The Last Invasion of Britain: Unraveling the Tale of Fishguard’s Heroic Stand

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Fishguard, a picturesque town in north Pembrokeshire, Wales, holds a unique place in British history as the stage for what is now recounted as the “last invasion of Britain.” As the sun bathed the town in an unusually warm glow on the morning of February 22, 1797, little did the residents know that their lives were about to be swept into a whirlwind of conflict and resistance that would echo through the annals of time.

The roots of this extraordinary saga trace back to the summer preceding the invasion when French General Louis Lazare Hoche and Irish revolutionary Theobald Wolfe Tone concocted a plan for a French expedition to Ireland. Their objective was to support the Society of United Irishmen in their pursuit of Irish independence, aiming to expel the British from Irish soil. However, Mother Nature intervened with stormy weather, forcing the abandonment of their initial plans.

Undeterred, General Hoche orchestrated a second expedition with a different twist. This time, he sought to kindle rebellion among the British against their own crown. The leader of one of the French armies, the Légion Noire, was the experienced Irish-American Captain William Tate, a veteran of the American War of Independence.

Tate and his 1,400-strong force, comprised of 600 soldiers and 800 prison inmates, set sail to Bristol, the primary port in the transatlantic slave trade. Their mission: to incite mutiny among Bristolian sailors and sow the seeds of chaos in London. However, persistent winds along the Bristol Channel thwarted their plans, leading them to abandon Bristol in search of an alternative landing site.

As fate would have it, the winds guided them westward, and on that fateful Wednesday in February 1797, Tate’s forces disembarked near Fishguard. Little did they know that the locals, far from welcoming liberators, would stand resilient in defense of their homes and country.

Tate’s strategy began to unravel almost immediately. His soldiers, hungry and desperate, resorted to raiding local homes, inciting the wrath of the residents. Tales of geese cooked in butter causing food poisoning among the French troops emerged as local legend, adding a peculiar twist to the unfolding drama.

The chaos spurred local commander Thomas Knox into action, albeit with some delay. Gathering the Fishguard Fencibles, he retreated south towards Haverfordwest, anticipating reinforcements. Meanwhile, Lord Cawdor, situated 60 miles away, proved more decisive. With two local militias and Knox’s Fencibles in tow, they converged on Fishguard, their combined strength barely reaching 700 men.

Contrary to French expectations, the people of Pembrokeshire did not cower; instead, they armed themselves with makeshift weapons and engaged in skirmishes with the invaders. The turning point came when some French soldiers, plundering cottages, stumbled upon barrels of wine salvaged from a Portuguese shipwreck. In their inebriated state, they became easy targets for the locals.

Local legend weaves a fascinating tale of Jemima Nicholas, a cobbler, singlehandedly rounding up a dozen intoxicated soldiers and locking them in St Mary’s church in Fishguard. While historical verification remains elusive, the narrative adds a touch of heroism to the defiance of the Welsh against the foreign invaders.

Morale among the French soldiers plummeted as they found themselves stranded in hostile territory. Cut off from reinforcements, Captain Tate had no choice but to send emissaries seeking terms of surrender. The treaty, it is said, was signed in what is now the Royal Oak pub, with Lord Cawdor skillfully bluffing to hide the numerical inferiority of the Welsh forces.

To ensure a convincing surrender, Lord Cawdor orchestrated a clever ruse. He encouraged townspeople to gather on a hill overlooking Goodwick beach, where the French assembled. The distant crowd, adorned with traditional red flannel shawls, created the illusion of a formidable military force, dissuading the disheartened French from a last-ditch effort.

Over the ensuing century, Jemima Nicholas earned the moniker “Jemima Fawr” (Jemima the Great), becoming a symbol in the folk culture surrounding the invasion. The centenary celebrations saw the installation of a memorial stone in her honor at St Mary’s churchyard, a testament to her legendary bravery.

In 1997, Fishguard commemorated the bicentenary with a vivid reenactment, with local woman Yvonne Fox embodying the role of the heroic Jemima until her passing in 2010. The town continues to honor this pivotal moment in history, encapsulated in the Last Invasion Tapestry, a 30-meter-long masterpiece created by local women. The tapestry, housed at Fishguard town hall, recounts the entire saga in Welsh and English, with Jemima the Great and the red-cloaked women proudly depicted in its intricate design.

As Fishguard stands as a living testament to the courage and resilience of its people, the last invasion of Britain remains etched in history as a tale of ordinary individuals rising to extraordinary circumstances, shaping the destiny of a town and echoing through the ages.

Lauren Redford
Lauren Redford
Journalist Lauren Redford is a seasoned business journalist who focuses on regional areas throughout the United Kingdom. With her expertise and dedication, Lauren brings insightful coverage of local communities and their economic landscapes. With a meticulous approach and a passion for storytelling, she uncovers stories that resonate with readers and offers a deeper understanding of the business world. Lauren's commitment to delivering accurate and engaging news makes her a valuable member of the News Write Ups team.

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