FOR almost a thousand years, the Battle of Hastings has loomed large in the history of Great Britain, retaining its status as the last successful invasion of the island by William of Normandy.  

But today marks just 225 years since another foreign invasion force landed on the British mainland. Or, to be more precise, a quiet corner of Pembrokeshire where the only disembarkation today is the arrival of a daily ferry from Rosslare.  

On 23 February 1797, a French invasion force of 1,400 troops landed at Carreg Wastad Point near Fishguard. The operation was conducted under the command of Irish-American mercenary William Tate, who bore a grudge against Britain because his family had been killed by pro-British Native Americans during the American War of Independence.  

Tate was also an Irish republican, and the surprise counter on the west coast of Wales was part of a wider plan to distract British forces and allow one of Napoleon’s generals to launch an attack on the south coast of Ireland. 

The landing at Fishguard was one part of a planned triple attack in support of the Society of United Irishmen, a sworn association whose suppression was eventually to lead to the incorporation of Ireland into a ‘United Kingdom’ in 1801. 

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But as the best of Napoleon’s revolutionary soldiers were deployed elsewhere in Europe, the French invasion of Britain was doomed to failure. Mutiny and indiscipline led to a planned assault on Newcastle-upon-Tyne being abandoned in the North Sea, and – if legend is to be believed – the attempt to take west Wales was scuppered by a brave Welsh woman armed only with a pitchfork. 

The troops at Tate’s disposal were officially called the Seconde Légion des Francs, but were more commonly known as the Légion Noire (‘The Black Legion’) due to their use of captured British uniforms dyed very dark brown or black.  

But despite this fearsome sounding name, by all accounts Tate’s forces were a rag-bag army – a mixture of republicans, deserters, convicts and French Royalist prisoners, as well as a smaller number of regular forces.  

Under cover of darkness, the Legion Noire landed at Carreg Wastad Point, three miles south west of Fishguard, and by 2am on the morning on 23 February had demonstrated the seriousness of their intent, putting ashore 17 boatloads of troops, 47 barrels of gunpowder, 50 tons of cartridges and grenades and 2,000 stands of arms.  

These aren't the actual women who stood guard on the Pembrokeshire coast in 1797 but locals taking part in a re enactment event in 2020 Picture: Johnny MorrisCarregwastad Point where the French force landed Picture: Lis Burke CC BY-SA 2.0

But once they reached the open fields of north Pembrokeshire the main concern of many of the Légion Noire was sourcing food and liquor. Looting from local farmhouses and the high desertion rate made it easier for a local response to be galvanised.  

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A Portuguese ship had been wrecked off the same stretch of coastline only weeks earlier, and so many houses in this part of Pembrokeshire were well stocked with wine. Within hours of being ashore much of Tate’s force was immobilised through being drunk, sick or both. 

Meanwhile, around 500 Welsh reservists, militia and sailors were mobilised under the command of John Campbell, 1st Baron Cawdor. They were joined by many local civilian volunteers who did not want their town to be overrun. 

After brief skirmishes in which a small number of men on each side were killed, Tate was forced to negotiate surrender at the Royal Oak on Fishguard Square. The pub is still trading today and has an inscription above its door commemorating its role in averting the invasion, and a table that locals claim is the very one over which negotiations were conducted. 

But by far the most famous aspect of what became known as the Battle of Fishguard is a story about the locals gathering on the cliffs above Goodwick beach while Cawdor awaited Tate’s response to the proposal of unconditional surrender.  

These aren't the actual women who stood guard on the Pembrokeshire coast in 1797 but locals taking part in a re enactment event in 2020 Picture: Johnny MorrisThe Royal Oak in Fishguard is still trading today and the table where Tate surrendered is, according to locals, still there

It is said that the French troops may have mistaken the tall black hats and traditional red shawls of the Welsh women for the red coats and ‘shako’ military caps worn by British Grenadier Guards. 

And the heroine of the hour, at least in the popular imagination, was undoubtedly Jemima Nicholas.  

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Jemima, whose surname has also been spelled Niclas, was a 47-year-old shoemaker who reputedly captured twelve French soldiers single handed in the coastal village of Llanwnda, armed only with a pitchfork.  

This brave local woman confronted the French deserters before ‘persuading’ them to accompany her back to Fishguard, locking them in St Mary’s Church until British troops arrived. 

And just as the story of the Battle of Hastings has had its legend perpetuated by a famous tapestry, Bayeux has its counterpart in Fishguard.  

These aren't the actual women who stood guard on the Pembrokeshire coast in 1797 but locals taking part in a re enactment event in 2020 Picture: Johnny MorrisThe Fishguard tapestry

Commissioned by Fishguard Arts Society to mark the 200th anniversary of the invasion in 1997, the 100-foot long artwork is now housed in its own gallery in the library attached to the town hall.  

Designed by artist Elizabeth Cramp and textiles specialist Audrey Walker, who coordinated its creation, it was stitched together by 78 local volunteers, and features text in Welsh and English telling the story of ‘the last invasion’ alongside illustrations of the main events – among which Jemima Nicholas is prominently featured. 

These aren't the actual women who stood guard on the Pembrokeshire coast in 1797 but locals taking part in a re enactment event in 2020 Picture: Johnny MorrisThe inscription above the door of the Royal Oak (Ceridwen CC BY-SA 2.0) and Yvonne Fox as ‘Jemima Fawr’

This local heroine has also been fondly recalled in the town in recent years through various reenactment events. For many years, a committed charity fundraiser named Yvonne Fox was well known for dressing up as ‘Jemima Fawr’ and organising marches through the town. Since her death in 2009, the role has been performed by Jacqui Scarr.  

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With the threat of Napoleon long passed into history, The Last Invasion has become an annual celebration for the twin communities of Fishguard and Goodwick, with our sister title the Western Telegraph reporting ‘Welsh dancers and music on the Golden Mile before the Last Invasion community procession, led by the Corps of Drums and the Pembrokeshire Yeomanry in full uniform and including the Sea Cadets, Jemima Nicholas, local schools, clubs, residents and families.’ 

There is now also a heritage trail that combines the stunning scenery of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path with educating the public about an event from Welsh and British history that surely deserves to be far more than the answer to a pub quiz question. 

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