24 February 1797: Last invasion of mainland Britain ends in fiasco

Portuguese wine scuppers French attack on west Wales


On the evening of 22 February 1797, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Knox was at a dance at Tregwynt Mansion near Fishguard when a messenger arrived with terrible news. In a little bay near the town, he reported, the French were landing. At first Knox struggled to take in the news. But it was true. By the following morning, the invaders had landed more than 1,000 men, equipped with artillery, rifles and grenades. The last invasion of mainland Britain had begun.

The invasion of Wales was the brainchild of French revolutionary general Lazare Hoche, who had originally planned it as a diversion from his simultaneous invasion of Ireland. In fact, the Irish expedition was a shambles, but Hoche went ahead with the Welsh scheme anyway.

The invaders were commanded by an Irish-American veteran, Colonel William Tate, who had orders to stir up Welsh nationalist feeling and march on Bristol. But within hours, his operation began to go badly wrong. A few weeks earlier, a Portuguese merchant ship had been wrecked off the coast, and the local farmhouses were well stocked with Portuguese wine. By the morning of the 23rd, many of Tate’s men – mostly conscripted criminals – were drunk, while others had already deserted. Meanwhile the Welsh population, far from joining the uprising, were very obviously hostile.

By the 24th, it was all up for the invaders and Tate led his men to Goodwick Sands, where, watched by crowds who had gathered on the clifftops, they threw down their weapons. The local Pembroke Yeomanry are still the only British regiment with a battle honour for an engagement on home soil, while Tate’s fiasco remains the last foreign invasion of British soil.

Julian Humphrys rounds up smaller anniversaries

24 February 1582
Pope Gregory XIII issued the Papal Bull 'Inter Gravissimas', which established the Gregorian calendar. Most Catholic countries adopted the new calendar that year but Britain did not make the switch for a further 170 years.
24 February 1711
The first performance of George Frideric Handel's opera Rinaldo took place at the Queen's Theatre, Haymarket. It was the first Italian opera to be specifically composed for the London stage.
24 February 1739
Nader Shah of Persia defeated the Mughal Emperor Muhammud Shah at the battle of Karnal. Two weeks later Delhi was looted by the victorious Persians who stole the Koh-i-Noor diamond.
24 February 1810
Scientist Henry Cavendish died at Clapham, aged 78. His 1784 paper 'Experiments on Air' included the discovery that water was a compound of hydrogen and oxygen.
24 February 1848
Faced with revolution in Paris, Louis-Philippe abdicated as King of the French. Escaping to Britain in disguise, he settled with his wife at Claremont House in Surrey where he died in 1850.
24 February 1857
The first awards of the Victoria Cross were listed in The London Gazette.
24 February 1923
The Flying Scotsman locomotive went into service with the London and North Eastern Railway. Designed by Sir Nigel Gresley, it was chosen to represent the latest in steam locomotive design at the British Empire Exhibitions in 1924 and 1925.

24 February 1848: France’s last king abdicates amid riots

Louis-Philippe gives up his throne to keep his head

By the standards of his predecessors, the last French king, Louis-Philippe, was actually pretty popular. Eschewing pomp, he lived relatively simply, presenting himself as a ‘citizen king’ – a man of unpretentious, bourgeois values. “Take away Louis-Philippe the king, there remains the man. And the man is good,” wrote republican Victor Hugo. “He is good at times even to the point of being admirable.”

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But at the beginning of 1848, the edifice of the monarchy cracked. The mainly middle-class opposition had been holding large fundraising banquets, and in February the government decided to crack down. But the decision to ban the banquets backfired horribly, as crowds poured into the streets calling for the head of Louis-Philippe’s unpopular prime minister, François Guizot. On 23 February, Guizot resigned. That afternoon, fighting broke out between demonstrators and the troops, and in the chaos some 52 people were killed.


In the early stages of the 1848 revolution, Louis-Philippe had sympathised with the revolutionaries. But, as a cousin of the late Louis XVI, he dreaded suffering the same bloody fate and in any case lacked the stomach to order large-scale repression. By the late morning of 24 February, his courage had run out. Cloistered with his courtiers, the king called for ink and paper. His queen, Marie-Amélie, begged him to stand firm. “Sir, you are giving way to a riot; you are allowing yourself to be frightened!” she begged. But he gently pushed her away and a moment later signed the instrument of abdication. Later that afternoon, dressed all in black, the last French king left his palace for exile in Surrey.

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Dominic SandbrookHistorian and presenter

Dominic Sandbrook is historian and presenter, and a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine