The Story of the Tapestry
Come and see what happened when the British mainland was invaded for the last time in February 1797. The story is told by the magnificent 30 metre award winning tapestry which was produced to mark the 1997 bicentenary of the event. Story boards and artefacts help recreate that day. The audio visual room shows the making of the tapestry.
The Invasion Story
After the outbreak of war between Britain and France in 1793, General Hoche planned an invasion to liberate Ireland. To prevent reinforcements being sent to Ireland two small expeditions were to land on the mainland. One of these would attack Bristol or failing that, would land in Cardigan Bay, and march to Liverpool and link up with the other expedition.
In December 1796, Hoche's expedition, having reached Bantry Bay in Ireland, was smashed by storms and limped back to Brest. Although one of the expeditions was abandoned, the British expedition sailed from Brest on 16th February 1797. It was led by William Tate, an American from South Carolina, who had become embroiled in French schemes and had moved to Paris. Most of the French soldiers were kitted out in British uniforms which had been dyed dark brown. So the 1200 men of La Seconde Legion des Francs became known as the "Black Legion". They were a mixture of republicans, deserters, royalist prisoners and grenadiers and they were very well armed. Some of the officers were Irish. They were transported in four new vessels under Commodore Castagnier.
Having failed to reach Bristol, Tate made for Cardigan bay. The squadron, flying British colours, was spotted rounding St David's Head in Pembrokeshire on 22nd February and then anchored in perfect weather off Carreg Wastad, a rocky headland three miles west of Fishguard. During the night, the soldiers and their ammunition were brought ashore. So the last landing by enemy soldiers on the British mainland had been successfully accomplished. A company of grenadiers, rushed a mile inland and took over Trehowel farm, which became Tate's headquarters.
When one of the ships entered Fishguard Bay to reconnoitre, a blank shot was fired from Fishguard Fort. The vessel scurried away and the shot raised the alarm for the Fishguard Volunteers. The Fort had so little ammunition that the small port could easily have been taken.
William Knox, recently Under Secretary for the American Colonies, had settled in Pembrokeshire and his mansion at LLanstian was only four miles from Fishguard. At the outbreak of war he had quickly raised the Fishguard Volunteers and his son, Thomas, was appointed Lieutenant-Colonel. 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, having seen no hostile activity on the distant vessels but, as the seriousness of the situation dawned on him, he instructed his Volunteers to make for his headquarters at the Fort.
Lord Cawdor, who was captain of the Pembroke yeomanry Cavalry, was thirty miles away at Stackpole Court, in the far south of the county, when he heard the news. He immediately mobilised his troops and crossed the Pembroke Ferry with the Pembroke Volunteers and Cardiganshire militia. Most of the credit for gathering a force of about four hundred soldiers and sailors at Haverfordwest was due to the energy of Lieutenant Colonel Colby, who then galloped to Fishguard to assess Knox's situation. Satisfied, he returned to Haverfordwest to supervise the arrival of the forces. The navy press gang and the crews of two revenue cutters and their cannons were brought in from Milford Haven. At noon, February 23rd, they set off from Haverfordwest, under Cawdor, to reinforce Knox, who was facing the French at Fishguard.
The French had moved a further two miles inland and occupied two strong defensive positions at Garnwnda and Garngelli, high rocky outcrops which gave an unobstructed view of the countryside. This far all had gone well for Tate.
On the morning of the 23rd, Knox realised that he was heavily outnumbered and decided to abandon Fishguard and move towards his reinforcements. Fishguard was now at Tate's mercy. Although many of the inhabitants were fleeing the area in panic, hundreds of civilians were pouring into the area armed with a variety of crude weaponry. Knox and his men met the reinforcements at Trefgarne and Cawdor led the forces back towards Fishguard.
On approaching Cawdor decided to attack but losing his bearings in the darkness, he decided to withdraw to Fishguard, narrowly missing an ambush that had been prepared for him. The officers were based at the Royal Oak Inn.
However Tate's fortunes had changed. Many of his foraging parties had resorted to pillaging local farms and Llanwnda Church. Indiscipline was getting out of hand. 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. Many of the Irish officers were counselling surrender. 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 women wearing the traditional dress of red shawls and black hats, which at a distance resembled infantry uniforms. Inhabitants over a wide area were flocking towards Fishguard to attack the enemy. The formidable local cobbler, Jemima Nicholas, 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. But Cawdor, with magnificent bluff, replied that with his superior numbers, he would only accept an unconditional surrender, otherwise the French would be attacked.
On the following morning, the 24th February, the British force was lined up in battle order, reinforced by hundreds of civilians, to await Tate's response. Tate, however, accepted the terms and finally, with drums beating, the French marched down to Goodwick beach, where they stacked their weapons. They were marched through Fishguard on their way to temporary imprisonment in Haverfordwest.
Meanwhile Cawdor had ridden out to Trehowel farm and received Tate's surrender and his sword. The invasion was over but the government had been badly shaken and the repercussions from the invasion reverberated for a long time.
Written by the late Bill Fowler, Chairman of the Bicentenary Committee