The Battle of Trafalgar

The Battle of Trafalgar

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  • Horatio, Lord Nelson (1758-1805).


  • Scene from the Battle of Trafalgar.

    MAYER Auguste (1805 - 1890)

Horatio, Lord Nelson (1758-1805).

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - All rights reserved

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Title: Scene from the Battle of Trafalgar.

Author : MAYER Auguste (1805 - 1890)

Creation date : 1836

Date shown: October 21, 1805

Dimensions: Height 105 - Width 162

Technique and other indications: Oil on canvas.

Storage place: Naval Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - Bullozsite web

Picture reference: 01-017772 / 9 OA 15

Scene from the Battle of Trafalgar.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - Bulloz

Publication date: December 2007

Historical context

From peace to war

Instigator of most of the leagues against revolutionary and then Napoleonic France, England signed a peace treaty with France on March 25, 1802. At the start of the following year, a new diplomatic crisis erupted: the expansionist policy of the First Consul Napoleon (1769-1821) outside Europe and the refusal of France to open up to British trade remained the main apples of discord. Immediately, Napoleon, gathering his army at Camp de Boulogne, planned a landing on the English coast, while, for its part, England paid financial aid to the continental powers like Russia or Austria, to encourage them to enter at war with France.

Image Analysis

The disaster of Trafalgar

Napoleon's goal was to invade England with the help of Spain, France's traditional ally against the English. However, the mediocrity of command and the poor coordination of military maneuvers prevent the different fleets from establishing a junction. Of the two squadrons responsible for sailing to the Antilles to attract the English installed in the Channel, only the Toulon squadron, commanded by Admiral Pierre de Villeneuve, reached Martinique on May 14, 1805. However, Villeneuve, chased by Vice-admiral Lord Nelson, commander of the English Mediterranean squadron, left the West Indies and decided to fall back on Cadiz, despite Napoleon's order to set sail for Brest. From there, having finally received instructions to reach Naples, he headed for the Straits of Gibraltar on October 20. But Nelson and his fleet awaited him off Cape Trafalgar and, the next day, the Franco-Spanish fleet, arranged on an interminable line of six kilometers, was attacked perpendicularly at a few precise points by the English who, despite their numerical inferiority (27 English vessels, against 18 French and 15 Spanish), won a landslide victory. Better equipped and better trained, the English destroy the French and Spanish fleets which will take years to reconstitute. A true national hero since the Battle of Trafalgar where he was killed, Horatio Nelson (1758-1805) joined the navy at a young age, initially a merchant. Appointed captain at the age of 21, he was posted to the Mediterranean squadron in 1793 and lost his right eye at the Battle of Calvi the following year. In July 1797, injured during a failed expedition against Santa Cruz de Tenerife, he lost his right arm this time. His reputation began to grow when, on August 1, 1798, he wiped out the French fleet from the Orient at Aboukir on their way to the Egyptian expedition. Building on this success, he was appointed Vice-Admiral in 1801. But his fame reached its peak with the Battle of Trafalgar where he proved to be a fine military strategist. It was after this event that artists began to interpret his posthumous popularity, such as this anonymous engraver who depicted Lord Nelson in full length, in accordance with the canons of the genre. Dressed in his vice-admiral's uniform, Nelson stands in front of a maritime landscape, turned slightly to the left. His empty right sleeve is prominently displayed on his chest, and he leans his good arm on a rock. In the distance, a naval battle rages on, probably that of Trafalgar, during which the vice-admiral, aboard the Victory, was fatally shot by a French sailor from Formidable. Commanded by Lucas, this 74-gun ship had rescued the Bucentaur, the flagship attacked by that of Nelson, The painting with dramatic accents of Auguste-Etienne-François Mayer (1805-1890) presents the heroic struggle of the sailors of the Bucentaur, surrounded by enemy ships. The painting was long titled The Redoubtable at the Battle of Trafalgar but it is undoubtedly the Bucentaur as the figurehead proves. The completely dismasted ship was subjected to grape-shot from a large English vessel. We can see in the background, the Formidable struggling with two English ships and who was finally forced to surrender after losing most of his crew, as was the Bucentaur. The two boats, badly damaged during the battle, ended up sinking, like a large part of the French fleet.


England’s mixed victory

After the Battle of Trafalgar, Villeneuve was taken prisoner and Nelson's remains brought back to London, where a state funeral was held with great fanfare. This battle reinforces English naval superiority and permanently shields England from invasion. It also forced Napoleon to refocus his territorial ambitions on the continent where he had to face two new coalitions, united thanks to English gold. His campaigns of 1805-1807 were marked by several brilliant victories against the Allies, at Austerlitz where the so-called battle of the three emperors took place on December 2, 1805, then in Jena on October 14, 1806 and in Friedland on June 14, 1807, victories which will be followed by the Treaty of Tilsit, July 7, 1807. This treaty seals the Franco-Russian alliance, and the Tsar grants Napoleon his support for a period of five years in the fight against England. In fact, the latter finds itself temporarily isolated within Europe and suffers more and more from the continental blockade imposed on it by France. In 1808, deprived of foreign outlets for its colonial products, metallurgy and cotton, it was the victim of a veritable economic stagnation which generated social riots. If, in 1815, the fall of the Napoleonic Empire enshrined the final victory of English policy, England will come out of it financially and economically exhausted from this long struggle against France.

  • battles
  • napoleonic wars
  • UK
  • Treaty of Amiens
  • sea
  • boat


Jacques-Olivier BOUDONHistory of the Consulate and the EmpireParis, Perrin, 2000. Roger DUFRAISSE and Michel KERAUTRETNapoleonic France: external aspects, 1799-1815Paris, Seuil, “New history of contemporary France” vol.5.1999.Alfred FIERRO, André PALLUEL-GUILLARD and Jean TULARDHistory and dictionary of the Consulate and the EmpireParis, Laffont, (Bouquins collection), 1995. Louis MADELINHistory of the Consulate and the EmpireParis, Laffont, (Bouquins collection), 2003.Alain PIGEARDDictionary of Napoleon's battlesParis, Tallandier, 2004. Jean TULARDNapoleon dictionaryParis, Fayard, 1999.

To cite this article

Charlotte DENOËL, "The Battle of Trafalgar"

Video: The Battle of Trafalgar Trailer, Napoleon Total War


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