The last invasion of Britain

When was Britain last invaded? 

Sorry, no, it wasn’t in 1066. It was in 1797, France landed troops in Wales, and it played out more as farce than as pivotal historical moment. 

This was toward the end of the French Revolutionary wars, when Britain and France were at war, so invading Britain wasn’t an unreasonable thing to do. The French were backing a hoped-for Irish rising against the English, and invading Britain would make a nice diversion. 

Irrelevant photo: Primroses on a frosty morning.


What didn’t happen and what did

The original plan was to land troops in Cornwall, Bristol, Newcastle and–most importantly–Ireland, the last landing planned with the help of the Irish revolutionary leader Theobald Wolfe Tone, who’d convinced revolutionary France that with its help Ireland could free itself of British domination. Before it got far, though, the project was already looking shaky. The raid on Cornwall was canceled, the raid on Newcastle was foiled by the weather, and the ships carrying 15,000 troops to Ireland were also dispersed by the weather and limped back to Brest. 

That left the expedition to Bristol–four ships carrying 1,400 soldiers under the command of William Tate. Why it wasn’t called off is anyone’s guess. 

Tate’s orders were “to bring as much chaos and confusion to the heart of Britain as was possible; to recommend and facilitate a rising of the British poor against the government; but whenever and wherever possible, to wage war against the castle, not the cottage.” 

Disciplined troops might have managed that distinction between castle and cottage, but Tate didn’t have disciplined troops. Over half were newly released prisoners and the rest (including Tate) didn’t have a whole lot of military experience. 

That made no difference to Bristol, because they never got there. The weather was against them and the ships landed instead near the mighty metropolis of Fishguard, Wales. I can’t find population figures for 1797, but the 2021 census reports a population of 3,421, up 2 from the 2011 census. It’s a fair guess that the place had 6 or 8 fewer people in 1797.

The ships actually landed outside Fishguard, not in the metropolis itself, dropping off Tate and his soldiers and sailing back to France and out of our story. 

Tate got down to business and sent out patrols and they set to work looting people’s houses. It’s a well known way of getting cottage-dwellers to support your cause. And since a Portuguese ship had run aground not long before, both houses and cottages were well stocked with brandy. Or in a different telling, wine. 

Okay, brandy turns out to be distilled wine. Lord Google just whispered that in my ear. The things I learn writing this blog.

Before long the soldiers were well stocked with brandy themselves and (I’m guessing here) roaring drunk. One is said to have shot a clock.

Take that, you sumbitch. You won’t try that again, will you?

I’ll guess again and say that had something to do with the brandy.

According to legend, they also cooked some geese in butter and got food poisoning. Now, goose cooked in butter may not be kosher but there’s no reason the soldiers would have known about that or cared if they had, and also no reason that eating goose cooked that way would give you food poisoning. We’re probably missing a piece of the puzzle but I’ve checked under the couch and it’s not there, so let’s go with what we’ve got and not complain. For either one reason or both, a good number of them incapacitated themselves.

One source questions whether the troops were even armed, raising the possibility that they counted on capturing weapons.


Meanwhile in the other corner…

…was mighty Fishguard. What did it have by way of defense? The Fencibles, for one thing. They sound like something that could be sold illegally in a back alley but weren’t. They were a militia that could be called up for local service. Their members didn’t have much in the way of training and lived at home, so mobilizing them was slow and probably chaotic, but eventually they gathered at the local fort. Then they abandoned the local fort, marching off in the direction of greater safety, away from the French. On the way, they met the better trained Pembrokeshire Yeomanry Cavalry–professional soldiers–who gathered them up, turned them around, and organized everyone into a night raid on the French position.

At this point, I’m thinking, Hey, night attack. Guerrilla warfare. That’s novel stuff for the era. Shows you what I know. They stumbled along a country lane in the dark with the volume on their fifes and drums turned up to max, alerting (no surprise here) the French, who (as far as I can figure out) took up ambush positions, at which point the British thought better of that night attack idea and marched back the way they came.


Does anyone come out of the tale looking competent?

Yes: the local people, who gathered with scythes and pitchforks and rounded up French scouts and stragglers, killing at least one. The local cobbler, Jemima Nicholas, captured a dozen or so while armed with nothing more than a pitchfork.

Did she really capture a dozen soldiers, however drunk, food-poisoned, and badly trained, using only a pitchfork? Who knows. We’re dealing with legend here. She captured some. Presumably she had a pitchfork. She wasn’t a woman to mess with and became a local hero.

Because so much of what happened comes to us by way of legend, though, I’m having trouble putting together a coherent account, so I’ll step back a bit and tell the story from a distance: Local people and British soldiers (back, presumably, from their earlier retreat) lined the crest of the hill, looking to the French like a couple of thousand soldiers–an impression helped along by the local women’s custom of wearing red dresses and tall black hats, which were a fair match for British army uniforms, at least if you didn’t get too close. In fact, the French outnumbered the British but didn’t know it. 

Among the French, discipline was evaporating. Or had evaporated earlier, when all that the brandy signed up. Or it had never been present to evaporate. Tate sent a messenger to Fishguard with a note:

“The circumstances under which the body of French troops under my command were landed at this place renders it unnecessary to attempt any military operations, as they would only lead to bloodshed and pillage. The officers of the whole corps therefore intimated their desire of entering into a negotiation upon principles of humanity for a surrender. If you are influenced by similar considerations, you may signify the same to the bearer. In the meantime, hostilities shall cease.

“Health and respect,

“Tate, Chef de Brigade”

The British bluffed, demanding an unconditional surrender, and got it. The French surrendered and were imprisoned, which seems like an unkind response to someone who signs their note “health and respect.”


And then?

Then some of the French soldiers broke out, stole a yacht belonging to Lord Cawdor–the officer they’d surrendered to–and like the ships that had carried them to Wales, sail out of our story, no doubt savoring the occasional sweetness of life’s little ironies.

The building where the surrender was signed became a pub–but not immediately.

After that the story gets serious. Even here at Notes, that sometimes happens.

In 1798, a rebellion did indeed break out in Ireland, but by then the French would only commit enough forces to make minor raids along the Irish coast. Tone landed in Donegal with 3,000 troops and was captured. He was sentenced to be hanged but killed himself before the British got a chance.