This account of the last invasion is an extract from the work of Edward Laws in 1888 which leans heavily of the work of HL Williams of 1842, and, though correct in outline, should not be taken as an absolute accurate version of events.
The History of Little England beyond Wales
and the non-Kymric colony settled in Pembrokeshire,
By Edward Laws, 1888
(The reprint edition specially produced in 1995 by Cedric Chivers Ltd, Bristol
for the publisher, Cultural Services Department, Cyngor Sir Dyfed County Council)
West Wales was invaded by a small force serving the French Republic in the year 1797. An old sailor, by the name Thomas Williams, had settled down on a little farm called Trelythin, about half-way between St Davids and the sea, where he had prospered and eventually blossomed into a justice of the peace. This good man was taking his walks abroad on Wednesday the 22nd February, about 10 o’clock in the forenoon, and as was his wont, had one eye on the sea, the other on his crops, when he caught sight of a lugger and three men-of-war passing the North Bishops. So near were the vessels to the shore that Mr Williams made out a number of troops on board. English colours were flying; but the old sea-dog was not to be gulled by that stale device. At a glance he recognised the craft to be Frenchmen, and immediately sent of a farm-boy on horseback to rouse the St Davids men. Numbers of these came running down to Trelythin and followed Williams along the coast until they came to Pencaer, keeping the enemy well in sight all the while.
About 2 p.m. the Frenchmen dropped anchor and for some little time there was a lull in the proceedings. At 4 o’clock a sloop, the Britannia (Owen, master), bound for Fishguard with a cargo of culm for Colonel Knox of Llanstinan, came by. The frigate signalled that she should heave to. This she did and was at once boarded and brought to anchor. Williams then sent a messenger into Fishguard and an officer (most likely the coast guard) ran to the fort, and fired a salute to the British flag. Then the most incredulous onlooker was convinced, for the English colours were struck and the French ensign run up in their place. By this time the whole population of Fishguard had turned out and when they recognised the tricolour a general scare resulted. Every beast of burden and every vehicle in the little village was brought into requisition; messengers were packed off in all directions with orders to raise the country as they went; the possessors of carts and wheelbarrows crammed them with their worldly goods, while the less fortunate carried off their gear pickaback. The enemy, numbering 1,400 men and two women, effected a landing on Carrig Gwastad Point without opposition. Nearly all of them disembarking on the evening of the 22nd and the remainder reached the shore early the next morning. They had seventeen boats in all; but one, laden with ammunition, was upset in the surf, and the contents lost. However they brought safely to shore forty-seven barrels, ten hampers and a large sheet full of ball cartridges, twelve boxes of hand grenades but no field-pieces nor artillery of any sort. It was no light task to land what they had in a rolling surf and then carry it up the steep and slippery cliff. Twenty determined men might have stopped the way. The force consisted of 600 regulars and 800 convicts. They were commanded by a Wexford man named Tate, who called himself an American and held a commission as general in the French army.
Mr Mortimer of Trehowel Farm, was one of those who had insisted that the frigates were King Georges ships and like a good fellow, prepared an excellent supper for the officers. Perceiving his mistake in time, he escaped on horseback, carrying with him his money and papers; and his maidservant Annie George, secured the silver spoons by putting them in her pocket; but the supper, a pipe of wine and plenty of cwrw-dda were left behind. The Hiberno-Franco-American General Tate seems to have been instinctively attracted by this good cheer; and so well contented was he with the supper that he constituted Trehowel the headquarters of the French army of occupation. The sailors who came on shore with Tate looted an eight-day clock; and as their kits were in need of replenishment, cut open the beds, tuned out the feathers and converted the ticking into duck trousers. But although the supper was conceived in the most hospitable spirit, it proved insufficient for 1,400 men; so when the General and his staff had taken the edge off their own appetites, they directed both rank and file to investigate the resources of the larders of the neighbourhood. The following is a list of the houses visited:
Llanunner, Treathro, Tresinwen, Carlem, Talygare, Tanymynydd, Trefiseg, Tanbach, Trenewydd, Brestgarn, Castell, Llanunda, Trefacwn, Crimcoed, Cillan, Tresissillt Vach, Penyrhiw, Tresinwen, Lanverran, Felindre, Tregeddulan, Trelimmin, St Nicholas, Trefasser, Trehilin, Pantyrig, Penysgwarn, Llandridion, Rhosycawre, Finondridion, Carnecoch, Cotts, Trefwrgy, Bwlchyrhose, Carngowil and Stepin.
Llanwnda and St Nicholas Church were also examined and the communion plate from the former looted. This, however, was eventually recovered. Wonderfully little mischief, and scarcely any violence was done: indeed, when we remember that more than half of the invading force were ‘the sweepings of jails, convicts who bore the marks of chains on wrists and legs,’ their conduct leads us to suppose that the occupants of French prisons towards the end of the last century were an eminently respectable class of men. For instance, at a farm called Cotts, a poor woman who had recently been confined was abandoned by her cowardly husband. When the French army entered the house, in her despair she help up her baby in her arms and implored mercy. As soon as they comprehended the situation, having smoothed her fears as well as they could, they left her in peace.
Mr Thomas of Mathry went to his relatives house at Penrhew, which, to his astonishment, he found filled with plundering Frenchmen, who requisitioned his watch, silver knee-buckles and money which he had secreted in his shoes and stockings and then took him as a prisoner to Trehowel. Tate was exceedingly angry at the treatment Thomas had received and requested him to point out the offenders. This the Welshman was afraid to do, so he was dismissed minus his watch and buckles.
The worst case was that of Mary Williams of Carlem, who, while running away, was first wounded with a gunshot, and then maltreated, probably by drunken men. However, even she poor soul, did not make a bad bargain, for she received a pension of £40 per annum, which she was still enjoying when the narrative from which my story is taken was written, forty five years after the invasion.
Near Carlem two Welshmen summoned two Frenchmen to surrender; but they showed fight, and one of the foreigners was killed; the other yielded, giving up his musket to his captors, with which one of them hit him over the head. He then drew his bayonet, killed them both and escaped.
The Welsh lost altogether only these two men, while Mary Williams and a sailor were the only wounded. Three Frenchmen in all were killed (one of whom fell over the cliff), three were reported wounded, and two died either of wounds or disease.
The plunder taken consisted chiefly of eatables. The invaders seem especially to have affected poultry; and tales used to be told of how they boiled geese in melted butter and washed them don with huge draughts of port wine, large quantities of which were to be found in all the houses, as a Portuguese vessel had lately been wrecked and the cargo stolen by the country folk.
After gorging goose and guzzling port wine all night, the invaders were scarcely in a condition to meet the force which had assembled to oppose them, though it was nothing more than a mob of rustics armed with fowling-pieces, scythe-blades fixed on poles and the like.
The citizens of St Davids stripped the lead off their Cathedral to make bullets; a proceeding which vexed the righteous souls of Dean and Chapter but does not appear to have inflicted any injury on the French.
Mr Whitesides, a Liverpool contractor, who was engaged in the erection of the Smalls Lighthouse, raised the sailors of Solva. Five of these engaged five Frenchmen, one of whom they killed, two they wounded and two ran away. One Welsh sailor was wounded in the foot, for which he received a pension. The field where this fight took place is called ‘French Park’ and in it the foreigner was buried.
Lord Cawdor, who was at Stackpole, did not hear of the invasion until “the middle of the Wednesday night, when he immediately set off; Lord Milford, the Lord Lieutenant of the county, having desired him to take command of the troops, being too infirm to do so himself,” though he (Lord Milford) made his way to Fishguard with the rest. The troops consisted of the Castlemartin Yeomanry Cavalry, the Cardiganshire Militia, the Cardiff Militia (which was then stationed in Pembrokeshire), Colonel Knox of Llanstinan and Major Aukland of Llanion, with other respective companies of fencible infantry; some sailors under Lieutenants Mears and Perkins: in all 750 men. It happened that with the other gentlemen who had assembled and offered their services, there was one Captain William Davies, a veteran who had seen service, having, indeed, fought at Bunkers Hill. Lord Cawdor had great confidence in his judgement and requested him to draw up the troops so as to deceive the French as to their real number. This was most successfully managed. The ill-natured declare that the women in their high hats and red “whittles” assisted him considerably by their resemblance to regiments of the line.
At noon on Thursday both French and English were astounded to see the French frigates weigh anchor and sail away. Whether Tate perceived that the whole affair had proved a fiasco, and signalled them to that effect, or whether the captains acted on their own responsibility, it is impossible to say. They took a course across the Channel. One of them struck on the Arklow Bank and was taken in tow by the corvette. These two were eventually captured off Brest by the St Fiorenzo frigate (Captain Sir H.B.Neale, Bart.) and the La Nymphe (Captain J.Cooke), who took them into Portsmouth, where the frigate was repaired and re-christened the “Fisgard,” presumably the French pronunciation of Fishguard and was until quite lately the receiving ship at Sheerness. The other frigate and the lugger managed to get safely into Brest.
The French force had occupied a strong position on a high rock just above the village of Llanwnda. The English prepared to assail this station on Thursday evening but changing their plans returned to Fishguard. At 10 p.m. two officers arrived in the town with a flag of truce and inquired for Colonel Knox. A council of war was then called at the Royal Oak. Present: Lord Milford, Lord Lieutenant; Lord Cawdor, Colonel Knox, Colonel Colby, Major Aukland, Colonel Dan.Vaughan, Colonel James, Colonel George Vaughan, the Governor of the Fishguard Port and other gentlemen. The French officers were then admitted, and offered to capitulate on condition that all the French should be sent back to Brest at the expense of the English Government. Colonel Knox, who appears to have been blessed with a vivid imagination, replied that the only terms which could be entertained were unconditional surrender; and that unless these were complied with by 2 o’clock the following day, the French force would be attacked by 20,000 me; 10,000 of whom were then in Fishguard and 10,000 more on the road. impressed by this magnificent piece of bunkum, the French officers then produced the following letter:
Cardigan Bay, 5th Ventose, 5th Year of the Republic.
“SIR, – The circumstances which the body of troops under my command were landed at this place render it unnecessary to attempt any military operations, as they would tend only to bloodshed and pillage. The officers of the whole corps have, therefore, intimated their desire of entering into a negotiation, upon principles of humanity, for a surrender. If you are influenced by similar considerations, you may signify the same to the bearer, and in the meantime hostilities shall cease. Health and Respect.
“Tate, Chef de Brigade.”
The officers were informed that an answer should be returned to General Tate but that they might inform him that his troops would be expected to parade for surrender the following afternoon. They were then blindfolded and conducted outside the town. At daybreak on Thursday morning Major Aukland of Llanion carried the following ultimatum to Llanwnda:
“SIR, – The superiority of the force under my command, which is hourly increasing, must prevent my treating upon any other terms short of your surrendering your whole force prisoners of war. I enter fully into your wish of preventing an unnecessary effusion of blood, which your speedy surrender can alone prevent and which will entitle you to that consideration it is ever the wish of British troops to show an enemy whose numbers are inferior. My Major will deliver you this letter and I shall expect your determination by 10 o’clock, by your officer, whom I have furnished with an escort who will conduct him to me without molestation.
I am etc CAWDOR
“To the Officer Commanding the French Troops.”
At noon the British force was drawn up in line on Windy Hill, within sight of the enemy’s advanced posts and was inspected by Colonel Colby. Lord Cawdor despatched his aide-de-camp, the Hon. Captain Edwardes, with the flag of truce, which was carried by Mr Millingchamp one of the yeomen, Messrs. Williams of Llandegigge and Morgans of Abercastle accompanying them. On reaching Trehowel they found 600 Frenchmen drawn up in line. Capt. Edwardes gave his message to Tate, which was to the effect that time was up; that if the enemy did not “open pans, shed priming, and march peaceably, they would forthwith be attacked by an overwhelming force.”
The remainder of the Frenchmen were now assembled and the ammunition and spare arms having been deposited in camp, the enemy, without colours, but with drums beating, marched to Goodwick, where they were received by the Cardigan Militia and Fishguard Fencibles, the Castlemartin Yeomanry having been told off to protect the Bridge. The French were ordered to pile arms and were then marched into Haverfordwest, which place they reached at 2 o’clock on Saturday morning. 700 were put into St. Marys Church, 500 into the old Town Hall and the rest into the Store houses. That day, twenty one carts laden with arms arrived and in the course of the week the ammunition and the remainder of the arms were brought in, filling thirty-four more carts. The French soldiers were clad in old English uniforms which had been dyed a rusty brown; they still bore the regimental buttons; the belts, however, were black leather; and their head-gear was composed of old cavalry helmets. Their muskets were the ordinary weapon of the period, with flint locks; barrels 3ft. 7in., whole length 4ft. 10in., weight 9and 3/4lbs. There is a stand of these arms in Stackpole Court, and two of them, which Lord Cawdor has kindly presented to the Tenby Museum, can be examined in that place, where there is also a short sword taken from a non-commissioned officer (presented by H. Mathias, Esq.) On this latter weapon, on each side, are sun, moon and stars, with the inscription Cassagnard, Fourbisseur du Roy, Nates.” The king can scarcely have been Louis XVI, as the archaic spelling of “roi” seems to have disappeared before his time; anyhow, the republicans have done their best to obliterate the word with a punch. Thus ended the great fiasco of the French invasion. What did it all mean? It has generally been considered that the destination of the force was Ireland, at that time in a state of disaffection bordering on rebellion; indeed, during the following year the Great Rebellion broke out and the lives of 150,000 Irish and 20,000 English were sacrificed before it was suppressed.
But this idea appears to be erroneous, for among General Tate’s papers were found the instructions he had received from General Hoche. From these it seems that the body which landed in Fishguard was called La Legion Seconde des Francs,” and that two other legions were to have simultaneously invaded the counties of Northumberland, Durham and York; these latter, however, never put in an appearance. The primary object to be attained by the Second Legion was the destruction of Bristol and Liverpool. On reaching Severn Sea, should the former prove impracticable, then the legion a to land in Cardigan Bay and march through Wales to Chester and Liverpool.
“The expedition under the command of Col. Tate has in view three principal objects.
The first is, if possible, to raise an insurrection in the country. The second is to interrupt and embarrass the commerce of the enemy. The third is to prepare and facilitate the way for a descent, by distracting the attention of the English government.”
There seems to have been a strong suspicion of disaffection among the Welsh. The French exaggerated its importance; but for all that there can be no doubt it did exist, for we find that subsequently, “a respectable minister was taken down form his pulpit, his desk was ransacked, and his papers searched, with a view to discovering, whether he carried on treasonable correspondence with disaffected persons.” Certain farmer, too, were charged with treason and committed for trial at the assizes and a French officer detained to give evidence against them but the judge ruled that a foreigner and common enemy was incapable of giving evidence in an English court of justice and as no other witness was forthcoming they were discharged. That Welshmen were among the invaders seems certain.
James Bowen, who had been a farm servant at Trehowel for five years, and then tried and transported for horse stealing, was recognised by his fellow servants – this was the man who is said to have piloted the Frenchmen to Carreg Gwastad point.
Again a respectable man named Meyler, overheard two of the prisoners talking in Welsh.
“Where do you come from,” said he, “as you speak Welsh?”
“We come form the upper part of Pembrokeshire.”
“Then how came you to be soldiers in the French army?”
“We have been taken prisoners in France and were taken out with the other convicts.”
“Then why don’t you leave them?”
“Because we are afraid of being discovered and shot.”
They then asked Meyler to apprise their friends of their whereabouts.
Mr Bowen of Fynondruidion informed the writer that his grandfather fled from Fynondruidion with his family and servants for refuge to Wolfs Castle. After the capture of the French they went out on the roadside to see the prisoners go by. One of the maidservants recognised an acquaintance in the ranks and the man called out – “Ie a thyna Catrin Trerhonw hefyd,” Englished, “And there is Catherine of Trerhonw, too.”
The idea naturally occurs that these men were Bretons posing as Welsh, but that can scarcely have been the case. Granting that the Breton language would have been intelligible to Pembrokeshire folks, no prisoner of war in those rough and ready days would have dared to incur the charge of treason by way of a practical joke. He would have run a great chance of being shot first and identified afterwards. If the French and their Welsh recruits really relied on the disaffection of Pembrokeshire men, they were grievously disappointed; and so far from finding friends, met an enemy by no means disposed to err on the side of mercy, for they cut off the ears of the Frenchmen slain by the Solva sailors and bandied them about the country as trophies. Another unfortunate foreigner fell over the cliffs and was killed. “A reverend gentleman” went down and cut off his finger and kept it as a memorial of the invasion; the poor wretches body was then buried on the shore, but in such a slovenly fashion, that it was soon washed up again and cast among the rocks, where the corpse remained until it became a skeleton. This was carried off, bone by bone, by the curious. Such was the feeling of contemporaries. Readers of Fenton will notice that in a few years the Fishguardians had worked themselves up into a fever of loyalty and rage when attempts were made “to tarnish the lustre of this event, and involve a most loyal country in a charge of disaffection to government, by coupling it with a circumstance which then made a great noise, and was prosecuted with more rancour than sound policy.”
The invasion of the French not only roused the patriotism of the neighbourhood but led to several false alarms. One night, soon afterwards, a Mr John Roach of Lythir, near St Davids heard boats near Y Gesial Vawr and rushing into St Davids announced another invasion. Mr Arthur Richardson, the organist of the cathedral, at once set off for Haverford, which he reached in forty-five minutes (good going), and informed the Mayor of the impending danger. A meeting was called, and the necessity of putting all the prisoners of war to death in cold blood was seriously debated; fortunately the town council shirked the responsibility of such an atrocity.
In this chronicle of an invasion, characterised on the on side by hopeless incapacity, and on the other by treason, swagger and cruelty, it is pleasant to dwell on a single instance of wholesome kindly human nature. Five hundred prisoners were confined in a building on Golden Hill near Pembroke; and, as was the custom, they were allowed to eke out the very meagre allowance voted for their subsistence by the sale of toys, which they carved out of wood and bone. Two Pembrokeshire lasses were employed in bringing the odds and ends requisite for this work, and in carrying away refuse from the prison. These girls not having the law of nations or the high policy of Europe before their eyes, dared to fall in love with two of the Frenchmen, and formed a desperate resolve not only to rescue their lovers, but the whole of the prisoners in the same ward, one hundred in number. It was impossible to smuggle any tools into the prison, but a shin of horse beef seemed harmless even in the eyes of a Pembroke Cerberus. With the bone extracted from this delicacy the Frenchmen undermined the walls, the faithful girls carrying off the soil in their refuse buckets. When the subway was complete the lasses watched the pill until some vessel should arrive. At length a sloop came in loaded with a consignment of culm for Stackpole. That night the liberated men made their way down to the water, Boarded the sloop, and bound the crew hand and foot, but unfortunately the vessel was high and dry, and it as found impossible to get her off. Alongside, was a small yacht belonging to Lord Cawdor which they managed to launch. This, of course, would not take them all; but the two women and twenty-five men got on board, taking with them the compass, water casks and provisions from the sloop.
In the morning there was a grand hue and cry. Dr Mansell, a leading man in Pembroke, posted handbills over the whole country, offering 500 guineas for the recovery of these two traitorous women, alive or dead. In a few days the stern of the yacht and other wreckage being picked up, the patriotic party were satisfied that the vengeance of Heaven had overtaken the traitors. They were, however, mistaken, for the Frenchmen captured a sloop laden with corn, and, abandoning the yacht, compelled the crew to carry them to France. When they were safe, it is pleasant to read that the commissary and engineer married the girls; during the short peace, the engineer and his wife returned to Pembroke and told their story, they then went to Merthyr, and obtained employment in the mines, but on the renewal of hostilities went back to France, where it is to be hoped they lived very happily ever afterwards.