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?