Tuesday, 22 April 2014

The Mysterious "Suicide" of Pierre-Charles Villeneuve

Pierre-Charles Villeneuve (Pierre-Charles-Jean-Baptiste-Silvestre de Villeneuve; Valensole, France, 31st December 1763 – Rennes, France, 22nd April 1806) 

Pierre-Charles Villeneuve

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.

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Unknown said...

Seven self-inflicted stab wounds! Now there's a fascinating aspect of the battle of Trafalgar that we do not often hear!

Catherine Curzon said...

At least it wasn't a self-inflicted guillotining!

Unknown said...

I guess the forensic sciences were in their infancy?! Now in a contemporary sense, and I appreciate totally irrelevant to the period, is the nobility of the Villeneuve name in Formula One motor racing. Both Canadians, father and son Gilles and Jacque Villeneuve, were masters at great speed behind the wheel. Sadly, Gilles was killed in 1982 (though Jacque did become the world champion racing driver in 1997). So a question to ponder, was Pierre-Charles Villeneuve related to this formidable racing driver family?

Catherine Curzon said...

They were certainly in their infancy and, crucially, one suspects that Napoleon kept an eye on the inquest! I wonder if they are related, you know; I have some rather serious racing fans in the family who would be interested to know too.

Regencyresearcher said...

There was an article someplace about how some JPs in England didn't want to pay for a surgeon to inspect a corpse to help determine how he died so that a man with several stab wounds was declared dead of natural causes. While the admiral could have inflicted several shallow cuts on his left breast, it was a very unusual way for a man to commit suicide. Also difficult to get enough force to piece the rib cage and the heart. So much easier to cut the wrists and throat. People speak of committing political suicide. I just doubt his hand wielded the knife.

Lindsay said...

If he had committed suicide after the first or second stab wound to the lung would have weakened him so quickly he might not have had the strength to continue on.

Catherine Curzon said...

I think you're right; those injuries just don't seem as though they *could* be self-inflicted to me.

Catherine Curzon said...

It just feels like too convenient an explanation, doesn't it!

Markymole said...

There were other so-called 'suicides' amongst high-profile military officers in French prisons during this period. In April 1804, French General Pichegru, who had defected to the Royalists and plotted against Bonaparte, contrived to strangle himself in the Temple Prison, Paris. Then, in late October, 1805, in the same jail, a British Royal Navy Commander, John Wesley Wright, effected a suicide by cutting his throat to the bone. Apparently, according to the French authorities, he had been dejected for the future of his country after hearing of Napoleon's triumph at the Battle of Ulm, notwithstanding that he must have heard on the grapevine about Nelson's victory at Trafalgar, too. There seems to be a pattern developing here, albeit in different modes. Obviously, after the furore surrounding the Duke d'Enghien's abduction and execution, in March 1804, the French government thought they needed to silence troublesome and embarrasing individuals less openly, although the methods used did not convince many in Britain of the official French verdicts.