Joséphine de Beauharnais
18 May 1804 – 10 January 1810
2 December 1804
26 May 1805 – 10 January 1810
Alexandre de Beauharnais
Eugène de Beauharnais
Hortense de Beauharnais
Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie
Tascher de la Pagerie
House of Beauharnais
House of Bonaparte
Joseph Gaspard Tascher de La Pagerie
Rose Claire des Vergers de Sannois
23 June 1763
Les Trois-Îlets, Martinique
29 May 1814 (aged 50)
Joséphine de Beauharnais (23 June 1763 – 29 May 1814) was the first wife of Napoléon Bonaparte, and thus the first Empress of the French. Her first husband Alexandre de Beauharnais had been guillotined during the Reign of Terror, and she had been imprisoned in the Carmes prison until her release five days after Alexandre's execution.
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, as well as the last Queen of Greece. The current reigning houses of Belgium, Norway and Luxembourg also descend from her.
She did not bear Napoleon any children; who as a result divorced her in 1810 to marry Marie Louise of Austria.
Joséphine was the recipient of numerous love letters written by Napoleon, many of which still exist.
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. She was a 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), whose maternal grandfather, Anthony Brown, was Irish.
The family struggled financially after hurricanes destroyed their estate in 1766. Edmée, 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, twelve-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.
In October 1779, Joséphine went to France with her father. She married Alexandre on 13 December 1779, in Noisy-le-Grand. Although their marriage was not happy, 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.
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 19 April 1794. A warrant of arrest was issued against her on 2 Floréal, year II (21 April 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), Tallien arranged the liberation of Thérèse Cabarrus, and soon after that of Joséphine.
In June 1795, a new law allowed her to recover the possessions of Alexandre.
Portrait of the Empress Joséphine, by François Gérard
Joséphine de Beauharnais, now a widow, became the mistress of several leading political figures, including Paul François Jean Nicolas Barras. In 1795, she met General 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." Joséphine was a renowned spendthrift and Barras may have encouraged the relationship with Général Bonaparte in order to get her off his hands.
Joséphine was described as being of average height, svelte, shapely, with silky, chestnut-brown hair, hazel eyes, and a rather sallow complexion. Her nose was small and straight, and her mouth was well-formed; however she kept it closed most of the time so as not to reveal her bad teeth. She was praised for her elegance, style, and low, "silvery", beautifully-modulated voice.
Prominent in Parisian social circles during the 1790s, Joséphine married the young general
Napoleon Bonaparte. The couple divorced in 1809 despite Joséphine’s popularity as empress.
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. Two days after the wedding, Bonaparte left to lead the French army in Italy, and during their separation, 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!” Many of his letters are still intact today, while very few of hers have been found; it is not known whether this is due to their having been lost or to their initial scarcity.
In the meantime, Joséphine, left behind in Paris, began an affair in 1796 with a handsome Hussar lieutenant, Hippolyte Charles. The rumours that reached Bonaparte so infuriated him that his love for her changed entirely.
During the Egyptian campaign of 1798, Napoléon Bonaparte started an affair of his own with Pauline Bellisle Foures, the wife of a junior officer who became known as "Napoleon'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 continued to have sexual affairs with other women. In 1804, he said, "Power is my mistress."
Joséphine kneels before Napoléon during his coronation at Notre Dame.
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, Elisabeth 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.
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.
When, after a few years, it became clear she could not have a child, Joséphine agreed to a divorce so the Emperor could remarry in the hope of having an heir. The divorce took place on 10 January 1810. On 11 March, Napoléon married Marie-Louise of Austria by proxy; the formal ceremony took place at the Louvre on 1 April. Napoléon once remarked after marrying Marie-Louise that "he had married a womb."
Later life and death
Divorce letter to Napoléon
Statue of Joséphine in the park of Bois-Préau castle, part of the Malmaison estate.
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, four days after catching cold during a walk with Czar 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.
Napoléon 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."
Hortense's son became Napoléon III, Emperor of the French. Eugène's daughter Joséphine, married King Oscar I of Sweden, the son of Napoléon's one-time fiancée, Désirée Clary. Through her, Joséphine is a direct ancestor of the present heads of the royal houses of Belgium, Denmark, Greece, Luxembourg, Norway and Sweden.
The Viscountess of Beauharnais
Her Imperial Majesty The Empress of the French
Her Imperial Highness Empress Joséphine, Duchess of Navarre