The last invasion of Britain.
Look in the history books for a reference to the last invasion of Britain, and you will probably be referred to the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Whilst it is true that the last successful invasion of Britain indeed took place in 1066, the last actual invasion of British homeland soil took place at Fishguard over 700 years later.
On February 18th 1797, a French invasion force comprising of around 1400 men set sail from Camaret, ultimately destined for Fishguard. Under the command of Irish-American Colonel William Tate, a septuagenarian, their orders were to land near the port of Bristol, England's second largest city. Having successfully destroyed Bristol, their orders were to head north to Chester and Liverpool.
At that time Napoleon Bonaparte was making it his business to conquer central Europe, and he had utilised the cream of the Republican army for that purpose. Colonel Tate's force therefore comprised of a pretty indifferent bunch of pseudo-soldiers, some of whom were released from prison for just that purpose.
As if that wasn’t a bad enough portent the weather was also against Tate, and the conditions at sea made it impossible for the French warships to land anywhere near Bristol. The invasion force sailed on, waiting for a break in the weather and a stretch of coastline more appropriate to their task.
And, on Wednesday February 22nd 1797, the French force happened upon the broad sweep of flat sand, and the small town of Fishguard at the mouth of the river Gwaun.
Unluckily for them Fishguard now had its very own fort, built on a small headland above what would become the location for ‘Under Milk Wood’ 174 years later, which had been completed in 1781 for just such an eventuality.
The local Militia responded by sending a volley from the fort’s eight 9lb and 12lb shot cannons whistling across the bay. They were actually sounding a warning for local townsfolk and not firing at the French warships, but it was enough to divert the French ships to a small bay near the hamlet of Llanwnda.
The invasion force was frustrated by their misfortunes and ready for action, and the 1400 sailors pitched in to unload the weapons and gunpowder needed for the following day’s excursions. The ships then up-anchored and returned to France, bearing news that there had been a successful landing and that the invasion of Britain was underway.
The sailors spread out across the countryside, and commenced looting farmsteads and houses along the way. The vagabonds and ex-prisoners were pleased to find the properties stocked with ‘recovered’ booty, salvaged from a Portuguese ship which had recently sunk off the coast. As much of this was in the form of alcohol, it was not long before the French rendered themselves ‘unfit for duty’.
There followed two days of predictable excess and, with the exception of a farmhouse clock being on the receiving end of a musket ball, and the invasion faltered before it had begun.
It is recorded in the surrender agreement drawn up by Tate's officers that the British redcoats arrived on the scene and came at them, “with troops of the line to the number of several thousand”. However, whilst there were no redcoats in the area, a good number of local women had gathered on the skyline to watch the invasion unfold. It is suggested that the sailors, worse for wear due to their intake of Portuguese liquor, mistook the traditional Welsh costumes for British army redcoats.
No doubt they were also encouraged into surrender when word spread of the exploits of the infamous Jemima Nicholas, nearly 50 years old and wife of a Fishguard cobbler. On learning of the invasion, Jemima grabbed the nearest pitchfork, headed out to Llanwnda, and marched back into town with 12 Frenchmen she’d single-handedly apprehended.
Tate's invasion was at an end, and he surrendered to a local militia force led by Lord Cawdor on February 25th, 1797.
Jemima Nicholas was buried at St Mary's Church on Fishguard Square on 16th July 1832. A memorial stone was erected to her in 1897 as part of the centenary invasion celebrations, and it can still be seen near the entrance to the churchyard.
As part of the bicentenary commemorations, a 100 foot long ‘Last Invasion of Britain’ tapestry, sewn by 78 volunteers, was incorporated into the recently refurbished Town Hall in 1997.