French admiral, who gained rapid promotion in the navy under the Republic, reaching the rank of captain in 1793 and rear admiral in 1796. In 1798 he commanded a division of the French fleet under Admiral Brueys (1753–98) which had escorted Napoleon's army to Egypt and which was brought to action by Nelson in the battle of the Nile, and was almost annihilated. However, Villeneuve's rear division was only lightly engaged during this action, and his flagship and three others were the only French survivors.
Villeneuve was later promoted and in November 1804 was selected to command the French Toulon squadron, which, in Napoleon's ‘grand design’, was to cross the Atlantic to combine in the West Indies with squadrons from Brest, Ferrol, and Rochefort. This whole force was then to return in overwhelming strength to dominate the English Channel while Napoleon ferried his army across it to invade Britain. The scheme broke down when Nelson pursued Villeneuve across the Atlantic, forcing him to return. Intercepted off Finisterre by a British squadron, Villeneuve fought an indecisive action, losing two ships before seeking shelter in Ferrol. According to his instructions, he should now, in company with the ships already in Ferrol, have attempted to evade the British blockade and join the squadron in Brest, but he had little confidence in Napoleon's plan. Convinced that his main duty was to preserve his fleet and believing, incorrectly, that a superior British fleet lay between him and Brest, he took his squadron to Cadiz instead.
Once in Cadiz, Villeneuve's Franco-Spanish fleet was blockaded by an inferior British squadron which was soon reinforced by one under Nelson's command. Again Villeneuve refused to obey orders, this time to sail for the Mediterranean, and was only induced to do so on 19 October 1805 by the news that a successor had been sent to relieve him of his command. In the disastrous battle of Trafalgar two days later, Villeneuve was taken prisoner and carried to England. He was released on parole, and was found stabbed to death in a hotel at Rennes on 22 April 1806. Whether he was murdered or committed suicide has been argued by historians ever since, but as he left a farewell letter to his wife, suicide would seem to have been his most probable end.
Subjects: Maritime History.