Ask any passer-by in the street or pub for the date of the last invasion of mainland Britain and he or she will probably reply “1066.” Wrong!
The last time any invaders foot ever touched British soil – if you discount the odd parachuted secret agent during World War Two – was 29 February 1797, when 1,400 drunken, ill-disciplined louts from the French Legion Noire descended upon Fishguard in northern Pembrokeshire.
The “Last Invasion” is now a largely forgotten episode but at the time this farcical enterprise terrified the British people who immediately ran for the hills – literally. As they went they buried their valuables in their gardens.
The fleeing populace stopped to call in at their local bank and demand their money – paid out in gold and silver – which then joined their necklaces and pocket watches in the earth.
It was pure unadulterated panic and it caused such a near-fatal run on the country’s financial institutions that the Bank of England nearly ran out of money!
A diversionary mission
The “invasion,” which lasted just three days, was intended as diversionary raid to draw the attention of the Royal Navy away from the real target – southern Ireland. The chances of any of the invaders surviving such a forlorn enterprise were few and far between.
It stood to reason that no-one was ever going to risk top quality troops on such an expedition, hence the decision to open the jails and offer the convicts a choice – fight or carry on kicking your heels in prison. Most of them took the option to fight.
The original Irish adventure foundered in the face of a severe gale in December 1796. Even so, the Directory – the ruling council of Revolutionary France – decided to launch the diversionary raid anyway. It was two months late but, what the heck!
A series of farcical events
The newly released ruffians of the Legion Noire were causing serious problems in the taverns and on the streets of Brest and the idea of sending them to cause more trouble in Britain had a decided appeal. In that it certainly worked.
The original intention was to send the Legion Noire to Bristol. They were supposed to sack and burn the city but wind and tide were against them and so they turned around and headed for Fishguard instead.
Wales was then considered, by the French at least, a hot bed of revolution and that was where the convicts were now aiming. As one wit later put it:
The British send their convicts to New South Wales, the French send theirs to old south Wales.
The Legion, under the command of an Irish-American called William Tate landed on the Pencaer Peninsula outside Fishguard on the night of 22 February 1797. They could have come ashore in Fishguard Bay but had been frightened away when a cannon shot from the local fort caused them to heel around and head back along the coast.
What the French did not know was that the shot had been a blank – the first in a long line of equally as farcical events.
Docking at Pembrokeshire
Despite the setback the convict-soldiers successfully landed across the rocks of Pencaer and then proceeded to consume the wild life and farm animals of the area.
A Portuguese coaster with a cargo of wine had come ashore only a few weeks before and had been looted by the locals. The convicts promptly set about consuming this as well.
For two days the Legion Noire rolled in drunken ecstasy around northern Pembrokeshire. Tate and his officers could not control them and several were either captured by the local Fencibles or tipped unceremoniously by the locals into deep wells or over the cliffs.
It could not go on and Tate surrendered to Lord Cawdor, leader of the makeshift force of sailors, farmers and a few members of the Pembrokeshire Yeomanry who marched to oppose the invasion.
Legends inevitably grew up around the affair.
The Welsh women in their red shawls and tall black hats were, it was said, deliberately marched around the headland to convince the drunken Frenchmen that they were soldiers. Not true but it makes a great story.
The legacy of the “Last Invasion”
The invasion had been a farce, from beginning to end, but several important results did emerge.
The government quickly realised that Britain’s only real means of defence lay in her navy. As a result the ships of Lord Nelson and the other admirals were soon reinforced with new and immensely powerful vessels, creating a British Fleet that would decisively defeat the French and Spanish at Trafalgar and go on to “rule the waves” for over a hundred years.
Dockyards were needed to build the ships and several new yards were created at home and abroad. One of them was in Pembrokeshire where the new dockyard and town of Pembroke Dock became the pride of the Royal Navy.
The Bank of England’s response
Perhaps most importantly the Bank of England came perilously close to running out of the gold and silver it so cherished and was forced to suspend cash payments.
It had happened before, during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 but this time the suspension was considerably longer lasting.
The Bank issued promissory notes for £1 and £2; in effect a government sponsored IOU. The £1 note remained in use until the 1980s when it was finally superseded by the £1 coin.
The Bank of England did not resume cash payments for 20 years after 1797 but the paper notes soon became an indispensable part of British life.
A Select Committee was called to examine the affairs of the Bank of England, their report showing that demands on the Bank’s resources on 25 February 1797 were £13,770,390. To meet these demands the Bank had funds of £17,597,280.
It had been a tight run thing and if the run on the Bank had continued the funds would have been soon eroded.
The drunken Frenchmen, lying in their prison hulks across Britain, did not know how close they had come to success.
Phil Carradice is a well-known writer and historian with over 60 books to his credit. A poet, story teller and broadcaster, he is a regular broadcaster on BBC Radio and TV, presents the BBC Wales History programme “The Past Master”. His most recent book, Britain’s Last Invasion, was published by Pen and Sword in January 2020.