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26 February 2009

Near misses in history


We spend a lot of time here debunking accepted historical myths and delving into what really happened. Maybe it's because we approach history as writers and want to improvise upon a set theme or just have an urge to dig deeper. And deeper.

I found out something really fascinating just the other day. I turned to my trusty resource at Historic-UK.com and found that today, February 26, was the date of the first issue of a British one pound note in 1797, a result of the panic caused by the French invasion of Fishguard a few days earlier. The what?! (The invasion, not the pound note. And I don't even want to get into why a pound note could do what a coin couldn't; it makes my head spin the same way a $1.75 trillion deficit does.)

Now popular British myth has it that the last time the country was invaded was in 1066. There were some home grown invasions--didn't the Scots cross the border a few times? How about the Duke of Monmouth in 1685?

Well, Fishguard is in Wales, not England proper; and given that the story has the trappings of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta and has a woman of a certain age in a starring role, it's no wonder it's not the stuff of legend.

The previous year, the French, under the command of General Lazare Hoche, attempted an invasion of Ireland that, with the support of the Irish, was supposed to spread to the north of England, gaining support in the great industrial cities of the north and marching southwest to Bristol--in other words, taking the major ports. It was foiled by bad weather and poor organization.

In 1797, Bristol was targeted under the command of an Irish-American from South Carolina, William Tate, with four ships carrying over 1,200 soldiers wearing English uniforms, captured earlier--the cloth would only take a dark brown dye so they were known as "La Legion Noir." The weather was too bad to attack Bristol, so they sailed north, landed near Fishguard and unloaded soldiers and weapons. A farm was captured. Vive la France!

The Pembrokeshire Militia gathered, joined by reinforcements from the navy, but discovered the French had superior tactical positions and possibly outnumbered the English. But Tate's forces lost control of the situation, and here's where the G&S elements come in. It's thought that the French, seeing at a distance Welsh women in their traditional dress of red shawls and black hats, were English infantry; furthermore, Tate was having problems with his undisciplined troops becoming mutinous, and the local inhabitants, instead of flocking to support liberte, egalite and fraternite, were hostile.

Hundreds of civilians joined the English troops. As a further blow to French male pride, a local cobbler, 48-year-old Jemima Nicholas, supposedly captured twelve French soldiers singlehanded.

The French surrendered. There's a full account of the invasion at fishguardonline.com.

In a comic postscript, the captured French later escaped in the yacht of the English commander Lord Cawdor.

Over at the Riskies today, talking about the escape of the Corsican Monster from Elba... another legend in his own time.

Why do you think certain events live on in popular memory and others are forgotten?

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6 Comments:

Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Fascinating article Janet. I have no idea why certain events live on in popular memory and others are forgotten. I think the story of Fishguard would make a great backdrop to a historical Regency novel.

It's interesting because I just went to hear Flora Fraser speak the other day and someone asked her why if Pauline Bonaparte was so fascinating has she been only a footnote in Napoleon's life as the devoted nymphomaniac sister?

10:21 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

You're right, Janet, the event has musical theatre potential! I never heard of Fishguard until now. Are there any details on just how Jemima Nicholas managed to snag those dozen Frenchies?

The Wales-as-England-too concept reminded me of a conversation I overheard a few years ago at Alice's Teacup, a tearoom on the Upper West Side. The cashier, on hearing a man's dulcet accent, inquired which part of England he was from, to which he acerbically replied, "The part called Wales."

12:23 PM  
Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Who knew?
I can just picture this. The plucky Welshmen and women indignant that the Frenchies dared to invade their town!
Great story.

1:31 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

As the daughter of a Welshman, it does my heart good to hear about Fishguard. I had not heard that story before, which surprises me as my Welsh Nana was always telling me stories about Wales. She had never lived there, but her mother immigrated from Wales and Welsh was spoken in their home.

And yes, a Welshman or woman will take umbrage at being called English or being asked where in England they are from! They didn't like the English invading their country, I am quite sure they wouldn't want the French there either!

6:56 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I love this post, Janet. And now you must figure out how to send one of your ditzy-but-nobody's-fool Regency chicklit girls to Fishguard to participate in this event (the name Fishguard itself worthy of the creator of an English property called Weaselcopse Manor in Buckinghamshire).

8:05 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Wonderful post, Janet! It would make a fabulous Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, as you say. And like Pam I can totally see it fitting into one of your books. I actually mentioned Fishguard very briefly in "Beneath a Silent Moon"--Charles, the hero, is trying to get his aunt to remember the events of 1797, and he says, "Christopher [her son] was a baby. The Directory was in power in France. Pitt was Prime Minister. The French had landed at Fishguard in February. Fox retreated from active politics."

10:39 PM  

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