On this day in 1806, a man lay dead in the Hôtel de la Patrie in Rennes. He had suffered seven stab wounds, six that perforated his left lung and one that punctured his heart. The tragedy was one that sparked interest across Europe because the man who met his end in such violent circumstances was Vice Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve, French commander at the Battle of Trafalgar.
Villeneuve's reputation had not fared well in the aftermath of the famed battle. Delays of his own making had seen his fleet sit at Cádiz in direct contradiction of orders from his superiors to engage the British. When the fleet under Villeneuve's command finally set sail his earlier delay resulted in his being intercepted off Cape Trafalgar. The engagement that followed has become legendary and Villeneuve was captured in the aftermath of the battle and taken to England.
Upon his release, Villeneuve returned to France and here made a request to return to naval service. It was while he was waiting to hear the response to this request that Villeneuve died in his lonely hotel room, and chatter immediately began as to who might have been behind the apparent attack. The dead man was laid to rest after dark and without honours, his name one that the French government and military preferred not to celebrate.
To the amusement of the British press and public, the seven stab wounds were ruled to be self-inflicted and the inquest was neatly closed. In England though, whispers grew in volume that Napoleon had arranged for his former commander to be murdered in revenge for the debacle of Trafalgar.
Though it may seem unlikely that more than half a dozen stab wounds were self-inflicted, we have certainly seen stranger suicides here at the Guide. Villeneuve felt strongly the weight of Trafalgar and Napoleon's displeasure and perhaps the official silence that met his pleas for a return to service were enough to drive him to suicide, though whether a man could pierce his own vital organs quite so comprehensively without being weakened by shock and blood loss seems like something of a stretch. The truth will never be told, of course, and it remains a sad end to a sometimes checkered career.