Following the French Revolution, the armies of France engaged in a series of wars against loose alliances of other European powers. These began in 1792, three years after the Revolution, with the War of the First Coalition. The fledgling French Republic was pitted against an alliance that included Great Britain, the Holy Roman Empire, Prussia, Portugal, Spain, the Dutch Republic and a number of other European states. A French victory firmly established the new French Republic as a European power, as well as safeguarding its existence.
During this war, French forces launched what is commonly regarded as the last invasion of mainland Britain. While they had initially planned to land over 15,000 French troops in Ireland, two smaller forces were also planned to land in mainland Britain as diversions. One would land near Newcastle, while the other, around 1,400 men in total, headed for Wales.
Terrible weather in December 1796 saw the main French force fail to land a single man in Ireland. A month later, similar bad weather and an attempted mutiny thwarted the plan to land in Newcastle. The Welsh invasion, however, was carried out on 16th February 1797. Made up in part of soldiers from a penal battalion, convicts mobilised for military service, the force was under the command of Irish-American Colonel William Tate. His troops had been given the nickname the Legion Noire, or Black Legion, named for their habit of wearing captured British redcoats dyed black or brown. In total, around 600 men were professional soldiers, while the remaining 800 was made up of penal troops and other irregulars. A number of Irish officers served with the landing force.
The Legion Noire landed under cover of darkness at Carreg Wastad Point, a few miles south of the town of Fishguard in south-west Wales. Tate was unable to maintain control over his irregulars, who quickly began to desert in favour of looting nearby settlements. A Portuguese ship carrying wine had been wrecked on the nearby coast a few weeks previously, and the looters found many of the local cellars well stocked.
The French captured a number of farms, setting up headquarters around a mile from Fishguard. Tate’s force now was comprised almost entirely of his 600 regular troops. The French had established a good defensive position on raised ground. While many locals were arriving in Fishguard were willing to take up arms, the defenders were outnumbered around 10 to one, awaiting reinforcements from further inland.
Expecting an attack, the defenders instead were met with two French officers at their temporary headquarters in Fishguard square. They wished to negotiate a conditional surrender. John Campbell, Baron Cawdor, the commander of the defence, lied about the size of his force and demanded an unconditional surrender, giving them a deadline of 10am the following morning. If the French failed to surrender he threatened to attack. By 2pm the following day, the French surrender had been negotiated and the French soldiers and their weapons were captured. Most were returned to France six years later as part of a major prisoner exchange.
What had caused the sudden capitulation of the French forces only became properly apparent later. Cobbler’s wife Jemima Nicholas became a folk heroine in Wales for her role in averting the battle, helping the British commander marshal a large group of local women and dressing them in cloaks and hats that resembled those of British regulars. They spent most of the day before the planned French attack marching around Fishguard and its fort in full view of French observers. It was enough to convince the French that a significant force of British redcoats has garrisoning the town, prompting the decision to surrender.
Nicholas herself is credited with rounding up 12 French prisoners, armed only with a pitchfork, and locking them inside St Mary’s Church in the centre of Fishguard. During the French surrender on Goodwick Sands, French soldiers later reported that they mistook the curious local women that had turned up to watch the proceedings as more British soldiers, dressed as they were in red shawls and tall black welsh hats.
Jemima Nicholas died in 1832, at the age of 82. Her grave lies in the graveyard of the same church she used to capture a dozen French prisoners. A plaque commemorating her actions during the ‘Battle of Fishguard’ was created in 1897. She was included in a list of 100 influential Welsh women in 2018. A 100ft tapestry also commemorates the events of 1797 in Fishguard, including Nicolas’ role, known as the Last Invasion Tapestry.