There are several points in history where, if the outcome of events had changed, the historical record as we know it would be completely different. What if the US had gone through with its plan to invade Canada? Or what if Winston Churchill had been able to execute his plan to start World War III before World War II was finished?
Another such “What if” scenario happened in 1797 in England. The British Isles unique position have largely protected it from the invasions that characterized life on the European continent through most of its history. The “official” last invasion of England occurred when the Normans defeated the Anglo-Saxons in battle in 1066.
But the true last invasion of England occurred far later, in 1797, when a French invasion force landed in a small Welsh village called Fishguard.
A war between powers
War between France and England broke out in 1793. By 1796, General Lazare Hoche decided to take the war to the British homeland. With Napoleon and the best troops the French could offer occupied in central Europe, he had to cobble together a force from what was left behind. Just as his force was cobbled, Hoche’s grand scheme to conquer Britain also seemed cobbled. The invasion would have three prongs. The largest force of 15,000 men would land in Ireland and, supported by the Irish working classes who would no doubt rise up in support of their French liberators, from there would attack the British mainland. Two smaller forces would land on the British mainland and stir up the support of the working classes, spread panic, and prevent an immediate response against the Irish landing. One such force would land in northern England, while the other would have landed in or near Wales.
The larger invasion force set out for Ireland in December 1796. It arrived in Bantry Bay but ran into bad weather and was forced to return to the French port of Brest. Bad weather had thwarted the northern invasion as well.
Despite the failures of the other invasions and, to any sane onlooker, of the entire scheme, the Welsh expedition decided to set out regardless. It was under the American-born Irishman William Tate, who had fought the British during the Revolution but run afoul of the American authorities due to his involvement in a French scheme to take New Orleans. He lead a motley but well armed force of prisoners, deserters, and others, numbering about 1200 men. A respectable force, but not one capable of taking an entire country. Still, they believed that upon landing the Welsh citizenry would rally to their banner and provide them with a force that could conquer the hated British.
Battle of Fishguard
The invaders reached Fishguard Bay on February 22nd, only to be greeted by cannon fire from the fort guarding the bay. The shot was not aimed at the French, but rather was a warning to the local citizens. Even so, the French ships pulled back and landed instead on a small beach near the village of Llanwnda. The invaders moved their war materiel onto the shore, and the ships withdrew back to France to report a successful landing.
Meanwhile, back in Fishguard the invasion broke down. The French soldiers were more interested in looting and drinking than fighting. This did not endear them to the locals, on whom their entire invasion depended. Rather than rising up to greet their liberators, the locals turned out in droves ready to fight the invaders. They were lead by Lord Cawdor, who headed the relatively small militia force and other volunteers who rose up to fight off the French.
Interestingly, a quirk of local culture worked in the favor of the British forces, who were outnumbered by the rowdy French troops. Local Welsh women wore scarlet cloaks and tall, black felt hats. As they gathered to watch the men fight the French invaders, they must have looked like a contingent of British Regulars to the bleary eyed French.
But then one such woman showed that the French indeed had a lot to fear from the scarlet-clad Welsh women. Jemima Nicholas, known now as Jemima Fawr (Jemima the Great), she reportedly saw the French invaders coming and picked up a pitchfork to meet them. She met a dozen soldiers in the field and “persuaded” them to come back to town with her, where she promptly locked them in St. Mary’s Church.
With such formidable opposition then, it was no surprise when Tate’s drunken, ill-disciplined force surrendered to Lord Cawdor only two days after landing. The last invasion of England was over.
Johnson, Ben. “The Last Invasion of Britain.” Historic-UK.com. 2014. Historic UK. September 22, 2014. http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofWales/The-Last-Invasion-of-Britain/
“The Last Invasion of Britain.” FishguardOnline.com. http://www.fishguardonline.com/Last_Inv.html