1797 the Fishguard Invasion

One of the myths relating to Welsh costume dates to the end of the 18th century. It has often been said that the French soldiers who attempted to invade Britain via the rather isolated coves of north Pembrokeshire near Fishguard between the 22nd and 24th February 1797 were scared into submission by what appeared to be large numbers of troops, some of whom were actually women dressed in tall hats and red cloaks. A contemporary print which illustrates a man and woman at the event shows the woman in a man’s hat, like a bowler. Other evidence suggests that only women of gentry families wore tall hats when horse riding in Wales and England at this time but John Evans noted in 1803 that the women of north Pembrokeshire wore ‘a large, broad brimmed, high-crowned, beaver hat’ so there may be some truth in this part of the story. (Evans, John, Letters written during a tour through South Wales, in the year 1803. (London, 1804), p. 257) Red cloaks, however, were rare in Wales: the colour of cloaks was much more likely to be blue: it was the red shawl or whittle which became known as the ‘Frenchman’s terror’.

J.E.Thomas, (Britain’s Last Invasion (Tempus, 2007)), dismisses much of the following evidence which was strengthened by the celebration of the centenary of the event when hundreds of women dressed in red cloaks and tall Welsh hats.

1797 Fishguard
The country gathered from all parts of Pembrokeshire near four hundred women in red flannel and Squire Cambel (Lord Cawdor) went to ask them were they to fight and they said they were.
From a letter of John and Mary Mathias of Narberth to their sister, February 27th, 1797. Jones, E.H. Stuart, The Last Invasion of Britain, (UWP, 1950), p. 119

1797 Fishguard
… poor women with red flannel over their shoulders, which the French at a distance took for soldiers, as they appeared all red.
Letter from John Mends, Haverfordwest, to his son John, February 27th, 1797, Jones, E.H. Stuart, The Last Invasion of Britain, (UWP, 1950), p. 120

1797 Fishguard [Print, a man and woman, both in men’s hats.]
‘A WELCH PEASANT AND HIS WIFE in their accustomed Habits and with the kind of Weapons that several Thousand People appeared with near Fishguard, Feb y 24th, 1797 the day the French surrendered to Ld Cawdor & Colonel Colby’s Troops. The wonderful Effect that the Scarlet Flannel had that day should never be forgotten. Lord Cawdor, very Judiciously, placed a considerable number of women in that Dress, in the rear of his army, who being considered by the French as being regular Troops, contributed in no small degree to that happy and unexpected surrender.
National History Museum, St Fagans : F84.159.43

Breeches, peticoats, shirts, shifts, blankets, sheets (for some received the news in bed), have been most woefully defiled in south Wales lately on hearing that a thimble-full of French men landed on our coast. I hope that you will have the goodness to compassionate [sic] our unfortunate wash-women.’
CIM, II, p. 19, Iolo Morganwg to Owen Pugh, 7.3.1797

[A first-hand account of the invasion] Several hundred women, young and old, had followed their husbands from the hills, dressed in the national costume—red mantles and men’s beaver-hats. No sooner had Lord Cawdor started with his troopers, than they, with the natural curiosity of their sex, ran up a hill commanding a view of the French camp, and there stood in a dense body watching the result. One of the gentlemen present, struck by their resemblance at a distance to a body of soldiers, rode after them, requesting they would descend the front of the slope, in close order, and disappearing at the bottom, re-ascend in the same manner, and shew themselves on the summit. This manoeuvre they repeated for a couple of hours, until the jolly Welsh wives were fairly dead-beat. But the stratagem had all the success anticipated. General Tate and his staff, knowing that scarlet was the British uniform, but unable to discriminate whether it was worn by men or women, concluded that large reinforcements had reached Fishguard, of which his late visitors were the officers.
Chambers’s Journal, vol. 13, (1860), p. 20 [possibly in earlier editions]
Pembrokeshire Herald and General Advertiser, 3.2.1860 and in other publications.

It is to the singular appearance of the females of this country, thus adorned, that they ascribe the sudden panic with which the French invaders were struck, when they had effected a landing at Fishguard Bay. M. Tate, who, with a handful of men, was bold enough to expose himself and his feeble train to certain and inevitable destruction, and audacious enough to suppose himself capable of holding, or at least of assuming a post to which the disaffected might resort, and where they might make a stand, till fresh assistance and additional succours could arrive from France, haying gained the summit of a lofty eminence near near Fishguard, was astonished at the military appearance of the opposite hill, which he soon beheld covered, as he thought, with soldiers, but who were, in fact, only a host of Welch women, prompted, some by courage, some by curiosity, and others by apprehension, to reconnoitre the enemy; but these Cambrian Amazons having on their red mantles, struck a terror into the French, whose general immediately waited on Lord Cawdor, commanding officer of the military force stationed nearest to the spot, and surrendered himself a prisoner at discretion.
Lipscomb, George, Journey into South Wales…in the year 1799, (London, 1802), pp. 168-169

Early 19th century, probably
The undated but probably early 19th century oil painting by an anonymous artist of the French Invasion at Fishguard.
Undated but said to have been based on eye-witness accounts. Detail on the bottom left shows women in red and blue shawls, and head kerchiefs or low hats. On the right, blue shawls are more common than red.
Carmarthen Museum (was on display at Scolton Museum, Pembrokeshire) 

Sir Richard Colt Hoare visited his Friend, Richard Fenton at Fishguard on the 4th July, 1802. Fenton told him that the French were overcome because they were drunk. Colt Hoare made no mention of the women dressed in Welsh costume, but he had little to say about anything but antiquities, landscape and history.
Thompson, M.W., The Journeys of Sir Richard Colt Hoare through Wales and England 1793-1810, (1983), p. 225

1803 Pembrokeshire
it is probable that the enemy [the French] would have given some trouble to the country, had it not been for a collection of women on a distant hill, clad in red mantles peculiar to these parts who were taken for a large reinforcement coming on to the attack. p. 456
The whittle here only appears occasionally, and is a distinction on which the wearer never fails to value herself highly. It is a short red mantle, with a very deep fringe, hanging over the shoulders, and communicates a most awfully military appearance, as General Tate can testify. [General Tate was the French officer who led the Fishguard invasion] p. 482
Malkin, B.H., Scenery, Antiquities and Biography of South Wales, from materials collected during two excursions in the year 1803. (London 1804)
The reference to the whittle and General Tate was transcribed with minor alterations, by Mary Curtis in her chapter on costume in The Antiquities of Laugharne, Pendine and their Neighbourhoods, (1871), (2nd edition, 1880), p. 44.

John Henry Manners, who toured Wales in July to October, 1797, stayed with Lord Cawdor at Stackpole. He recorded at some length Cawdor’s stories about the behaviour and capture of the French and of the defence of Wales, and he also visited Fishguard and wrote about the invasion while he was there. At no point did he mention women dressed to appear like soldiers, but he did write ‘The peasants who had assembled were so artfully arranged, as to appear to the French, as if the whole country had risen en masse.’
Manners, John Henry, (Fifth Duke of Rutland, 1778-1857) Journal of a tour through north and south Wales, the Isle of Man, [and a small part of Scotland] &c. &c. (1805), p. 184

In Carmarthenshire they wear an oblong piece of red flannel deeply bordered with black ribband, which they throw across their shoulders, and which since the taking of the French who landed at Fishguard last war, have been termed the Frenchman’s terror.
Meyrick, S., The History and Antiquities of the County of Cardiganshire, (1807), p. ccii  

At Fishguard {volunteer soldiers were used to keep the French} ‘in check but then the country folks, the Cambrians, en masse were pouring down to Fishguard armed with Pitchforks, Scythes etc, and the hardy females put on red cloaks and lined the tops of the distant hills intended as a Ruse de Guerre
Dewing, Lynn, 1819, NMW 163680, pp. 37-38

The following ludicrous account of the landing of the French at Fishguard, in 1797, appears in the last number of the United Service Magazine. The Magnificent extensive sea-beach known by this name (Goodwick Sands) ,forming the landward boundary of Fishguard is flanked at either end by dark precipices, on the one nearest the town is a remarkable range of pasture-Iane called Windy Hal … More than 2,000 women, attired in the scarlet whittle and round beaver hat, the common costume of the female Welsh peasantry, which, at a distance, renders it difficult to distinguish them from men, were there drawn up in a steady, line shouldering staves, spades, and pitchforks, with banner displayed at intervals. …
Monmouthshire Merlin, 18.2.1843

We will … follow this troupe of Welshwomen, fresh from market. How well they ride!…  No wonder that the French were alarmed into a retreat from the Welsh coast, at the sudden approach of a phalanx of Welshwomen in their red cloaks and shawls.
Beale, Anne (1816-1900), The Vale of the Towey ; or Sketches in South Wales (1844), p. 69, republished as Traits and Stories of the Welsh Peasantry (1849)

1848 Merthyr Tydfil
The dress of the women in Merthyr is of a substantial description, and mostly of flannel; the greater proportion are well dressed habited in expensive, though not gaudy attire. This is especially seen at funerals … The hat is not much worn by women of Merthyr, but this ancient costume is still retained in Carmarthenshire, Cardiganshire and Pembrokeshire. In this last mentioned county it served well with the red cloak on one occasion to deter the French invaders on the coast of Fishguard.
Clarke, T.E., A Guide to Merthyr Tydfil and the travellers Companion in Visiting the Ironworks, (1848)

1851 (1858)
The neighbourhood of Fishguard has derived some celebrity in modern times from the landing of a French force, under Gen. Tate, at Llanwrda, about two miles and a half southward of the town, on February 22, 1797. There were about 1400 men, of whom 600 were regular soldiers, and 800 proved to be criminals liberated from French prisons. These effected a landing, and after a night devoted to plunder and intoxication, they surrendered to a few militia and volunteers, not half their own number, hastily brought together, under the command of Lord Cawdor. To the narrative of this strange affair it is commonly added, that the invaders were panic struck on seeing a number of Welsh women in their beaver hats and red whittles, or shawls, ranged on the summits of the adjacent heights. Fear transformed them into formidable reserves of military, to contend with whom appeared hopeless; and accordingly, Tate sent a flag of truce and agreed to an unconditional surrender.
Black’s Picturesque Guide through North and South Wales and Monmouthshire.  (Edinburgh 1851); 8th edition, 1858, p. 288

Apropos of the red whittle it may be recollected that the last French invasion, consisting of an army of a thousand or so of men, at Fishguard, was effectually repelled by the appearance of the Welsh women on the distant heights, in their hats and red whittles, presenting a military aspect, which deceived the French general into a belief that an English army stood ready to receive him. As in most remote and thinly populated countries, the women of Wales are spinners and knitters of the family hose; and the village loom supplies the homespun fabrics which form the staple of the peasant costume.
Bigg, W., The ten-day tourist; or, Sniffs of the mountain breeze, (1862)

An elderly lady, deceased 10 years ago [i.e. about 1870] at the age of 90 [i.e. about 17 at the time of the invasion] told me that a number of women dressed in the Welsh costume, with scarlet cloaks, and their high crowned, black beaver hats, were made to go up a hill a moderate distance off and to come out at some other point in such a way as if they were three times numerous. An officer said “You see we had an abundance more troops [sic].’
Curtis, Mary, The Antiquities of Laugharne, Pendine and their Neighbourhoods, 2nd edition 1880 (completed July 1879, see p. 339), p. 338

[The man] a lad at the time of the invasion when the French were frightened by the historical red flannel whittles and conical hats.
Western Mail, February 1, 1883

It was suggested that a statue of a woman in a red shawl, rather than a cloak, should be produced to mark Queen Victoria’s Jubilee:
A statue representing a Welsh matron in native costume, giving prominence to the red flannel shawl was suggested as a way to celebrate the Queen’s jubilee.
Western Mail, January 31, 1887

Large numbers of country women … had assembled on a hill commanding an extensive prospect including the French outpost at Carnunda, desiring … to see as much as possible of what was going forward. It was the hill on which I had stationed myself. Most of the women wore their distinctive shawl a scarlet whittle, this being the colour appropriated by the daughters of Pembrokeshire; while their Cardiganshire neighbours have adopted the white whittle. All of them at that time wore high black hats. Lord Cawdor … was struck by the resemblance of a mass of these women to a body of regulars, and he called upon the daughters of Cambria to give a proof of their patriotism by marching towards the enemy in regular order. … General Tate acknowledged afterwards that they had been taken for a regiment of regulars, and the French troops … utterly lost heart.’
Anon, (editor), The Fishguard Invasion by the French in 1797. Some passages from the diary of the late Rev Daniel Rowlands, sometime vicar of Llanfihangel Penybont. (London, Fisher Unwin, 1892), p. 131; The same wording appears in James, Margaret Ellen, (Pantsaeson, Pembrokeshire). The Fishguard Invasion by the French in 1797. Some passages from the diary of the late Rev Daniel Rowlands, sometime vicar of Llanfihangel Penybont. (Western Mail, London and Cardiff, 1897, Centenary edition), pp. 70-71; also in ‘A Hundred Years Ago’, Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), February 24, 1897.
[This is a fictional account, based on some original documents and the memories of some elderly women of Fishguard whom the author knew.] Margaret James also translated and transcribed the orders from General Hoche to Col. Tate on how to organise the invasion. (NLW ms 5406D)

The story of women parading in their red whittles is not restricted to Fishguard. There is a similar story in Machynys near Llanelli and Brixham cliffs, Torquay, Devon (Exeter Evening post).
Western Mail  July 25, 1894

[At the centenary celebrations in 1897, about 100 women in Welsh hats and red cloaks marched through the town and the Last Invasion Tapestry, at Fishguard, created for the bicentenary in 1997, shows women in tall hats and red cloaks. The medallion produced to celebrate the centenary of the invasion shows women in cloaks and tall hats.]

Distinctive dresses, whittles and sashes were worn by several ladies present.
Western Mail, February 25, 1897

Photograph: Welsh Ladies in the French Centenary Procession at Fishguard in 1897
This photographs records the largest number of Welsh hats at any known event and it is likely that most of the hats were old ones, carefully preserved by their owners. Other photographs of large groups of women wearing Welsh hats in the north Pembrokeshire and south Ceredigion suggest that many more hats survived in this area than anywhere else in Wales.
NLW, Album 1048, PB7441

Since the mooting of these festivities much has been read in the papers of the red whittles worn by the women of Fishguard with such surprising effect on the day of the invasion, but few have seen this characteristic Welsh article of attire to such advantage until to-day, when 89 ladies bloomed out at every turning in a mass of red and plaid.
Following the band came the ladies in Welsh costume. What a sight for a Cymru Fyddite! To be truthful, they inspired the visitors with a feeling the very antithesis of fear. The formidable pitchforks several of them carried did certainly make them appear a dangerous array to tackle. But, really, they were a galaxy of smiling beauty on good terms with the world in general, a very different picture to that made by their prototypes we have read of who struck terror into the hearts of the trained men, and showed determination worthy of the Amazons of old. But if there is a prophecy which could be safely pronounced, it is that today’s contingent of fair ones, if situated in similar circumstances, would show as brave a spirit as their grandmothers did, and would unhesitatingly enter into the work of defence. The thought that first occurred to me when I saw the young ladies together was that they must have had great difficulty in getting hold of so many Welsh chimney-pot hats, the beaver of most of them being in good condition. Inquiries, however, showed that this was not so. It seems that there are hundreds and hundreds in North Pembrokeshire. Although now quite a novelty as outdoor headgear, the old people jealously preserve “Yr hen hat fawr.” To them nothing would appear so profane as the destruction of a grandmother’s hat. I joined the procession in the conveyance of Dr. Lawlor Swete, the most energetic secretary of the movement, and in this way gained the interesting bit of news that one of the fascinating Deborahs wore a whittle and hat that had actually been used over 100 years ago on Cerrig-Gwastad rocks. Mrs Mason, Prospect House. Fishguard, had prevailed upon “Nanny Ffynon Carn” to lend them, and that lady showed them of to advantage. Had the generality of the people known of the existence of so interesting a relic amongst the many in the profession the wearer would undoubtedly have had a very tantalising time of it. Two young gentlemen of hilarious proclivities had also turned out in full Welsh costume, the “Gwn bach” not excepted, but their comparatively clumsy gait and elephantine waists betrayed them. After all, they leavened the apparent harmlessness of the 89, who were marshalled by Mr James.
Evening Express 7.7.1897