The Black Legion

Give a big welcome to my guest Sue Wilkes. She was born in Lancashire, England, and has lived in Cheshire since 1981. She is a member of the Society of Authors and loves to write. Sue writes for adults and children and contributes regularly to magazines in the UK and USA. Her specialties are social and industrial history, literary history, and family history. With that said, here is Sue’s post.

Sue Wilkes

Britain was on high alert in early 1797 following a failed invasion attempt. The nation was at war with Revolutionary France, and in a French invasion fleet led by General Hoche and United Irishman Wolfe Tone sailed from Brest to Ireland. However, appalling weather scattered the French ships, and although a few ships reached Bantry Bay in December 1796, they turned tail and headed for home. However, a second invasion fleet appeared off Britain’s coast a few weeks later. (It’s unclear why it didn’t take place simultaneously with the Bantry Bay expedition, unless the weather forced this delay).

Map of England and Wales. Barclay’s Dictionary, Bungay edition, (T. Kinnersley, 1813), Author's Collection

Map of England and Wales. Barclay’s Dictionary, Bungay edition, (T. Kinnersley, 1813). Author’s Collection.

General Hoche had ordered Colonel William Tate, an American who had fought in the revolutionary war, to land at or near Cardigan Bay, with over 1,000 men. His soldiers were known as the Legion Noire (Black Legion) because of their dark jackets.

The expedition’s three main objects were: ‘if possible, to raise an insurrection in the country’, secondly, to disrupt Britain’s commerce, and thirdly, to make another invasion easier by diverting the armed forces. Tate was to give the poorest people money and drink, tell them that their government was the cause of their distress, encourage them to rebel, and rob the stores of arms and ammunition (Authentic Copies of the Instructions Given by Gen. Hoche to Colonel Tate, 1798).

On 22 February 1797 the small fleet led by Tate was observed off the Devon coast. The French vessels scuttled several merchant ships, and the local militia was raised, but as they prepared to march, the enemy ships left the area.

The invaders were next spotted from the heights of St Bride’s Bay on the Pembrokeshire coast. Two frigates, a corvette, and a lugger were seen steering from the Bristol Channel towards St David’s Head. The ships showed English colours, but were ‘soon suspected to be French’. After rounding St David’s Head, the enemy vessels sailed towards the port of Fishguard, ‘finally anchoring in a small bay, near Lanonda [Llanwnda] church. They immediately hoisted French colours, and put out their boats. The country-people were dreadfully alarmed, and instantly abandoned their houses’ (Monthly Magazine, or British Register, for 1797).

End of the Irish Invasion and Destruction of the French Armada. French warships Le Révolutionaire, L'Egalité and The Revolutionary Jolly Boat, being tossed about during a storm blown up by Pitt the Younger and other politicians. The Opposition leader, Charles James Fox, is the figurehead on Le Révolutionaire which is floundering with a broken mast. The Revolutionary Jolly Boat is being swamped, throwing reformers Richard Sheridan, ‘Citizen’ Thelwall and others overboard. James Gillray, 1797, Courtesy Library of Congress LC-USZC4-8768.

End of the Irish Invasion and Destruction of the French Armada. French warships Le Révolutionaire, L’Egalité and The Revolutionary Jolly Boat, being tossed about during a storm blown up by Pitt the Younger and other politicians. The Opposition leader, Charles James Fox, is the figurehead on Le Révolutionaire which is floundering with a broken mast. The Revolutionary Jolly Boat is being swamped, throwing reformers Richard Sheridan, ‘Citizen’ Thelwall and others overboard. James Gillray, 1797. Courtesy Library of Congress LC-USZC4-8768.

The French soldiers scaled the cliffs at Carreg Wastad, then set fire to the turf so their commander knew they were safely ashore. The men, many of whom were galley slaves, were barefoot, dressed in rags, and starving. They ransacked local houses looking for food, and burnt every stick of furniture they could find for warmth. Two Welshmen were killed, and a local woman, Mary Williams (also known as Matty Carham) who was heavily pregnant, was mistreated by an ungallant French soldier.

By Thursday evening the local commander, Lord Cawdor arrived with his own troop of Yeoman Cavalry from Castlemartin, plus the Pembroke Fencibles, Fishguard and Newport Fencibles, and some Cardiganshire militia – over 600 men. The French forces greatly outnumbered the volunteers, but they were in such poor shape after their long sea voyage that they quickly surrendered (Gentleman’s Magazine, March 1797). According to local tradition one plucky heroine, Jemima Nicholas, single-handedly captured several Frenchmen armed only with a pitchfork.

The ‘Game of Brag’ and ‘Game of Hazard’. A later print (1803) shows Napoleon, wearing an oversized hat and holding a large sword, commands his troops to follow him in an invasion of England. ‘Hazard’ shows the French fleet destroyed and Napoleon all at sea. Fears of invasion did not calm down until after Nelson’s defeat of the French fleet at Trafalgar in 1805. Courtesy Library of Congress: LC-DIG-ppmsca-04306.

The ‘Game of Brag’ and ‘Game of Hazard’. A later print (1803) shows Napoleon, wearing an oversized hat and holding a large sword, commands his troops to follow him in an invasion of England. ‘Hazard’ shows the French fleet destroyed and Napoleon all at sea. Fears of invasion did not calm down until after Nelson’s defeat of the French fleet at Trafalgar in 1805. Courtesy Library of Congress: LC-DIG-ppmsca-04306.

A later account of the French surrender was given by the writer Richard Ayton, who visited Fishguard in about 1813 and spoke to the locals. They told him that when the French soldiers halted on the sands, they spotted the local militia above them on higher ground, almost within musket-shot range. Lord Cawdor’s troops were followed by their womenfolk, afraid that their men would get hurt: ‘The women in the rear were all clad, according to the custom of the country, in red woollen shawls… and these, together with their black beaver hats, gave them not only a masculine but also a very martial appearance; the French mistook them for a reserve of troops, and immediately gave up the contest in despair’ (A Voyage round Great-Britain, undertaken in the Summer of 1813, London, 1814).

A group of Welsh women in traditional costume in the 1860s. Did a group of Welsh ladies with their tall hats really terrify the French invaders so much that they surrendered? Author’s collection.

A group of Welsh women in traditional costume in the 1860s. Did a group of Welsh ladies with their tall hats really terrify the French invaders so much that they surrendered? Author’s collection.

Although this incursion was quickly snuffed out, fears of invasion continued to run high, and the government employed many spies and informers at home and abroad to keep abreast of the enemy’s plans.

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regspieshighrescover1

Cover to Sue’s Current Book

Sue wrote her first book in 2008, and she has been busy writing since. Some of her books include A Visitor’s Guide to Jane Austen’s England, The Children History Forgot, Regency Cheshire, Tracing Your Lancashire Ancestors, and her latest book, Regency Spies.

In Regency Spies, published through Pen and Sword Books, Sue reveals the shadowy world of Britain’s spies, rebels and secret societies from the late 1780s until 1820. Drawing on contemporary literature and official records, she unmasks the real conspirators and tells the tragic stories of the unwitting victims sent to the gallows.

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