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Fra Nicolas Durand de Villegaignon
Nicolas Durand de Villegaignon
Born 1510
Died January 9, 1571(1571-01-09)
Place of birth Villegaignon, Seine et Marne, France
Place of death Beauvais, Picardy, France
Allegiance Sovereign Military Order of Malta Order of Saint John
Kingdom of France Kingdom of France
Years of service 1521-1571

Nicolas Durand, sieur de Villegaignon, also Villegagnon (1510 – 9 January 1571) was a Commander of the Knights of Malta,[1] and later a French naval officer (vice-admiral of Brittany) who attempted to help the Huguenots in France escape persecution.

A notable public figure in his time, Villegaignon was a mixture of soldier, scientist, explorer, adventurer and entrepreneur. He fought pirates in the Mediterranean and participated in several wars.

Villegagnon was born in Villegaignon, Seine et Marne, France, a nephew of Philippe Villiers de L'Isle-Adam, Grand Master of the Order of Malta.[2] He was ordained as a Knight of the Order in 1521.

Ottoman campaigns in the Mediterranean and in Scotland[]

Nicolas de Villegagnon fought in numerous campaigns against the Ottoman Empire. Although the French usually refrained from participating in actions against the Ottomans, due to the Franco-Ottoman alliance, Villegagnon's first allegiance was with the Order of Malta, which generally supported the Habsburgs and fought the Ottomans. Villegagnon participated in the ill-fated expedition against Algiers in 1541,.[1] He also fought against the Ottomans in Hungary in 1542 following the Siege of Buda (1541) until 1546.

In 1548, he commanded the French naval fleet that took Mary, Queen of Scots, then five years old, to France, since she was promised to marry the Dauphin of France. This was a daring operation, covertly sailing galleys around Scotland, while the English fleet was expecting an attack from the other direction. Back in Scotland in March 1549, in February he helped capture Ferniehirst Castle from the English. The commanders then discussed their next move. Nicolas insisted they should halt and build a fortification at Roxburgh and decided the best position. The Scottish high command held a vote which was inconclusive, but finally, after the intervention of the French ambassador Henri Cleutin, Nicolas's plan was adopted.[3]

Villegagnon helped repel the Ottomans at Malta in 1551, before they went on to lead the Invasion of Gozo (1551).[1] He was then present at the Siege of Tripoli (1551) against the Ottoman Empire, and wrote an account about it in 1553.[4][5] Villegagnon illustrated himself by courageously defending Gaspard de Vallier, the vanquished Commander of Tripoli, who was being heavily criticized by the Grand Master D'Omedes who wished to assign all the blame for the defeat on him. Nicolas de Villegagnon staunchly defended him and exposed the duplicity of D'Omedes.[6]

France Antarctique[]

Drawing of the Island of Villegaignon, in Rio de Janeiro

Villegaignon became an important historical figure in the attempt for king Henry II to build a "France Antarctique", by invading present-day Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1555 with a fleet of two ships and 600 soldiers and colonists, mainly French Huguenots and Swiss Calvinists who sought to escape Catholic persecution in Europe.

Villegagnon's initial plan was to help the Huguenots establish a colony in the New World. He wanted also to secure a permanent base in Brazil in order to explore brazil wood, then a very valuable source of red dye and hard wood for construction (which gave the name to what was to become Brazil), and to explore precious metals and stones, which the Europeans believed to exist in abundance in the land.

After a number of battles against the Portuguese, the French colonists were defeated by Estácio de Sá, a nephew of the third Portuguese Governor-General of Brazil, Mem de Sá, on 15–16 March 1558.

Return to France[]

Villegaignon had already returned to France, in 1559, disgusted with the infighting between Catholics and Protestants in the small colony. He had left the colony under the command of his nephew Bois-le-Comte, endeavouring to obtain more funds and ships for the colony.[7] The internal fight against the Calvinists however made colonial adventures less of a priority for the Crown. After the colony fell to the Portuguese, Villegagnon finally agreed to give up his claims to France Antarctique after receiving 30,000 écus from the Portuguese Crown.

Fight against the Protestants[]

In 1560, Villegagnon challenged Calvin to a theological debate on the eucharist, which the latter declined. He became actively involved against the Protestants, and participated in the repression of the Amboise conspiracy.[7]

Villegagnon participated in the repression of the Amboise conspiracy in 1560.

In 1561, Pierre Richier published a pamphlet against Villegagnon's actions in Brazil, entitled "Réfutation des folles resveries, excecrable blasphèmes, erreurs et mensonges de Nicolas Durand, qui se nomme Villagagnon".

New attempts were made to create a Huguenot colony in the New World, again at the instigation of Coligny, this time in Florida from 1562 to 1565, under Jean Ribault and René de Laudonnière.

From 1568, Villegagnon became the representative of the Order of Malta at the French Court. The next year, in 1569, he published in Paris a new controversy about the eucharist, entitled "De Consecratione, mystico sacrificio et duplici Christi oblatione".

Villegagnon became Commander of the Order of Malta Commandery in Beauvais, where he died on 9 January 1571, aged about 60.

The Catholic André Thévet, who had accompanied him on the first trip to Brazil, published in 1572 a description of the Brazil adventure and an attack on the Protestants, in his "Cosmographie Universelle". The Protestant Jean Léry would respond to it in 1578 with his "Histoire d'un voyage faict en la terre du Brésil".


In his book, Brazil, A Land of the Future, Austrian writer Stefan Zweig describes the colorful character of Villegaignon:

Nicolas Durand de Villegaignon, half pirate, half scientist, a dubious but attractive figure, is a typical product of the Renaissance (...) He has been brilliant in war and a dilettante in the arts. He has been praised by Ronsard and feared by the Court, because his character is incalculable. Hating any regular occupation, despising the most enviable positions and the highest honours, his volatile spirit prefers to be free to indulge unhampered its fantastic moods. The Huguenots believe he is a Catholic and the Catholics believe he's a Huguenot. Nobody knows which side he is serving, and he himself probably doesn't know much more than that he wants to do something big, something different from anyone else, something wild and daring, something romantic and extraordinary.

On 2012 French-Portuguese-Brazilian TV series Rouge Brésil/Vermelho Brasil (Red Brazil), on the history of France Antarctique, Villegaignon (spelled Villegagnon) is portrayed by Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard.[8]

See also[]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Pioneers of France in the New World by Francis Parkman p.27
  2. Pioneer Laymen of North America, Volume 1 by Campbell Thomas Joseph p.51
  3. Cameron, Annie I., ed., Scottish Correspondence of Mary of Lorraine, SHS (1927), 288: Abercromby, Patrick, trans., The History of the Campagnes, 1548 and 1549, (1707), 96–97, (shows the fort was Roxburgh)
  4. The Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe, N. W. Bawcutt p.6
  5. History of a voyage to the land of Brazil, otherwise called America by Jean de Léry p.xix
  6. Ancient and modern Malta by Pierre Marie Louis de Boisgelin de Kerdu p.47
  7. 7.0 7.1 "Returning to France to garner more funds and ships for the colony in Rio de Janeiro, Villegagnon found himself armed and fighting to protect the Crown at Amboise against the Huguenot conspirators." in Essays in French colonial history: proceedings of the 21st Annual Meeting of the French Colonial Society p.3-7 Michigan State University Press, 1997
  8. Rouge Brésil (TV mini-series), IMDB

Further reading[]

  • Heulhard, A., Villegagnon, Roi d'Amérique: un Homme de Mer au XVIe Siécle, (1897)

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