My feature about the Fishguard Tapestry – a 100-feet long embroidery depicting scenes from the Last Invasion of Britain (1797) has been published in the Spring 2022 issue of Evergreen.
(For more information about the Last Invasion of Britain by French troops in 1797, check out my piece on medium: https://historyofyesterday.com/1797-the-last-invasion-of-britain-d484313c338e)
Fishguard’s Town Hall is home to one of the most fascinating pieces of embroidery to be found anywhere in Britain. It is 20 inches deep, over 100 feet long, comprises 178 different shades of crewel, and took 80 local embroiderers several years to complete. In fact, over 40,000 hours of work went into creating this woven wonder.
It tells the 225-year-old story of the last time French troops invaded Britain near Fishguard, Pembrokeshire, between 22nd and 25th February 1797. Historically, this is the last time hostile foreign troops landed on mainland Britain.
The project began when the Fishguard Arts Society commissioned local artist Elizabeth Cramp to design a tapestry to mark the event’s bicentenary, twenty-five years ago, in 1997.
Comparisons are frequently drawn with the other, more famous tapestry depicting a French invasion of Britain. While the Bayeux Tapestry recounts the events leading up to and during the Norman conquest of Britain in 1066, it is a rather straight-laced affair. Thanks to Elizabeth’s design, the Fishguard Last Invasion Tapestry is a textile full of humour and fun for all the family to see.
Having moved with her husband to Fishguard in 1954, Elizabeth knew the story of the last French invasion and the series of farcical events that led to its failure.
First, she sketched out a design, which she then divided into 37 separate panels, for her team of three highly skilled embroiderers and 77 willing local volunteer stitchers to work on daily. For nearly two years, they visited Cramp in her dining room studio to check their efforts against her original design.
While the Bayeux Tapestry depicts a strong French army fighting on horseback, the Fishguard stitchers didn’t have to worry about horses. The 18th century invading French force didn’t have any. In fact, they didn’t have much at all.
They were led by an Irish-American called Colonel Tate, who had raised a 1400-strong army comprising French prisoners, many of whom still had irons and manacles on their wrists and ankles, and some exhausted soldiers who thought they were escaping the fierce fighting of the French Revolution.
Tate planned to land in South Wales, stir the local country peasants into joining them to revolt against the British Government, and march to Bristol. Unfortunately, an ill-wind literally blew the four French frigates off-course, past the Bristol Channel and right around St David’s Head towards Fishguard.
On Wednesday 22nd February 1797, Tate’s band of soldiers landed at Carragwasted Point, a few miles west of Fishguard. Not only were they horseless, they also had no food or drink provisions. So they pillaged the first farm they came to, Tre-howel, which became Tate’s headquarters, and spent hours chasing sheep and chickens, trying to catch them to cook on open fires.
Elizabeth’s tapestry captures this farcical scene. Woven into the early panels are hilarious scenes illustrating hungry French troops pursuing farmyard animals, wrestling with sheep and, if you look closely, being bitten by chickens!
Imagine the thirsty French soldiers’ delight when they stumbled across an illicit supply of port in many other isolated, coastal farm cottages. Locals had squirrelled away this bounty, which had recently been washed up on local beaches when a Portuguese ship ran aground during the last storm.
Quenching their thirst with alcohol did little to improve their fighting prowess. Elizabeth’s stitchers captured this in thread, in a scene where a French soldier shoots a grandfather clock because he mistook the ticking sound as a British soldier preparing his musket.
By Thursday, word of the invasion had spread, and two British army officials, Lord Cawdor and Colonel Knox, were busy rallying troops from the surrounding towns of St Davids, Haverfordwest and Pembroke. However, between them, they could only muster 600 men, less than half the size of the invading French force.
While the men were busy running around trying to raise further troops, Elizabeth and her stitchers illustrate how local woman Jemima Nicholas successfully rounded up twelve French soldiers she’d stumbled across in a field near Llanwnda. Armed with just a pitchfork, this brawny cobbler’s wife marched all twelve to Fishguard, where they were held captive in St Mary’s Church overnight.
This may have been made easier for Jemima, thanks to the volume of port the soldiers had consumed. And this is where visitors can appreciate the detail that Elizabeth and her stitchers put into the tapestry. Many of Jemima’s captives have the green face of someone who’s overindulged in too much alcohol!
The tapestry also depicts scenes many locals found upsetting, such as the pillaging of Llanwnda Church. So desperate for food and shelter, French troops broke wooden pews to create fires and even ripped the pages from the bible to light them with.
By Thursday evening, Colonel Tate was exasperated at the sheer incompetence of his rabble army. Many of his drunk soldiers had reported seeing British troops in their red and black uniforms sneaking through the countryside, towards Fishguard, ready to mount an attack.
What they didn’t realise was the red-caped, black-hatted individuals they saw slipping furtively around them were not British troops in their army uniform, but local Welsh women in their traditional dress. Even their black chest straps resembled a soldier’s bandoliers, where they kept their ammunition.
Convinced they were surrounded, Tate agreed to surrender to Lord Cawdor and Colonel Knox the following day. He sent a message agreeing to gather his troops on Friday morning, and then march them down to Goodwick Sands, where they would surrender their weapons.
According to folklore, Jemima Nicholas encouraged all the local Welsh women to wear their traditional costume, and march round and round Fishguard’s Bigney Hill on Friday morning. The trick worked. To the surrendering French troops, these women looked liked thousands of British troop reinforcements descending into town.
It wasn’t until Tate saw the women close up in their costumes that he realised their mistake, but by this point, it was too late.
Woven into the panel illustrating the French surrender on Goodwick Sands at two o’clock on Friday 25th February is a line of Welsh women, in their red and black costumes, marching round Bigney Hill and down into town.
The Last Invasion Treaty was signed by Tate, Cawdor and Knox in the bar area of the Royal Oak, in Fishguard, which still operates as a pub today. In the tapestry, Tate is shown signing the surrender note with a feathered quill.
One reason the tapestry works so well at recounting the events is because of the breadth of colours Elizabeth used. It allowed the stitchers to convey different moods and settings, as well as different time periods.
Who knows what the tapestry would have looked like had Elizabeth stuck to the eight shades she’d been commissioned to use. But as Jemima Nicholas clearly demonstrated, when the women of Fishguard know what needs doing, you can’t stop them from doing it!
The French may have the more famous tapestry, but as Elizabeth and her team have demonstrated, the Fishguard tapestry tells a far more engaging story.
February 2022 marked the 225th anniversary of the last French invasion, but it also marked the 25th anniversary of the creation of the tapestry (which was made to mark the 200th anniversary of the invasion in 1997).
The tapestry can be viewed (and is well worth a visit) at Fishguard Town Hall six days a week (times vary). It’s free admission, although donations are welcomed.