Two hundred years ago this week, at least some of the residents of the tiny village of Fishguard in Wales, certainly the women, were preparing to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of what had been (and still is) the last attempt to invade Britain, as well as the courageous heroine who helped foil the effort. Though the whole affair reads rather like a comic opera script, it was a real and serious undertaking by which the French intended to gain a foothold in the British Isles, in preparation for a complete invasion. Curiously, this failed invasion also had another beneficial effect on the financial situation in Great Britain which would ultimately help win the war.
A brief sketch of the Fishguard Invasion and its aftermath . . .
On Wednesday, 9 March 1796, Napoleon Bonaparte married Joséphine de Beauharnais. Two days later, he left her in Paris and marched off to take personal command of the Army of Italy. For most of the remainder of that year, he fought his way across central Europe and into Italy. His many victories may have given the French government the notion that their forces were invincible. What is sure is that, back in Paris, the French Directory was plotting the invasion of Great Britain. They were gathering a large force at the port of Brest, in Brittany. Late in 1796, those troops, then 15,000 strong, were put under the command of General Louis Lazare Hoche.
The plan was to land in Ireland, where they expected to join forces with the rebel, Wolfe Tone, and his troops. General Hoche and the French government believed that the majority of the native Irish population would then rise up in support of the French. When they had control of Ireland, it would become the staging point from which to launch a full-scale invasion of England. The invasion fleet sailed on 15 December 1796, with the intention of making landfall near Cork, Ireland. But a small British squadron had been watching Brest and they were able to create so much confusion among the French captains that the fleet was soon scattered around the seas beyond the port. Bad weather and lackluster seamanship on the part of the French captains foiled further attempts to land in Ireland, later that month and into January of 1797. Though a few French ships made it to within sight of the Irish coast, they were never able to make landfall and eventually returned home.
General Hoche had planned two other small expeditions as a diversion to the main landing in Ireland in order to split the attention of the British troops. One small force would land on the northeast coast of England and march into Lancashire. The other small force would land along the coast of Wales. It was believed in France that the Welsh, like the Irish, were not happy with British rule and would also rise up against the British government, if troops arrived to aid them, as would the working classes of northern England. The expedition which was intended to land on the northeast English coast met the same fate as that which foiled the main force which sailed for Ireland. In February of 1797, General Hoche, perhaps to prove himself to the French Directory, decided to go ahead with the expedition to Wales. It was believed that the Welsh would rally behind the French troops and French prisoners of war held at Pembroke Castle would be freed to join the battle. Thus, the invasion of Britain could still be accomplished.
The previous attempts to invade Ireland and northeastern England had cost many men, so General Hoche had to cobble together an invasion force with any men he could find. In the end, the force sent to Wales numbered about 1300, a motley conglomeration made up of about 600 regular troops, the remainder being royalist prisoners, deserters, republicans and others who were lured into service with the promise of rich looting in Britain. Hoche gave command of this invasion force to Colonel William Tate, an Irishman from South Carolina who had fought for the Americans against the British during the American Revolution. A few years later, Tate had been involved in a failed French attempt to take the city of New Orleans. After that, he fled to Paris to seek sanctuary from the American authorities and reimbursement for his expenses in the New Orleans affair. Though he was an experienced military man, Colonel William Tate was seventy years old in February of 1797. In addition, there were not enough uniforms to outfit this invasion force, so they were clothed from a stock of captured British uniforms. The cloth of these uniforms would only take a dark brown dye, so the troops became known as La Legion Noir or the Black Legion. Though their uniforms were second-hand, this motley force was very well armed, though Hoche ordered Tate not to arm them until they had landed in Britain and were ready to attack.
The four ships of the squadron carrying the Black Legion set sail from Brest on 19 February 1797, flying Russian colors in order to evade any British ships as they sailed north. The expedition had orders to land first at Bristol, lay waste to the town and then sail on to Wales. There, they were to make landfall and raise the supposedly discontented populace against the British. However, strong contrary winds made it impossible for the squadron to make landfall anywhere near Bristol, so they decided to continue on up the coast in the hope of making a successful landing in Wales, specifically in Cardigan Bay, as per their orders. They had a bit of luck on the way, as they were able to capture a sloop, Britannia. But, by that time, the French ships had been sighted more than once as they sailed north along the British coast and some authorities had been alerted. The weather was fair when, around noon on Wednesday, 22 February 1797, the French ships were seen coming around St. David’s Head in Pembrokshire. They were flying British colors when they entered Fishguard Bay, at which time a single shot was fired from the fort there.
Fishguard, or, in Welsh, Abergwaun, meaning "the mouth of the River Gwaun," was a small town on the south coast of Wales. It is believed the town took its English name from an old Norse word, fiskigarðr, which translates as "fish catching enclosure," suggesting that there had been a Viking trading post and fishing village there at one time. Though no evidence has been found of such an ancient settlement, the town was known as "the fish yard" since the Middle Ages. Over time, the name was corrupted to "Fishcard" by at least the sixteenth century. At the turn of the nineteenth century, the town was more generally known as Fishguard.
The shot fired from the fort in Fishguard Bay as the French squadron entered was probably a blank shot, fired in salute to ships of the Royal Navy. But Captain John Owen, skipper of the captured sloop, Britannia, had felt no need to be honest with Colonel Tate. He had told him that the Fishguard Fort was fully staffed and heavily armed. Therefore, as soon as the shot from the fort was fired, the French ships hove to, then sailed out of the bay and on up the coast. What the French did not know is that the fort had only eight nine-pound guns, and there were only three rounds in the magazine at that moment. But the skittish French had sailed on and by four o’clock, they had anchored off Carreg Wastad, a rocky headland near Strumble Head. This point of land was about three miles northwest of Fishguard, and the massive headland hid the ships from the town.
As the French squadron rounded North Bishop Rock, they were still flying British colors, so the French commanders believed the citizens ashore were unaware of their true identity. But the unusually fair weather that February day, which had enabled the French ships to easily cruise up the coast, also made it easy for some of those near the point to see clearly through their spyglasses. One of those was Mr. Thomas Williams, Esquire, a retired naval officer, Justice of the Peace and owner of the Trelethin estate which was located near the point. While enjoying his usual constitutional that day, Mr. Williams saw the ships sailing below him and naturally put his spyglass to his eye. He was able to see though his glass that, despite the fact that the ships were flying British colors, the design of the ships was French, the men aboard were clearly French and the decks were choked with men in uniform. He immediately sent one of his young servants, mounted on one of his best horses, to spread the alarm in nearby St. David’s. He continued to keep an eye on them and saw them sail on to Strumble Head, where they dropped anchor that afternoon. However, several others on shore, including Mr. Mortimer of the nearby Trehowel Farm, were convinced the ships were part of the Royal Navy. Not only did Mortimer see no reason to take any action against the ships, he planned to invite the officers of the squadron to attend a banquet he was giving to celebrate his son’s marriage. Fortunately, not everyone in St. David’s agreed with Mr. Mortimer and a messenger was sent to notify the Lord Lieutenant of the county, Lord Milford of the presence of the French ships.
During the course of the night, the French were able to land seventeen boatloads of troops, forty-seven barrels of gunpowder, fifty tons of cartridges and grenades, as well as 2000 stands of arms. At dawn, a company of troops, including some grenadiers, led by the Irishman, Lieutenant St. Leger, marched quickly inland for about a mile and captured Trehowel Farm. Mr. Mortimer was able to make his escape just in time, but Colonel Tate and his officers enjoyed the wedding banquet that was left behind. Tate also decided to make the farmhouse his headquarters. Unfortunately for Colonel Tate, though his officers got a fine meal at Trehowel Farm, the majority of his men did not. The former prisoners, in particular, were not only hungry, but eager to begin looting, the promise of which had been used to induce them to join the expedition. As they searched the area, they came upon the large cache of wine which had recently been salvaged from the wreck of a Portuguese ship. It was not long before most of the Frenchmen were quite drunk and incapable of any useful action. However, there is a report that one inebriated Frenchman, while looting a home, thought he heard the click of a musket being cocked behind him. He turned and fired his pistol, right into the body of a long case clock. [Author’s Note: It is said that the wounded long-case clock is still in Fishguard, with the bullet hole still in the door.]
However, the situation was to continue to deteriorate from the perspective of Colonel Tate. The Welsh residents of the area were infuriated by the French looting and drunkenness. A few of them began attacking the odd French soldier as they wandered about the town and the surrounding fields. Tate and his officers had been counting on the Welsh population to rise up against their supposed oppression by the British and join his invasion force. Even their neutrality would have been preferable to their active hostility to his troops. But Tate’s situation was to become even more dire over the course of the following day.
That Wednesday evening, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Knox was attending a ball at the nearby Tregwynt Mansion. Colonel Knox was twenty-eight and the commander of the Fishguard and Newport "Fencibles," or militia volunteers. However, young Colonel Knox had no combat experience as he had only recently purchased his commission and his wealthy father had paid to outfit and equip the Fencibles. When the first reports of the French landing reached Colonel Knox, he dismissed it as a hoax. Later reports convinced him the threat was real and he ordered the Newport Division of his militia to march to Fishguard Fort. That same evening, the Earl of Cawdor was at Stackpole Court, about thirty miles away to the south. He held the rank of Captain of the Castlemartin Troop of the Pembroke Yeomanry Cavalry and his troops had assembled there that evening in order to attend a funeral which was to be held the following day. When Captain, Lord Cawdor got the news of the French landing, he immediately mobilized all his troops and marched north, picking up other militia groups as he went.
Once Colonel Knox arrived at the Fishguard Fort, he realized that about one hundred of his men had not yet arrived, leaving him with less than two hundred troops. He was still planning to attack the French when he got word that their numbers were at least 1500. At that time, he did not know that the number was inflated and that more than half of them were drunk and unable or unwilling to fight. Knox felt that he could not go against the French with only two hundred men and he decided to retreat. On his march north, Cawdor met with Lord Milford, the Lord Lieutenant of the County, who delegated full military authority to the Captain. Colonel Knox and his men encountered Captain, Lord Cawdor and his troops as they marched south from Fishguard. Though Knox protested, Cawdor took command of the joint force, with the authority granted him by Lord Milford, and marched the combined militia of over 950 men back to Fishguard.
News of the French landing and the militia movements in the area had attracted the attention of the local population, many of whom came out to witness the expected battle. There were hundreds of women who gathered on a hill within spyglass view of Trehowel Farm and Fishguard Bay. Most of these women were wearing their traditional scarlet tunics and tall black felt hats. As more and more of them continued to gather on the hill, Colonel Tate saw them through his glass and at that distance, he assumed, by their scarlet tunics and black hats that they were a regiment of British regulars who had come to reinforce the local militia. The sailors on the French ships also believed that growing group of scarlet and black-clad people on the distant hill to be British infantry. They cut their anchor cables and stood out to sea to avoid capture, leaving their comrades onshore, at the mercy of what they believed to be superior British forces.
Unfortunately for the French, not all the women of Fishguard were gathered on that hill. Jemima Nicholas, forty-seven years old that day, was the wife of a cobbler in Fishguard. She was a statuesque woman with a strong will. Enraged by the French incursion into her homeland, she caught up the nearest weapon, a pitchfork, and strode out to protect her fields. Jemima found twelve fairly intoxicated and hungry Frenchmen in one of her fields. They were chasing her chickens and sheep, intending to catch and eat them. In short order, she rounded them up at the point of her pitchfork and marched them back into town. Jemima locked her prisoners inside St. Mary’s Church and went back out to look for more soldiers. She found two more Frenchmen hiding in a cowshed and is reported to have dragged them back into town, one under each arm. It comes as no surprise that she became known in Fishguard, and beyond, as "Jemima Fawr" or Jemima the Great.
Before the day was out, the French invasion of Wales had completely collapsed. Most of the French troops of the Black Legion were incapacitated by wine and/or were refusing to fight. Colonel Tate and his officers were under the impression that they were surrounded by several thousand seasoned British infantry troops. And they had no hope of retreat, since their ships had sailed away to avoid capture by those same perceived British troops. Believing his legion to be surrounded and outnumbered by superior forces, that evening Colonel Tate sent a letter of surrender to Lord Cawdor, who had commandeered the Royal Oak pub in Fishguard for his headquarters. The following morning, 24 February 1797, Colonel Tate came to the Royal Oak to sign the document by which he and his entire Black Legion surrendered unconditionally to Lord Cawdor. The Frenchmen were gathered together and all of their weapons were confiscated. By four o’clock, the French prisoners were on the march to Havorfordwest, where they would be confined in the local prison, with the churches and warehouses in the town taking the overflow.
Once the British authorities realized the majority of their French prisoners were convicts and other malefactors, those men were very soon deported back to France. Most of the officers of the Black Legion were incarcerated in the Golden Prison in Pembroke, while Colonel Tate and a few senior officers were confined in a prison ship anchored at Portsmouth. The men who were held in the Golden Prison later escaped by tunnelling under the wall. Once free, they managed to steal Lord Cawdor’s private yacht and sailed back to France. The following year, Colonel Tate was returned to France in a prisoner exchange.
Once the news of the attempted French invasion became known in the rest of Britain, it triggered a run on many banks. People wanted to change their paper currency for gold, which they legally could, since those bank notes were backed by gold. These bank runs caused such consternation within the government that the Bank of England was ordered to issue £1 and £2 notes as legal tender. These notes were not backed by gold. Later that same year, an Act of Parliament was passed which officially took England off the gold standard. This law was not repealed until 1819, when the gold standard was reinstated in Britain. But by then, British citizens had confidence in their paper currency and it continued in circulation. In the end, this law proved to be of great benefit to the British Isles as the Napoleonic Wars continued. With paper money accepted within the country, there were large gold reserves which could be used for foreign subsidies. Those subsides encourage several countries to remain in the alliance against France. These alliances ultimately brought down Napoleon and his empire.
The courage of Jemima Nicholas was recognized by the British government and she was granted a pension of £50 a year for the rest of her life. She continued to live and work in Fishguard until her death there in 1832. Unfortunately, the courage of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Knox was called into question by a disgruntled former employee of his father, William Knox. Thomas Knox was accused of cowardice for retreating from Fishguard Fort with his militia troops. Despite his father’s valiant efforts on his behalf in London, as well as a statement of support from his men, Thomas Knox was eventually forced to resign his commission as commander of the militia his father had founded and equipped. He came to see Lord Cawdor as his primary enemy, and challenged Cawdor to a duel in May of 1797. However, it appears that concerned parties on both sides intervened to mitigate the conflict and the duel was averted.
Fortunately, the defense of Britain by the Welsh citizens of the Fishguard region made it clear that the Welsh were loyal to Britain and were not at risk of adopting the revolutionary philosophies of France. This event helped to cement the Anglo-Welsh union and demonstrated that the people of Wales could be trusted with the "integrity of the kingdom" of Great Britain. In addition, the miserable appearance and cowardly behavior of the majority of the captured French troops significantly damaged the reputation which had been held by many Englishmen of the "splendid armies" of France. It had the effect of boosting morale on the British home front.
Though the Fishguard Invasion was largely forgotten in most of Britain by the turn of the nineteenth century, it was never forgotten in Fishguard and its immediate environs. Every year, over 23 – 24 February, the town celebrated their victory over the French. In particular, Jemima Nicholas was always honored during those celebrations, for her capture of so many French soldiers. The women of the area were also honored, after it had been learned that the French soldiers had been frightened by them when they gathered wearing their traditional Welsh dress. People came in from all over the area for the celebrations. The year 1817 marked the twentieth anniversary of the Fishguard Invasion. Such an occasion called for a grand celebration, so it is certain the town put extra effort into that year’s anniversary observances. Jemima Nicholas was still living in the village, as were many of the women who had frightened the French during the invasion attempt twenty years before. The exact nature of the celebrations that year are not known, but they were probably similar to many of the wakes which had been held across Britain for centuries, though with a traditional Welsh flavor.
Dear Regency Authors, if you are planning to set a story in Wales, in late February of 1817, or late February in any other year of the Regency, perhaps the anniversary celebrations of the Fishguard Invasion might add some local interest to your tale. Particularly since this particular celebration focused on the feminine side of the population.