On 18th February 1797, while Napoleon Bonaparte was embarking on his conquest of central Europe, a French invasion comprising of four ships and 1400 troops set sail from Camaret, France, under the command of the elderly Irish-American, Colonel William Tate. Napoleon had ordered Tate to land near Bristol and destroy it, before crossing into Wales. The weather was not on their side however, as severe gales made it impossible for the French warships to land anywhere near Bristol. Instead they set a course for Cardigan Bay in southwest Wales.
On Wednesday February 22nd, the French warships sailed into Fishguard Bay to be greeted by cannon fire from the local fort. Unbeknown to the French, the cannon wasn’t being fired at them, but as an alarm to warn the local townsfolk. Nervously, the ships withdrew and sailed on until they reached a small sandy beach near the village of Llanwnda, where men, arms and gunpowder were unloaded early on the morning of Thursday February 23rd. The ships, with a small crew, then returned to France with a special despatch being sent to Paris informing Napoleon of the successful landing.
However, after only two days many of the invaders were too drunk to fight and, having also met fierce opposition from the Welsh population, the invasion collapsed. Tate’s force surrendered to the local militia, led by Lord Cawdor, on February 25th, 1797 (depicted above).
As Napoleon had been so successful across much of Europe, news of this unusual invasion raised alarms bells across Britain. When reports of the event hit London, panic led holders of banknotes to demand that the Bank of England convert their paper money into gold. As the total face value of the notes in circulation was almost exactly twice the actual gold reserves held by the Bank of England, Parliament was forced to act fast. On 22nd February, they passed the Bank Restriction Act, which made all banknotes inconvertible notes. This meant that banknotes issued by a central bank could not be redeemed for the underlying wealth that they represented, a precedent that has defined the modern use of banknotes ever since.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.