The Last Invasion of Britain

Whisper of Scandal bookmark 1Nicola here, dusting down a classic blog post that sank without trace (appropriately enough!) when I last posted it up on my own site!  I love this story and wanted to share it on the Word Wench blog because not only is it a real life tale of Georgian adventure but it also throws light on a little known episode in British history, that of the last invasion of Britain. The major invasions – the Romans, the Normans – are well known. And of course Napoleon planned to invade Britain and the country was on high alert against such an event… And it happened in Wales in 1797.

This time last year I went on a holiday in Wales. As with a lot of my holidays it turned into a research trip when I stumbled across the Last Invasion Tapestry in the little town of Fishguard. The tapestry was made in 1997 to commemorate the bi-centenary of the last invasion. This took place in February 1797 and was the last time that a foreign military force was successful in landing on British soil, albeit the invasion itself was an abject failure. The invasion force consisted of 1400 troops from Napoleon’s Legion Noire (The Black Legion) so called because they wore the uniforms of captured British soldiers dyed dark brown or black. They were led by an Irish American colonel, William Tate, who had fought against the British during the American War of Independence. The fact that Tate was one of Napoleon’s colonels fascinated me because at the time my book One Wicked Sin had just come out, which had an Irish hero who had been fighting for the French. Tate’s background and that of a number of his troops confirmed the research I had done, which showed that a number of officers in the French army were Irish, supporters of Irish republicanism under politician and revolutionary, Wolfe Tone.

Tate’s force consisted of 800 regular troops plus another 600 deserters, convicts and Royalist prisoners. They sailed in four ships of the French Navy, two frigates, La Vengeance and La Resistance, a corvette La Constance and a small Lugger, Le Vauteur, the fleet under the command of Commodore Castagnier. Despite the fact that the invasion descended into chaos, it was no poorly planned or undermanned expedition; it was a serious attempt at invasion and the troops were well-armed. The initial plan was to land the men at Bristol and raze the city to the ground before marching North to take Chester and Liverpool. Napoleon believed that the working classes would join the revolution and that the release of French prisoners of war from the gaols in Britain would add up to an overwhelming force.

Matters went awry from the start. Adverse weather and the treacherous tides in the Severn Estuary forced the fleet to land their men in West Wales instead of at Bristol. Although the fleet was flying British Colours they were spotted off the coast of Pembrokeshire by a retired sailor who raised the alarm. An attempt to land in Fishguard was driven off by cannon from the fort and so the fleet landed 3 miles away in the bay at Carregwasted under the cover of darkness. They began to move inland and Tate established his headquarters at Trehowel Farm, Llanwnda. The French forces had been instructed to live off the land and this was where things started to unravel. The convicts and pressed men deserted as soon as they set foot on British soil and began to loot local villages and hamlets. One group broke into Llanwnda Church to hide and burned the bible and the pews to keep warm.

By the morning of 23 February the French had moved two miles inland and occupied strong defensiveLast invasion tapestry 3 positions on the high rocky outcrops of Garnwnda and Gangelli giving an unobstructed view of the surrounding countryside. However discipline had collapsed amongst the convicts when they had discovered that a Portuguese ship had been shipwrecked on the nearby coast a few weeks previously and the locals had stashed away all the wine on board. The convicts rebelled, mutinied and got blind drunk or simply ran away. One French soldier was so drunk that on hearing the ticking of the grandfather clock at Trehowel he thought it was a soldier creeping up on him and shot it! The clock with the bullet hole still  exists. Morale declined as indiscipline grew. Meanwhile the British, although outnumbered, with forces of only 300 reservists, 250 militia and 150 sailors from two revenue cutters, had decided to attack. The Welsh local population were not particularly friendly either and had already been involved in skirmishes with the French – they flooded into Fishguard volunteering to fight alongside the troops.  Welsh heroine of the hour was Jemima Nicholas, who rounded up a dozen French soldiers armed only with her pitchfork and imprisoned them in St Mary’s Church. Late that day the British troops under the command of Lord Cawdor advanced on the French position  at Gangelli but withdrew in the failing light. They had narrowly missed walking into a French ambush.

Last invasion tapestry 2That evening, two French Officers arrived at the Royal Oak Inn in Fishguard Market Square, where Cawdor had set up his headquarters. They wanted to negotiate a conditional surrender but Cawdor played a very cool bluff. Claiming to have a superior numbers of troops he issued an ultimatum to Tate, stating that he would only accept the unconditional surrender of the French forces. Tate had until 10am the following morning to surrender on Goodwick Sands or Cawdor’s men would attack. The following morning, at 8am on the 24th February 1797, the British forces lined up in battle-order on Goodwick Sands. Up above them on the cliffs, the inhabitants of the town had come to watch and await Tate’s response to the ultimatum. It is said that the French mistook the red cloaks of the Welsh women for more British troops in their red uniform and so thought themselves outnumbered. Tate surrendered and at 2pm the French drums led the column down to Goodwick. They piled their weapons and were marched away through Fishguard to prison. Later a group of prisoners made a daring escape from the Golden Prison in Pembroke by stealing Lord Cawdor’s yacht. It is said that they were helped by two local women who had fallen for the charms of two of the French officers and who ran off and married them.

The French naval squadron did not fare much better than the ground troops. On 9th March 1797 SirLast Invasion Tapestry 1 Harry Neale of HMS St Fiorenzo and Captain John Cooke in HMS Nymphe encountered La Resistance and La Constance, which had been crippled in bad weather off Ireland. Cooke and Neale engaged the ships for half and hour, after which both ships surrendered.  La Resistance was re-fitted and renamed HMS Fisguard and La Constance became HMS Constance. Commodore Castagnier, on board Le Vengeance, made it safely back to France.

This whole story is told in stunning visual detail in the tapestry. (I've reproduced the pictures quite large so that you can see the detail.) The exhibition also gives the bigger picture in the country at the time; everyone was on high alert against the possibilities of a Frech invasion and the population was very jittery. When the invasion happened the British economy was within hours of crashing. Only some cool heads in London and the speedy defeat of the French troops prevented the country from going bankrupt.

In 1853, amidst fears of another invasion by the French, Lord Palmerston conferred upon the Pembroke Yeomanry the battle honour “Fishguard”. This regiment has the unique honour of being the only Regiment in the British Army, regular or territorial, that bears a battle honour for an engagement on the British mainland. (Culloden is not recorded as a battle honour for any regiment and rightly so!) It was also the first battle honour awarded to a Volunteer Unit of the British Army. In 2003 divers discovered the wreck of one of the boats that had been used to ferry troops and ammunition from the French fleet to the mainland.

LlanwndaAfter we had seen the tapestry on display at Fishguard Town Hall we went out to Llanwnda to see where the French had made their HQ and where they had looted and burned the church. We had intended to go for a walk to Carregwasted to see the memorial stone at the landing place but the weather was so bad by now that instead we went home for Welsh cakes and tea! The Last Invasion tapestry is a superb piece of work and I would encourage anyone visiting West Wales to drop by and see this wonderful exhibition. And I think there is definitely inspiration for a book in there somewhere. Perhaps someone has already written it! 

Apart from the Bayeux tapestry I’ve never previously seen an historical event recorded in this way. Have you ever seen a story told through a tapestry or similar work and do you like seeing stories visually?