The ladies of Fishguard: Britain's unlikeliest protectors

Drawing by R Griffiths, held by Ceredigion Museum showing several people in traditional Welsh fashions of the period
Women wearing traditional Welsh dresses similar to the ones that confused French invaders in 1797. Image: Drawing by R Griffiths

The history of invasions on British soil is an extensive one. From the Ancient Roman Empire to the raiding parties of Vikings, Britain has seen its fair share of occupants. Perhaps the most infamous of them all, the Battle of Hastings, is often considered the last time that the humble island nations were invaded. However, while William the Conqueror’s famous victory was the last time that Britain was successfully invaded, it wasn’t the last time someone tried.

One of the last invasion attempts came in the 18th century when the unlikeliest of heroes saved the British shores from an oncoming French fleet.

The winds of fate

On 18th February 1797, more than 1,400 troops set sail from Revolutionary France with the intent of invading the British Isles in support of the United Irishmen - a revolutionary group opposing the British rule of Ireland. Their plan was supposedly foolproof and involved a multi-faceted attack that would simultaneously strike a blow to British forces while encouraging the poor and disenfranchised British peasantry to rise up in rebellion against the crown.

Firstly, La Légion Noire, a fleet of four ships led by Irish-American Colonel William Tate, would slip around the south coast of England and land unexpectedly in Bristol (England’s second-biggest city at the time). Once landed they would raze it to the ground, presumably liberating and empowering the lower classes and winning favour along the way.

Step two comprised of a quick hop across the River Severn into Wales and a speedy march north to Chester and Liverpool where they would incite a full-scale rebellion.

The plan was seemingly flawless, were it not for two things that the invading forces had forgotten to take into account: the weather, and the British spirit.

Plan B… or C?

As it became increasingly obvious that the four warships couldn’t possibly land in Bristol due to varying wind conditions, the fleet turned to their leader for a backup plan. Colonel Tate decided to land instead, on the western coast of Wales. On Wednesday, 22nd February the fleet sailed into Fishguard Bay expecting a sleepy Welsh fishing village. The residents of Fishguard, however, were anything but sleepy.

As they approached Fishguard, La Légion Noire was met with cannon fire from the town’s small fort. Not expecting such heavy defences, the fleet cautiously withdrew in order to land somewhere altogether more peaceful. What they hadn’t realised, however, was that the cannon shot wasn’t warning the invaders that the fort was armed and ready to fight, but was in fact fired to warn the local townsfolk of the impending invasion.

Unnerved by the perceived unexpected retaliation in Fishguard, the 1,400-strong invasion party was growing less confident in their plans. With the majority of French forces off fighting in the Napoleonic wars on the continent, La Légion Noire was comprised of a ragtag bunch of reservists, militia, and regulars. Less enthused by the day about their chances of a successful invasion, when the crew landed further up the Welsh coast and raided the local’s stores and provisions, they proceeded to get irrevocably drunk.

Prisoners of War

Rumours started to circulate around Fishguard that French soldiers had landed and were taking shelter in a church. The local people decided to form a militia in order to protect the townsfolk. Among the militia, armed mainly with farming tools, was a woman named Jemima Nicholas. Indignant and armed with only a pitchfork, Jemima single-handedly rounded up 12 of the invading soldiers and marched them alone all the way to Fishguard as prisoners of war.

According to local legend, Jemima’s fearsome display of heroism didn’t end there. On her return to her hometown of LLawnda, she was said to have found two more soldiers hiding in a cowshed and carried them, one under each arm, back to Fishguard to join the others. The fearsome sight of Jemima and other armed fisher-folk sternly defending their property began to concern Colonel Tate who was, at this point, despairingly aware that the ships they had landed in had long since set sail for their return to France.

After two days of lotting and drinking, La Légion Noire surrendered to the local militia citing the oncoming British soldiers “with troops of the line to the number of several thousand” in their red uniforms as a reason for their change of heart.

There were, however, no British forces nearby.

So, who were the uniformed soldiers numbering in the thousands that had scared La Légion Noire into submission? With the considerable amounts of alcohol consumed and the rumour of Jemima’s fearless treatment of the invaders; it’s no surprise that they mistook the women of Fishguard in their traditional bright red gowns and black felt hats for British infantry, is it?

Written by:

Jo Rowan