. He bestowed citizenship and peerages on his supporters and fans, and he would rule his self-declared kingdom from the ramparts of Hay Castle until his death in 2019.
“Booth was a showman and a businessman,” said Mari Fforde, a local historian who works for the Hay Castle Trust. “He sought any opportunity for publicity. The declaration of independence was part of that keen sense of publicity, his eccentric and iconoclastic streak, and his love of attention.”
The bookseller’s bold bid for independence revived the fortunes of an ailing town. “A lot of small towns were in decline at the time,” explained Dr. Reginald Clark, who worked as Booth’s publicist in the 1970s, and became the Kingdom of Hay’s “Minister for Technology”. Booth’s marketing ploy worked. It brought an influx of curious tourists and bibliophiles to Hay-on-Wye, allowing the second-hand book market to flourish. With a population of just 1,500, the town remains home to some 20-plus bookshops, and hosts the United Kingdom’s largest literary event, the annual Hay Festival. Its return in 2022, after a Covid-19 hiatus, saw some 500 events staged across two weeks, with 600 speakers and 200,000 ticket sales.
Forty five years after his declaration of independence, in May 2022, Booth’s crumbling castle – where he lived and ruled – was transformed into a museum by the Hay Castle Trust, as Hay Castle opened to the public for the first time in its 900-year history. The King of Hay’s crown jewels are on display, protected by a glass cabinet, and the original independence flag hangs on the wall. There are Kingdom of Hay stamps, currency and passports on display.
Although the United Kingdom never recognised Booth’s bid for independence, he did receive ambassadors and support from other micro-nations, including the Principality of Hutt River, a self-declared micro-nation in Western Australia, and the Free Independent Republic of Frestonia, a micro-nation formed (also in 1977) to protest the demolition of local houses in London.
From the “Crow’s Nest” viewing platform at the top of the castle’s tower, you can glimpse the River Wye meandering through the Welsh countryside to the west, while to the south, the Black Mountains rise to form the dramatic border with England. An information board informs the visitor that these are “The Welsh Marches”, the lawless borderland between England and Wales that was beset by conflict and ruled by rogue “Marcher Lords” through the Anglo-Saxon, Norman, medieval and Tudor eras. All true, but also all part of the publicity legacy of Richard Booth, the King of Hay.
Richard Booth opened Hay-on-Wye’s first bookstore in 1962 after purchasing the Old Fire Station. In 1964, he impulsively bought Hay Castle when it came on the market, renovating the historical structure into a bookshop, residence and venue for his many parties. He then took over the town’s old agricultural hall – which remains “Richard Booth‘s Bookshop” to this day – and by 1978, the store was listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s largest second hand bookshop with more than one million books stocked at any one time.
Booth passed away on 20 August 2019, but the “King of Hay” continues. “There is a lineage for the King,” said Fforde. “In 2018, Richard Booth declared his succession, and Ollie Cooke, one of his friends, is the successor. The town still has a flag and there have been several Independence weekends – although Covid means we have not had one since 2019.”
Richard Booth’s real legacy isn’t a flag or even a kingdom, but a thriving, book-loving town. We need many more Richard Booths, although that level of eccentricity, unfortunately, seems to be a declining human attribute in our current world.