The Royal Oak Fishguard
The famous, if not infamous, last invasion of Britain happened very near Fishguard during a period of hostility between Britain and France at the end of the 18th century, when soldiers from four ships from France led by Colonel William Tate, landed at Carreg Gwastad near Fishguard on 22nd February, 1797.
Right:- The Royal Oak Fishguard
© Crown copyright (2013) Visit Wales
The French believed that the common folk would support the uprising they had planned, that they would oppose the gentry and the government and demand freedom and equality – just as the common people had done in France. However, they were soon proved wrong.
The four ships anchored off Pencaer, a distance of some 2 miles from Fishguard, with around 1400 rough-and-ready recruits from French prisons on board. As the soldiers landed, panic spread among local people up and down the coast and the local militia at Fishguard – the ‘Fencibles’ led by Thomas Knox – proved themselves to be completely ineffective. Around 70 ‘Fencibles’ marched boldly along Goodwick beach but indecision by Thomas Knox led to serious loss of time. News about the invasion spread like wildfire and the people of St David’s, Cardigan, Haverfordwest, Tenby, Pembroke and Milford Haven picked up any items that could be used as weapons to defend themselves – scythes, sickles, rusty swords, old guns and pistols – everyone was frightened.
Left:- Jemima Nicholas commemorative headstone
Meanwhile, the French, having set up their headquarters at Trehywel, had been visiting local farms, looting enthusiastically. When they reached the farmhouse of Brestgarn, one of the soldiers thought he could hear a sound behind the door. He raised his musket and fired. When he looked behind the door, he found a grandfather clock with a bullet hole in its door! The clock and its hole are still there today.
Soldiers continued to pillage and plunder and got drunk on their spoils. The following day, February 23rd, the Fencibles ‘retreated’ toward Haverfordwest but were met by Lord Cawdor, Stackpole Court, and his militia of around 750 men, who ordered them to return to Fishguard. Meanwhile, a substantial crowd of local people, armed with makeshift weapons, were closing in on the French soldiers in the Pencaer and Llanwnda area and a local woman became an unexpected heroine that day – Jemima Nicholas. This well-built shoemaker marched against the French carrying a pitchfork as her only weapon. As she approached Llanwnda, she rounded up 12 soldiers in a field and marched them towards Fishguard. Having ensured that they were safely locked up, she apparently retuned to Llanwnda and, according to the story, discovered two French soldiers in a cowshed and she reappeared carrying one under each arm!
Right:- Bicentenary stone
commemorating the last invasion of Britain
Colonel Tate became aware of the increasing number of armed men and women in the area – but his ships had long sailed back to France. According to local tradition, he became quite concerned when he saw a large number of women dress in red shawls and tall hats marching along the hill in the distance – he was convinced that they were armed soldiers. Later that evening, he wrote a letter of surrender which was delivered to Lord Cawdor at his headquarters at the Royal Oak on Fishguard Square. The following day, thousands of people gathered on the headland above Goodwick beach to watch the French surrender their arms unconditionally. By 4.00pm, they started their 10 hour 16 mile march to Haverfordwest. They were a rowdy rabble, many laughing and singing with joy for having survived unscathed.
The soldiers were locked in Haverfordwest prison but, because it could not accommodate them all, local churches, barns and warehouses were also used. Back in Fishguard, tales of further invasions continued to circulate but they were all rumours. Jemima Nicholas became revered as the true heroine of the invasion and her commemorative headstone can be seen outside St Mary’s Church on Fishguard Square. She died in 1832 aged 82. The invasion itself is commemorated with a stone at Carreg Gwastad, a plaque at Goodwick beach and a bicentenary stone in West Street, just off the Square. There is also an impressive and colourful bicentenary tapestry, similar in style to the Bayeux Tapestry, depicting the dramatic events surrounding the invasion in February 1797. This is now kept at Fishguard Town Hall, located on Fishguard Square.
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