The Last Invasion - or was it?
PUBLISHED: 07:00 18 November 2017 | UPDATED: 09:34 21 November 2017
'The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it' said Oscar Wilde. The late Tony Simpson followed the invasion trails and found some surprises for East Devon.
A history of Honiton written by local historian J W Coxhead claimed that ‘no great battles affecting the fortunes of rival factions were fought in the area’ and that Honiton has ‘never been used a base for military operations for King or rebel’.
Depending on how you interpret these statements Honitonians may have good reason to doubt them. We know, for example that in 1549 the King’s army, composed of foreign mercenaries, occupied Honiton and crushed the Prayer Book rebels. We also know that Devon and local Devonians took part in some of the many invasions of Britain which changed our history and made us the polyglot nation we are. The name Devon derives from Celtic Dumnonia, later occupied by the Romans, Saxons and Vikings; at Honiton Museum you can see Danish stone tools from the late Bronze Age and Roman coins found at Combe Raleigh.
When was the last invasion of Britain and what had East Devon to do with it? We travelled to Hastings, Lyme Regis, Brixham, Fishguard , Plymouth and , for reasons I will explain, to St Helena in the South Atlantic. At Battle, near Hastings, we stood on the site where history claims King Harold was fatally killed after getting an arrow in his eye. We have a four metre long copy of the Bayeaux Tapestry which includes this famous scene. The Norman Conquest certainly left a deep and lasting impact on Devon. Norman lords built twenty castles and fortified houses including in Axminster, Exeter, Tiverton and Powderham. As the Domesday Book of 1086 shows, wealth and land ownership was on feudal lines with a largely subservient population; there were 3,700 slaves in Devon. The previous Anglo Saxon nobility and most of their manorial estates in Devon were replaced with Normans. Baldwin de Revers was made Earl of Devon, a seat which passed to Hugh de Courtenay, at Powderham Castle, who became one of the biggest landowners. The Courtenay crest featuring a Dolphin can still be seen at Montgomerys (Dolphin Inn), a former manor house in Honiton. Norman names entered the language, perhaps even that of my great grandfather, a stonemason from Exmouth who had the name D’Lonra which is still the middle name of some family members.
A video of a British Citizenship test suggest the Normans were the last invaders of Britain. At Lyme Regis, we recently witnessed a re-enactment of the Duke of Monmouth’s invasion in June 1685 to unseat the pro-Catholic James II (to be staged at The Beehive, Honiton on November 11).
With 20,000 troops, Monmouth marched through East Devon and Somerset and was joined by 88 men from Colyton, 56 from Honiton and 79 from Axminster, where Stephen Towgood wrote of Monmouth ‘filling this new army with wonderful courage and sending an hornet of fear amongst those that came to oppose them.’
Monmouth’s plans ended with defeat at Sedgemoor - the last battle fought in England - with cruel retribution visited on locals who supported him. 300 of his followers, including 100 from the Colyton area were sentenced to often slow deaths. 800 were transported to hard labour in the West Indies. Monmouth was beheaded at Tower Hill on July 15, after five blows of the axe.
At the Shambles in Honiton, the dismembered bodies of John Oliver, Henry Knight, John Knowles and Henry Potts were hung on polls so all could witness the justice of James II. Such cruel vindictiveness made James even more unpopular and would soon invite a major invasion, via Devon, that would result in his downfall.
At Brixham we stayed in a hotel overlooking an impressive statue of William of Orange landing his invasion force on November 5, 1688. We imagined the scene as a Bible was flourished at the waiting Devonians ‘all the people shouted for joy and huzzas did now echo into the air many amongst them throwing up their hats and all making signs with their hands’ (London Gazette).
Like Monmouth, William was intent on deposing James II and preserving protestantism; the consequences in Ulster still impact on us. William succeeded where Monmouth and Cromwell failed. Under him was created the first free parliament, a constitutional monarchy and the naval dockyards at Plymouth. On our return to Honiton, where William’s army was billeted, we thought of the Dutch soldiers grumbling about the poor condition of East Devon’s roads. ‘Frost bit the mud churned roads from Exeter... manhandling cannon and stores along icy wheelruts on the road to Axminster’. History records that James declared Honiton was the turning point and led to his flight to France when Lord Cornbury, his brother-in-law, switched sides and offered his regiment to William. The men sang - was this the first time that the famous tune Lilliburlero (performed in Kubrick’s film Barry Lindon) was heard in England?
The ‘Glorious Revolution’ was the last invasion of mainland Britain - or was it? We took a coach from Honiton to the site of ‘the real last invasion’ which also had a revolutionary intent and Devon connection. In February 1797, four warships carrying a French invasion force passed along the shores of Devon before landing near Goodwick Sands, Fishguard in Pembrokeshire. We learned that Lt Dudley Acland, the son of Sir Thomas Dyke Acland, of Killerton, Devon played a key role in its defeat. Acland farmed at Llanion and was promoted to major and second-in-command to Lord Cawdor of the Pembrokeshire Yeomanry when the French landed. Before the local militia could get organised, all 1,400 men and officers of the French expeditionary force were ashore and arraigned in battle order but within hours things started to go wrong. 48 hours after they landed the French force surrendered having failed to press their advantage. Major Acland attended the Council of War held at the Royal Oak in Fishguard and negotiated the surrender by Col William Tate, the revolutionary American who led the French invasion. It is the only action in which Queen Victoria presented battle honours though not a single shot was fired and no enemy were killed.
At Berry Head, in Torbay, we saw some of the best preserved defences to prevent Napoleon Bonaparte entering British waters - except that he did. On July 25, 1815, Napoleon and a retinue of French officers and wives sailed past East Devon - they were seen off Seaton - aboard the famous warship HMS Bellerophon. Following his defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon believed he would be granted sanctuary in England and would write his memoirs. He was not wanted for any crime. Thousands of Devon folk went to see him when the ship was moored off Torbay. Ten thousand, especially women, took small boats to see and talk with him when he was transferred to Plymouth Sound, where he could see locals promenading and waving to him. It was Napoleon’s apparent popularity at a time of instability and social discontent that convinced Lord Liverpool that Napoleon should be ‘put out of sight and out of mind’. On August 11, 1815, Napoleon was transported to Britain’s most remote outpost, the island of St Helena in the South Atlantic, where he died in May 1821, at Longwood House, which is still French territory and a popular tourist destination.
My wife and I visited St Helena by ship from Cape Town in 2010 (there is still no airport) where we saw Napoleon’s death mask along with his camp bed and other items from Waterloo. We discovered a Honiton connection in Jamestown market, when we were offered ‘Honiton lace’. Lacemaking was passed on to St Helena women and girls by a Devon schoolteacher called Emily Louise Warren who served for three years as headmistress of the girls’ school. Britain took over St Helena in 1659, one of 171 territories we have invaded - 90 per cent of the world. That makes us the world’s greatest invaders.
A Honiton woman told me I was wrong about the last invasion of Britain. ‘That was the Yanks in 1944 - over paid, over-sexed and over here’ she said, adding ‘I was there.’