In the December of 1785 the French port town of Marseilles was abuzz with gossip about the gallant and heroic Madame du Frenoy.
The lady had embarked along with her husband in a Tartane (a small ship used for fishing and coastal trading), bound for Genoa in Italy, and had scarcely lost sight of the port when a Barbary corsair ship was spied making its way towards them. The Tartane had no chance of outrunning the pirate vessel, and so prepared to receive it.
Monsieur du Frenoy tried desperately to persuade his wife to go below deck, but she flatly refused. Displaying a remarkable courage, she seized hold of a sabre and took her place at her husband’s side, declaring she would remain there and abide by her fate. Monsieur du Frenoy knew enough of his wife to realise it was impossible to change her mind, and so by his side she stayed. The Algerine vessel came closer and after firing a broadside they grappled the Tartane, and threw a large party on board her.
The crew and passengers of the Tartane received the pirates gallantly, but one of the bravest amongst them was Madame du Frenoy. She wielded her sabre, and shouted encouragement to the crew, cheering and animating them. Her husband fell, wounded by a pistol bullet in his thigh; his lady stood over him and levelled, with one stroke of her sabre, a young Turk who advanced to attack them. At last the pirates retreated to the safety of their own ship, cut the grappling that bound the two vessels together and made off. A smart action now commenced with their great guns.
Madame du Frenoy helped her husband below, to the surgeon, and then returned to the deck, encouraging the men on the Tartane until the corsair, tired of his reception, sheered off. Twenty dead pirates lay on the deck of the Tartane and of the crew of the Tartane, fourteen had died and thirty were wounded (the number of wounded pirates who made it back to the safety of the corsair was not recorded).
The Tartane limped back into Marseilles where the Magistrates were informed of the action and of the bravery of the lady. They waited on Madame du Frenoy and invited her, in their name, to the theatre where she was received with the loudest acclamations and a crown of laurel placed upon her head by the Marquis de St Christeau.
Madame du Frenoy continued to be rightly lauded for her bravery: Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France, asked for a portrait to be taken of her and, in the June of 1786, the Grand Master of Malta, Fra’ Sir Emmanuel de Rohan-Polduc (1725-1797) sent to her, as a present, a most rich and costly bracelet of rubies as a token of her extraordinary and gallant conduct.
We searched for Madame du Frenoy, but the only person we found was Adélaïde-Gillette Dufrénoy, née Billet. Born in 1765, this lady had married, at the age of only fifteen years, a rich prosecutor, Simon Petit-Dufrénoy. In 1787 she began to write and publish some poetic works and in 1788 put on a play at the theatre. Misfortune followed when her home was burnt to the ground during the French Revolutionary years and her husband became bankrupt: he was offered a badly paid job at Alexandria in Egypt and Adélaïde-Gillette accompanied him there, copying and writing his documents for him when he became blind, but also finding time to compose the elegies for which she is most remembered.
When Simon Petit-Dufrénoy retired the couple returned to France where Adélaïde-Gillette found favour with the Emperor Napoléon. She took to writing erotic poetry (and was very successful in doing so!) and in 1812 sang for the King of Rome. The King was a year old infant, Napoléon François Charles Joseph Bonaparte, the son of Napoléon and his second wife Marie Louise of Austria whom he had married following his divorce from Joséphine de Beauharnais. The following year Adélaïde-Gillette formed one of the escort which travelled with Marie Louise of Austria to Cherbourg for the opening of the harbour on the 27th August 1813.
When the French Empire fell, Adélaïde-Gillette Dufrénoy managed to save her family from ruin by writing children’s books. She died in 1825, aged fifty-nine years. With a true instinct for survival, was Adélaïde-Gillette Dufrénoy the heroic wife who stood over her injured husband wielding her sabre to save his life?
Sussex Advertiser, 26th December 1785.
Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 6th July 1786.