In the Royal Oak pub in Fishguard, on the Welsh coast, at one end of the dining room is an old desk, cordoned off with a red rope. It is obviously very special. It turns out that it is the desk on which the surrender of the troops involved in the very last invasion of Britain was signed. Everyone thinks the last invasion of UK was in 1066 by William the Conqueror and that the Spanish Armada, Napoleon and Hitler failed miserably. They did! But few people know that in 1797, a few years after the French revolution, the French government, believing the Welsh were ripe for an uprising against the hated English government and would support an invasion, sent an invasion force. They landed two of their finest frigates at Carregwastad Head near Fishguard harbour and sent 1400 troops ashore.
Unfortunately, the troops were not the most disciplined of soldiers and immediately began looting everything they came across, including a large storeroom that contained the contents of a fully laden Portuguese ship that had been stranded a few months before. Portugal’s principal trade with the UK meant that the ship had been bursting with rich food, but more importantly, barrels of port. And so, after a two-day party where they drank the complete shipment, the entire army were completely pissed out of their heads.
They were making so much racket that curious villagers went to the cliffs to see what all the noise was about down on the sand. It is believed that the French soldiers, those still capable of standing that is, in their half sozzled state, took one look up at the cliffs at the hundreds of Welsh grannies dressed in the traditional red cloaks and black witches’ hats they wore in those days and thought that a whole regiment of British Redcoats had arrived. The commander immediately surrendered. And much to his surprise, and no doubt undying shame, the official surrender was signed in the Royal Oak pub by the leader of the Pembroke Volunteers, a tiny force of local farmers and shopkeepers. A kind of Welsh Dad’s Army, you stupid boyo!
But perhaps it was just as well he did surrender because it could have been much worse. The most famous person to emerge from the invasion was Jemima Nicholas, the large, middle-aged wife of the local cobbler, who, on hearing of the invasion, became so incensed that she armed herself with a farmer’s pitchfork, marched down to the port and set about rounding up 12 Frenchmen. She herded them into town, locked them in the church and then headed out to capture some more. A few more angry grannies like Jemima and the French commander might have had a full-scale bloodbath on his hands.
But the thing that made me most nervous about this story was the initials of this awe-inspiring woman Jemima Nicholas. They somehow sounded scarily familiar.