Suicide by Seven Stab Wounds

French Admiral Pierre-Charles-Jean-Baptiste-Silvestre de Villeneuve committed “suicide” on 22 April 1806 while a prisoner of the English by stabbing himself in the right lung six times and once through the heart.


Villeneuve was in command of the French and the Spanish fleets that were defeated by Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar, but his early career had been marked by victories. He had escaped Nelson’s blocade of Toulon in March of 1805, sailed to the West Indies (where he recaptured the island fort of Diamond Rock off Martinique), and on 8 June of that same year his fleet intercepted “a homeward-bound convoy of 15 British merchant vessels escorted by the frigate HMS Barbadoes and the sloop or schooner HMS Netley. The two British warships managed to escape, but Villeneuve’s fleet captured the entire convoy”.

Villeneuve’s luck turned later that summer, in part because he disobeyed a direct order from Napoleon. His fleet arrived at A Coruña on 1 August, where Napoleon sent him orders to sail to Brest and Boulogne to back a French invasion of Britain.

Instead, perhaps believing a false report of a superior British fleet in the Bay of Biscay, and against the Spanish commanders’ objections, he sailed away back to Cádiz, rendering Napoleon’s planned invasion of Britain wholly impossible … At Cádiz the combined French and Spanish fleets were kept under blockade by Nelson. In September, Villeneuve was ordered to sail for Naples and attack British shipping in the Mediterranean, but he was initially unwilling to move and continued in blatant disregard of Superior Admiralty Orders. However, in mid-October he learned that Napoleon was about to replace him as commanding officer with François Étienne de Rosily-Mesros and order him to Paris to account for his actions. (Napoleon had written to the Minister of Marine, “Villeneuve does not possess the strength of character to command a frigate. He lacks determination and has no moral courage.”) Before his replacement could arrive, Villeneuve gave the order to sail on 18 October … On 21 October 1805 Villeneuve learned of the size of the British fleet, and turned back to Cádiz, but the combined fleets were intercepted by Nelson off Cape Trafalgar.

Nelson, of course, won the engagement and Villeneuve’s flagship Bucentaure was one of the many ships captured by the British. Napoleon was … displeased. Villeneuve was held under gentleman’s arrest in Britain for a few months before being freed and returned to France. He begged to be allowed to rejoin the navy, Napoleon refused to give him the time of day. Then, on 22 April 1806, he died via the aforementioned elaborate suicide. Naturally, the “nature of his death ensured that this verdict was much mocked in the British press of the time and suspicions abounded that Napoleon had secretly ordered Villeneuve’s murder”.

One thought on “Suicide by Seven Stab Wounds

  1. Nice work, I enjoyed it very much. Good research and dates.

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