10 Women behind great men
(7/10) Joséphine de Beauharnais (wife of Napoleon I.)
Joséphine de Beauharnais Tascher de la Pagerie; 23 June 1763 – 29 May 1814) was the first wife of Napoleon I, and thus the first Empress of the French. Through her daughter, Hortense, she was the maternal grandmother of Napoléon III. Through her son, Eugène, she was the great-grandmother of later Swedish and Danish kings and queens. The reigning houses of Belgium, Norway and Luxembourg also descend from her.
Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie was born in Les Trois-Îlets, Martinique to a wealthy white Creole family that owned a sugar plantation, which is now a museum. She was the eldest daughter of Joseph-Gaspard Tascher (1735–1790), chevalier, Seigneur de la Pagerie, lieutenant of Troupes de Marine, and his wife, the former Rose-Claire des Vergers de Sannois (1736–1807).
The family struggled financially after hurricanes destroyed their estate in 1766. Edmée (Desirée for the French), Joséphine’s paternal aunt, had been the mistress of François, Vicomte de Beauharnais, a French aristocrat. When François’s health began to fail, Edmée arranged the advantageous marriage of her niece, Catherine-Désirée, to François’s son Alexandre. This marriage would be highly beneficial for the Tascher family, because it would keep the Beauharnais money in their hands; however, 12-year-old Catherine died on 16 October 1777, before leaving Martinique for France. In service to their aunt Edmée’s goals, Catherine was replaced by her older sister, Joséphine.
n October 1779, Joséphine went to France with her father. She married Alexandre on 13 December 1779, in Noisy-le-Grand. They had two children: a son, Eugène de Beauharnais (1781–1824), and a daughter, Hortense de Beauharnais (1783–1837), who married Napoléon’s brother Louis Bonaparte in 1802. Their marriage was not happy, leading to a court-ordered separation during which Josephine and the children lived at Alexandre’s expense in the Pentemont Abbey. On 2 March 1794, during the Reign of Terror, the Comité de Salut public ordered the arrest of her husband. He was jailed in the Carmes prison in Paris. Considering Joséphine as too close to the counter-revolutionary financial circles, the Committee ordered her arrest on 18 April 1794. A warrant of arrest was issued against her on 2 Floréal, year II (April 21, 1794), and she was imprisoned in the Carmes prison until 10 Thermidor, year II (28 July 1794).
Her husband was accused of having poorly defended Mainz in July 1793, and considered an aristocratic “suspect”, was sentenced to death and guillotined, with his cousin Augustin, on 23 July 1794, on the Place de la Révolution (today’s Place de la Concorde) in Paris. Joséphine was freed five days later, thanks to the fall and execution of Robespierre, which ended the Reign of Terror. On 27 July 1794 (9 Thermidor), In June 1795, a new law allowed her to recover the possessions of Alexandre.
Joséphine de Beauharnais had affairs with several leading political figures, including Paul François Jean Nicolas Barras. In 1795, she met Napoléon Bonaparte, six years her junior, and became his mistress. In a letter to her in December, he wrote, “I awake full of you. Your image and the memory of last night’s intoxicating pleasures has left no rest to my senses.” In January 1796, Napoléon Bonaparte proposed to her and they married on 9 March. Until meeting Bonaparte, she was known as Rose, but Bonaparte preferred to call her Joséphine, the name she adopted from then on.
Prominent in Parisian social circles during the 1790s, Joséphine married the young general Napoléon Bonaparte
The marriage was not well received by Napoléon’s family, who were shocked that he had married an older widow with two children. His mother and sisters were especially resentful of Joséphine as they felt clumsy and unsophisticated in her presence. Two days after the wedding, Bonaparte left to lead the French army in Italy. During their separation, he sent her many love letters. In February 1797, he wrote: “You to whom nature has given spirit, sweetness, and beauty, you who alone can move and rule my heart, you who know all too well the absolute empire you exercise over it!”
Joséphine, left behind in Paris, began an affair in 1796 with a handsome Hussar lieutenant, Hippolyte Charles. Rumors of the affair reached Napoléon; he was infuriated, and his love for her changed entirely.
In 1798, Napoléon led a French army to Egypt. During this campaign, Napoléon started an affair of his own with Pauline Fourès, the wife of a junior officer, who became known as “Napoléon’s Cleopatra.” The relationship between Joséphine and Napoléon was never the same after this. His letters became less loving. No subsequent lovers of Joséphine are recorded, but Napoléon had sexual affairs with several other women. In 1804, he said, “Power is my mistress.”
The coronation ceremony, officiated by Pope Pius VII, took place at Notre Dame de Paris, on 2 December 1804. Following a pre-arranged protocol, Napoléon first crowned himself, then put the crown on Joséphine’s head, proclaiming her empress. Shortly before their coronation, there was an incident at the Château de Saint-Cloud that nearly sundered the marriage between the two. Joséphine caught Napoléon in the bedroom of her lady-in-waiting, Élisabeth de Vaudey, and Napoléon threatened to divorce her as she had not produced an heir. Eventually, however, through the efforts of her daughter Hortense, the two were reconciled.
When, after a few years, it became clear she could not have a child, Napoléon while he still loved Joséphine, began to think very seriously about the possibility of divorce. The final die was cast when Joséphine’s grandson Napoléon Charles Bonaparte who had been declared Napoléon’s heir, died of croup in 1807. Napoleon began to create lists of eligible princesses. At dinner on 30 November 1809, he let Joséphine know that—in the interest of France—he must find a wife who could produce an heir. From the next room, Napoléon’s secretary heard the screams.
Joséphine agreed to the divorce so the Emperor could remarry in the hope of having an heir. The divorce ceremony took place on 10 January 1810 and was a grand but solemn social occasion, and each read a statement of devotion to the other. On March 11, Napoléon married Marie-Louise of Austria. Even after their separation, Napoleon insisted Josephine retain the title of empress. “It is my will that she retain the rank and title of empress, and especially that she never doubt my sentiments, and that she ever hold me as her best and dearest friend.”
After the divorce, Joséphine lived at the Château de Malmaison, near Paris. She remained on good terms with Napoléon, who once said that the only thing to come between them was her debts.
Joséphine died of pneumonia in Rueil-Malmaison on 29 May 1814, four days after catching cold during a walk with Tsar Alexander in the gardens of Malmaison. She was buried in the nearby church of Saint Pierre-Saint Paul in Rueil. Her daughter Hortense is interred near her.
Napoleon learned of her death via a French journal while in exile on Elba, and stayed locked in his room for two days, refusing to see anyone. He claimed to a friend, while in exile on Saint Helena, that “I truly loved my Joséphine, but I did not respect her.” Despite his numerous affairs, eventual divorce, and remarriage, the Emperor’s last words on his death bed at St. Helena were: “France, the Army, the Head of the Army, Joséphine.”(“France, l'armée, tête d'armée, Joséphine”).