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The last invasion of Britain

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 13:44 UK time, Monday, 21 February 2011

Ask the average man or woman in the street when Britain was last invaded and the answer will probably be "1066". In fact the response would be wrong by about 700 years.

Fishguard Harbour

Fishguard Harbour. Photo by petes_pix2008 on Flikr

The last time any invaders foot ever stood upon the soil of mainland Britain was February 1797 when 1,400 members of the French Légion Noire landed on the Pencaer Peninsula just outside Fishguard.

They were a misbegotten and desperate band of villains, most of them convicts from the prisons of Brest and Le Havre, men kept in chains until the invasion fleet actually sailed. The rest were the worst and least disciplined soldiers from every assorted regiment in France.

However, for a brief moment these vicious and terrifying warriors had the island of Britain at their mercy. Panic spread across the land, people really believing that the cream of French soldiery had come to slit their throats.

Led by a 70-year-old American soldier of fortune by the name of William Tate, the original aim of the Légion Noire was to attack Bristol, then the second city of Britain, and divert the attention of the Royal Navy from another assault, this one on the southern part of Ireland.

The Irish plan failed but with the villains of the Légion Noire already assembled in Brest it was decided to launch the attack on Bristol and cause as much chaos as possible.

The legion was, once Bristol had been sacked, to wheel round and march into Wales. The Welsh nation, it was believed, would quickly flock to their standard, desperate to throw off the yoke of English tyranny.

Even if the invaders had been well trained and highly disciplined soldiers it is doubtful if this element of the scheme would ever have worked. With men like the Légion Noire involved the plan was doomed to disaster from the very beginning.

Contrary winds prevented the French fleet from reaching Bristol and so Tate decided to land instead on the Welsh coast.

When the fleet approached Fishguard on 22 February 1797 they were met by a single shot from the town fort. The shot was a blank but it frightened Tate into landing over the rocks of Careg Wastad Point on the Pencaer Peninsula rather than in the town itself.

By late evening most French troops were ashore, camped on the headland. To oppose them were Lt Colonel Thomas Knox and just 190 part time soldiers, Fencibles as they were known.

Throughout the long night Knox waited and watched. Then on the morning of 23 February he decided there was no option but to withdraw towards Haverfordwest. The town of Fishguard now lay at the mercy of the French.

All that long day the French soldiers, most of them half starved and out of control, roamed the hills and fields above Fishguard. They were supposed to be searching for supplies and transport - in fact they were more intent on looting and finding whatever food and liquor they could in the farm houses of the area.

A number of skirmishes took place between the French and the Welsh people. A party of sailors and men from nearby St Davids encountered some of the enemy in a field below Carn Gelli. They quickly opened fire - when the smoke had cleared one Frenchman was dead, another injured, and the rest took to their heels.

Some of the incidents were simply ludicrous.

At the farm of Brestgarn a drunken Frenchman, looking for more wine, heard what he took to be the click of a musket being cocked. He spun round and fired - straight through the face of a grandfather clock.

The undoubted hero of the hour was town cobbler Jemima Nicholas. She marched out onto Pencaer and, single handed, captured 12 French soldiers. They were probably drunk, ill and more than happy to find themselves in safe captivity, but that should never detract from the courage of the woman.

General Tate soon found himself faced by a mutinous army that had little or no stomach for the coming fight. All day there were sightings and rumours of a relieving force under Lord Cawdor marching northwards towards Fishguard. And so, at 9pm that evening, Tate asked for terms and surrendered.

At midday on the 24 February, the Legion Noire marched onto Goodwick Sands, piled their arms and were marched away into captivity.

The invasion has always had more than a little of the farce about it, worthy of Gilbert and Sullivan at their best. It remains the classic 'what if?' story.

If the invading army had contained quality soldiers, men who had the inclination and the training to fight, rather than the drunken rabble of the Légion Noire, then untold damage could have been caused. There were precious few defences and, once the protective screen thrown up by the navy had been breached, almost no soldiers to fight a determined and resolute foe.

Wooden box with gold nuggets

The invasion caused panic all over Britain. People buried their money and jewels.

Even so the panic that spread all over Britain when news of the invasion broke was worrying. People demanded their money from the banks - given out in gold and silver coins in those days - and set about burying it in their gardens where, they felt, it would be safe from French hands.

The Bank of England almost ran out of money and had no option but to issue promissory notes to the value of £1 and £2, paper money that has stayed with us ever since.

Legend and fact have blurred somewhat over the years and there remains a wonderful story of Lord Cawdor asking local Welsh women in their red shawls and tall stove pipe hats to masquerade as soldiers. The French, so the story goes, were totally taken in and promptly threw up their hands in horror.

Sadly, the story has little substance. There were Welsh women in Cawdor's relieving force and they were certainly there watching in great numbers when Tate surrendered but as for pretending to be British soldiers there was neither the time nor the inclination. It remains just a lovely story.

Phil Carradice will be telling the story of the last invasion of Britain on The One Show on Thursday 24 February, 7pm on BBC One.


  • Comment number 1.

    Phil, you solved something for me with this. Many years ago I would take parties of students to this area - studying the wonderful geology not history. But I would always digress (who? me?) and tell them the story of the French invasion. I was surprised at how few people had heard of it but was often asked why the French chose such an inhospitable place to land. There are fearsome cliffs hereabouts! I used to talk around the question, muttering things about ‘element of surprise’ etc. I wish 40 years ago I had known the story of them being scared off Fishguard by having a blank fired at them from the old fort. The students would have loved it!

  • Comment number 2.

    The story of the blank shot is an interesting one. When the French arrived off Fishguard they sent only one ship into the harbour, the lugger Vautour. There is a school of thought that says the gunners in the fort mistook the ship for a Russian - the French fleet was flying Russian colours - and the shot was a welcoming salute. The other view is that it was a desperate ruse. Either way, the Vautour turned on her heel, rejoined the fleet and the French came ashore over Pencaer. Luckily for them it was a calm day. Even so, one boat capsized and eight soldiers were drowned - and maybe, just maybe, some artillery pieces were lost.


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