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The Last Invasion ... 1797 And All That ....

Fishguard and Goodwick's Tapestry: The Last Invasion

Indwellers of neighbouring Tranent know only too well of their community's 'mutiny' against the The Scottish Militia Act in 1797 [further details at the foot of this NewsNet report]. There's a fine statue to Joan Crookston, the heroine of that 'massacre' in the civic centre today. The events that led to the passage of that Act however are less well known.

The 'Revolution' in France had many supporters in Britain. Secret organisations such as United Scotland were active north of the border. The unrest greatly worried the aristocrats and landed gentry of the nation, and with good cause. The authorities were struggling to conscript as required. One particular French inspired incident occasioned the 'last invasion' of Britain by a foreign power, and it occured close by Fishguard and Goodwick in South West Wales [further details of the incident are also given at the very end of this NewsNet report.]

On its 200th anniversary in 1997 the local community there embroidered a tapestry telling the story. It too has a female heroine in Jemima Nicholas, a local cobbler dubbed The Welsh Heroine. When a party of some 1400 well armed French soldiers came ashore led by an American revolutionary Colonel William Tate, Jemima captured 12 single handedly and imprisoned them in Fishguard Church. Tate had assumed that the local peasantry would rise in support of revolution but that totally failed to happen. Subsequently without any battle being fought Tate surrendered to a combination of the local Pembrokeshire Militia led by Thomas Knox and the Yeomanry Cavalry led by Lord Cawdor - which Tate mistakenly took to be a superior force.

Fishguard Arts Society initiates a design by Elizabeth Cramp

More than 70 stitchers worked to create Elizabeth Cramp's The Last Invasion, which is now an internationally recognised work of art. It runs to some 100 feet in length and stands 20" high. 198 different wool colours were used and it took some 40,000 hours to complete. In its first year it was seen by over 150,000 visitors. It has now happily found a home in the Library Gallery of the Town Hall [entrance free during normal library hours Monday/ Saturday].

Barrie Thomas [Ph. 01348 872322] made a dvd of the tapestry's creation of which copies can be purchased from him - £10 each.] The image of Jemima below is his alongside the early illustration of the heroine. Beneath those is a sneak preview of a section showing pilaging by the French.

click to enlarge images




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Ed: Some further details of the Tranent Mutiny and Massacre follow:

In July 1797 the Government at Westminster outlawed the taking or administering of illegal oaths, effectively making membership of the United Scotland liable to 7 years transportation, and introduced ‘an Act to raise and embody a Militia force in that part of the Kingdom of Great Britain called Scotland’, to strengthen forces against external invasion and internal revolution.

The army was already hated by the working-class because it was used by the ruling class to crush democracy at home and abroad. The Scottish Militia Act was seen as a direct attack on workers as the bourgeois could buy their exemption from it. The Act gave powers to raise a force of 6000 men to be chosen from a ballot of all able bodied men aged between 19 and 23, a random conscription. Lists of names were to be drawn up by schoolmasters preceding meetings of Deputy Lieutenants, where a date would be set for the ballot. The posts of Deputy Lieutenant (DL) had been appointed to each Scottish county from the ranks of the gentry. Their remit was ‘for the preservation of internal tranquillity’ and to bolster the state’s spy network.

Across Scotland the class lines became clearly drawn. Workers proclaimed that ‘we are not going to risk our lives for the gentry and their property’, that they ‘disapproved of the War’ agianst France and, ‘would rather die to a man than be pressed for soldiers’. Resistance first broke out on August 17 at Eccles in Berwickshire where a crowd armed with sticks and stones prevented the authorities from carrying out the Act. Resistance spread like wildfire throughout the country from the Borders to Aberdeenshire within days. Wherever the authorities tried to implement the Act lists were seized from schoolmasters and destroyed, property destroyed and trees of liberty planted as the people sought to oppose the Militia by force.

On August 28 a large crowd gathered in Tranent from the local colliery villages behind a drum, shouting ‘Nae Militia’. They marched to Prestonpans where a meeting passed a series of resolutions against the Act. Led by Joan Crookston they sacked the schoolmaster's house and destroyed the list before dispersing in order to return to Tranent the next day, where the proposed ballot was due to take place.

Early the next morning the Deputy-Lieutenants gathered at St-Germains and, backed by troops from both the Cinque Ports and Pembrokeshire Cavalry, as well as local yeomanry, made the journey to Tranent.

There they were met by a hostile crowd of several thousand ‘chiefly women’ who ‘damned them for a parcel of English buggars’ and claimed that the Militia was ‘against the Union’. All the neighbouring villages and workplaces came to show their opposition including the salters from Prestonpans who had previously been implicated in the Pike Plot of 1794.

John Caddell of Cockenzie, a local mine-owner and Deputy Lietenant was particularly incensed by the presence of so many women ‘damning them for bitches’ and threatening to hang them all. When the resolutions of the Prestonpans meeting were rejected as seditious Caddell tried to incite the crowd by throwing several stones into its midst.

As the tension mounted at first the soldiers fired blanks, but before long adopted a policy of shoot to kill. They managed to clear the streets before chasing the people out into the open fields where the cavalry would be more effective. For a half-hour drunken troops, along with those stationed at the entrances to Tranent, set about ‘shooting, spearing, slashing and riding down a populace armed only with stones’. By the end of the massacre 12 men, women and children had been murdered and many more injured. Now the authorities waded in and made 36 arrests. Lord Advocate Robert Dundas refused to indict any of the troops for murdering unarmed civilians and justified their actions in the face of “such a dangerous mob as deserved more properly the name of an insurrection.”


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Ed: The full tale of The Last Invasion of Britain is recounted below from 'Fishguard Online'.

After the outbreak of war between Britain and France in 1793, General Lazare Hoche decided to take the war onto British soil. In 1796 he planned a full scale invasion of Ireland, which would be supported by the United Irishmen. An expedition of 15,000 men was organised and to prevent British reinforcements being sent to Ireland and to create panic on the mainland two smaller expeditions were planned.

A force would cross the North Sea, land in the northeast, win the support of the working classes and march across northern England to Lancashire. Here they would link up with a smaller expedition, which would either have attacked Bristol or, failing that, would have landed in Cardigan Bay and threatened Liverpool. It was predicted that the Welsh and English working classes, like their Irish counterparts, would rise in the name of Liberty.

In December 1796, Hoche's expedition arrived in Bantry Bay in Ireland but was scattered by atrocious weather and limped back into Brest. A combination of poor weather and indiscipline had also put paid to the northern expedition. But what of the other expedition?

Preparations went ahead in Brest but with the failure of the Irish invasion it is difficult to see why it set sail at all. Equally strange was the choice of its leader, a little known American of Irish descent called William Tate from South Carolina. He had fought against Britain in the American War of Independence. However, after that war he became deeply embroiled in French plans to capture New Orleans and fell foul of the American authorities. In 1795 he fled to Paris, hoping to be reimbursed for his expenses and demanding confirmation of his rank. Hoche thought that Tate was the right man to lead the Bristol expedition.

Most of the soldiers were kitted out from a stock of British uniforms which had been captured earlier. But these would only take dark brown dye so La Seconde Legion des Francs became known as "La Legion Noir" or the "Black Legion." The force of over 1,200 men consisted of a mixture of republicans, deserters, royalist prisoners and grenadiers and they were very well armed. Some of the officers were Irish.

The quality of the four ships under Commodore Castagnier was impressive. Le Vengeance and La Resistance were two of the largest and newest French frigates; the latter was on her maiden voyage. The corvette La Constance and the lugger Vautour were also new. Castagnier's instructions were to head for Irish waters after disembarking the soldiers.

Hoche's instructions undoubtedly asked far too much of this expedition. Having burnt Bristol, Britain's second largest city, the force was to land on the Welsh side of the Bristol Channel or failing this, in Cardigan Bay and then make for Chester or Liverpool.

Apart from this, the working classes were to be encouraged to rebel; Britain's trade was to be dislocated and French prisoners of war liberated, causing such chaos as to make the invasion of Britain possible. Hoche warned Tate that he should not risk battle unless it was absolutely essential, since the enemy would have superior forces.


The squadron left Brest on 16th February 1797. Flying Russian colours they lurked around Lundy, sinking a few small craft while waiting for a suitable tide to take them to Bristol. Skillfully using the tides to reach Porlock, Castagnier was finally forced to abandon the project because of adverse winds. The inhabitants of Ilfracombe sounded the alarm as they passed and the local volunteers were mobilised. Following instructions, Tate now insisted on making for Cardigan Bay. But there had been several sightings of them and the authorities had been alerted.

By noon on Wednesday 22nd February, Castagnier was spotted rounding St. David's Head in Pembrokeshire, flying British colours. At 4 p.m. the French anchored in perfect weather off Carreg Wastad, a rocky headland three miles west of Fishguard. By 2 a.m. on Thursday 23rd February, 17 boatloads of troops, 47 barrels of powder, 50 tons of cartridges and grenades and 2,000 stands of arms had been brought ashore. This was indeed a magnificent feat. A company of grenadiers under Irishman, Lieutenant St. Leger rushed a mile inland and took over Trehowel Farm, which became Tate's headquarters. La Seconde Legion des Francs had succeeded in making the last landing by enemy soldiers on the British mainland.

When one of the French ships entered Fishguard Bay to reconnoitre, Fishguard Fort fired a blank shot. Whether this was the customary signal to a visiting British vessel or the alarm for the Fishguard Volunteers, it saved Fishguard! The ship promptly hoisted the French tricolour and sailed away to rejoin the others. Although Fishguard Fort had eight nine-pounders, there were only three rounds in the magazine and the small port could have easily been taken.

With the loss of the American colonies in 1783, the last Under-Secretary of State, William Knox, decided in 1784 to purchase estates in Pembrokeshire and his mansion at Llanstinan was only 4 miles from Fishguard. When the Government called for volunteers in the war against the French, Knox raised the Fishguard and Newport Volunteer Infantry in 1794, one of the earliest in the kingdom. Having raised four companies, totalling nearly three hundred men, it was the largest force in the county and his son, Thomas Knox, was appointed Lieutenant Colonel. At the time of the French landing, Knox was 28 years old with no combat experience. He was attending a social function at Tregwynt Mansion when news of a suspected enemy landing was brought to him. Initially he gave it little credence but as the seriousness of the situation dawned on him he instructed his Newport Division to march the seven miles to his headquarters at Fishguard Fort.

Lord Cawdor was 30 miles away at Stackpole Court in the far south of the county when he received the news. He had been commissioned captain of the Castlemartin Troop of the Pembroke Yeomanry Cavalry, which fortunately was assembled for a funeral on the following day. He immediately mobilised all the troops at his disposal and crossed the Pembroke Ferry with the Pembroke Volunteers and the Cardiganshire Militia. Once across, Cawdor went ahead and met Lord Milford, the Lord Lieutenant of the county, who delegated full authority to him.


Most of the credit for gathering about 400 soldiers and sailors at Haverfordwest was due to the energy of Lieutenant Colonel Colby of the Pembrokeshire Militia. Having summoned the troops to Haverfordwest, he had galloped the sixteen miles to Fishguard to assess Knox's situation. Satisfied that Knox was taking appropriate measures, he returned to Haverfordwest to supervise the arrival of the local forces. Captain Longcroft of the navy brought in the press gangs and the crews of two revenue cutters at Milford, totalling about 150 sailors. Nine cannons were brought ashore, of which six were placed in Haverfordwest castle, and the others brought along. Due to Colby's exertions the force under Cawdor set off at noon, 23rd February from the Castle Inn, Haverfordwest to reinforce Knox, who was facing the French at Fishguard with his Fishguard Volunteers.

Knox had declared his intention of attacking the following day if he was not heavily outnumbered. Colby wrote later that he had suggested placing troops on the heights opposite the French to discourage them from moving until reinforcements arrived. Knox denied this but had sent out scouting parties to assess the French strength.

The French had moved a further two miles inland and occupied two strong defensive positions at Garnwnda and Garngelli, high rocky outcrops giving an unobstructed view of the surrounding countryside. Thus far all had gone well for Tate and his force.

On the morning of 23rd February, a hundred of Knox's men had still not arrived and he soon learned that he was facing an enemy of over 1200 men, who could have been seasoned veterans. This was a different proposition to the skirmishing role of their training. Although many inhabitants were fleeing the area in panic, hundreds of civilians were flocking into the area armed with a variety of crude weaponry.

Poor Knox faced a dilemma - to attack, to defend Fishguard, or to retreat towards his reinforcements, which he knew would be moving towards him from Haverfordwest. He decided to retreat slowly towards Haverfordwest. He gave orders to spike the Fort's cannons (which the Woolwich Bombadiers refused to carry out) and at about 9 a.m. he set off, sending out scouts to keep watch on the French. The Defence Committee at Haverfordwest agreed with this decision, which was to have grave repercussions for Knox later. Fishguard was now completely at Tate's mercy.

Knox and his 194 men met the reinforcements led by Lord Cawdor and Colby at Trefgarne, 8 miles from Fishguard at 1.30 p.m. Colby was surprised to see him. After a short dispute Cawdor was accepted as Commander-in-Chief and he led the British forces back towards Fishguard.

By 5 p.m. the force had arrived within a mile of Fishguard and Cawdor decided to attack. Considering the darkness, this was indeed risky to say the least.

The 600 men, dragging their cannons, marched up the narrow Trefwrgi Lane, with its high hedges, towards the French position on Garngelli. But a French advance party, under Irishman Lieutenant St. Leger, had prepared an ambush. A volley poured into the tightly compressed column at point blank range would have resulted in heavy casualties. Boxed into the lane, the force was in a potential death trap. Seemingly oblivious to this, Cawdor decided to withdraw to Fishguard, since they were losing their bearings in the darkness, and avoided the ambush awaiting him by a few hundred yards. So the force prepared to spend the night in Fishguard and the officers were based in today's Royal Oak Inn.

However, Tate's fortunes had changed. Many of his foraging parties had resorted to pillaging the local farms and Llanwnda Church. Indiscipline was getting out of hand with examples of mutinous men threatening their officers. It became obvious to Tate that the local Welsh peasants were hostile to his force of 'liberators' and six peasants and soldiers had been killed in clashes. Many of the Irish officers were counselling surrender, realising what would be in store for them if hostilities continued. The departure of Castagnier's squadron as planned for Ireland had shocked and demoralised the men who had seen their escape route vanish over the horizon.

There is strong evidence that the French were deceived by the appearance in the neighbourhood of large numbers of local womenfolk wearing the traditional dress of red shawls and black hats, which at a distance resembled infantry uniforms. It is certain that inhabitants over a wide area were flocking towards Fishguard to attack the enemy. The formidable local cobbler, Jemima Nicholas, (pictured) captured a dozen demoralised French soldiers and secured them in St. Mary's Church.

That evening, two French delegates arrived at the Royal Oak to negotiate a conditional surrender and Tate wrote: To the Officer commanding His Britannic Majesty's Troops. 5th. year of the Republic. The Circumstances under which the Body of the French Troops under my Command were landed at this Place renders it unnecessary to attempt any military operations, as they would tend only to Bloodshed and Pillage. We therefore desire to enter into a Negotiation upon Principles of Humanity for a surrender. If you are influenced by similar Considerations you may signify the same and, in the meantime, Hostilities shall cease. Health and Respect, Tate.

But Cawdor with magnificent bluff replied that with the superior numbers at his command, which were increasing hourly, he would only accept an unconditional surrender and gave an ultimatum of 10 a.m. the following morning, otherwise the French would be attacked.

On the following morning the British force was lined up in battle-order on the high ground overlooking Goodwick, reinforced by hundreds of civilians from all parts of the county, to await Tate's response. Tate, however, accepted the terms and finally after some delay, at 2 p.m. Friday 24th. February 1797, with drums beating but without their banners, the French marched down to Goodwick Beach where they stacked their weapons. At 4 p.m. the French prisoners were marched through Fishguard on their way to temporary imprisonment in Haverfordwest. Later a group of prisoners made a daring escape from the Golden Prison in Pembroke by stealing Cawdor's yacht!

Meanwhile, Cawdor had ridden to Trehowel Farm and received Tate's surrender, although the document has been lost. After his surrender and brief imprisonment in Portsmouth, Tate was returned to France in a prisoner exchange in 1798. He was involved in bitter wrangling with the French authorities and was last mentioned in 1809 when he probably sailed back to America.

Castagnier had sent Vautour back to France with his dispatches. En route to Ireland the squadron sank eleven ships but they dallied too long in Irish waters and La Constance, helping La Resistance, crippled by storm damage were intercepted by two British frigates and were captured. La Resistance was renamed H.M.S. Fisgard. Castagnier, aboard Le Vengeance, made it safely into Brest.

Undoubtedly Cawdor was the hero of the hour. He, Knox and others were congratulated, received the royal gratitude from George III and countless local honours. However, a whispering campaign started against Knox. Accused of cowardice and poor judgement his name was ruined and eventually he challenged his accuser, Cawdor, to a duel, which was probably not fought.

In 1853 Lord Palmerston conferred upon the Pembroke Yeomanry the battle honour 'Fishguard.' This regiment has the unique honour of being the only one in the British Army, regular or territorial, that bears the name of an engagement on British soil and it was the first battle honour to be awarded to any volunteer unit.

Published Date: May 23rd 2010


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