The Battle of Trafalgar was a naval battle that took place during the Third Coalition War on October 21, 1805. A British Royal Navy fleet blockaded a French and Spanish fleet belonging to Napoleon Bonaparte and defeated them in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Cape Trafalgar, Spain. The British fleet was composed of 27 ships, while Napoleon's fleet was composed of 33. The Battle of Trafalgar was not part of Napoleon's plan.
A Treaty Broken
Representatives of France, the United Kingdom, Spain and the Batavian Republic signed the Treaty of Amiens on March 25, 1802. The treaty outlined a number of compromises between the countries, including the cessation of hostilities. The treaty ended in May of 1803. Napoleon began making plans to invade England, and England declared war on France. England also formed the Third Coalition with Russia, Austria, Sweden and Prussia. The Third Coalition remained inactive for most of the Third Coalition War. They became active in 1805, the year that the Battle of Trafalgar took place.
In July of 1805, Napoleon and his Grand Armee gathered in Boulogne, France to prepare for the invasion of England via the English Channel. Bonaparte needed Admiral Pierre Charles Villeneuve and the fleet he commanded, or he would be unable to carry out the invasion. Admiral Villeneuve caused the Battle of Trafalgar by remaining in Cadiz, Spain when he was under orders to meet with another fleet in Brest and sail on to the English Channel.
Villeneuve had been trying to outrun British Royal Navy ships in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean for months before the Battle of Trafalgar. In that time, he had suffered defeats at the hands of the British Royal Navy, both small and large. He chose to sail to Cadiz rather than north to Brest because he was trying to avoid more British ships. Napoleon later labelled him a coward.
The British Royal Navy was superior to the French Navy when it came to experience and training at the time of the Napoleonic Wars. On top of that, Napoleon was a mediocre naval strategist. While Napoleon was planning his invasion of England, the British Royal Navy blockaded all of France.
Napoleon's plan to get Villeneuve and his fleet to Brest was to send them to the West Indies. From there, they were to join the Spanish fleet and then return to France. The first part of Napoleon's plan worked by a stroke of luck. While Villeneuve was trying to get past the British blockade, bad weather blew the British ships off course.
British Admiral Sir Robert Calder was able to capture two of the Spanish ships on their way back from the islands. This coup seems to have broken Admiral Villeneuve's resolve. He believed that he would be defeated if he went north to Brest, so he sailed to Cadiz. Napoleon had overestimated his admiral and underestimated the British Royal Navy.