French empress, who married the rising young general Napoleon Bonaparte and became the center of his personal life during the era in which he dominated European history. Name variations: Joséphine Beauharnais; Josephine de Beauharnais; Vicomtesse de Beauharnais; called Yeyette, Marie-Rose, or Rose by her family. Born Marie-Josèphe-Rose Tascher de la Pagerie on her family's sugar plantation on the French Caribbean island of Martinique on June 23, 1763; died at her home at the château of Malmaison outside Paris on May 29, 1814, of diphtheria; daughter of Joseph-Gaspard Tascher de la Pagerie and Rose-Claire des Vergers de Sannois Tascher de la Pagerie; attended convent school in Fort-Royal on Martinique, 1773–77; married Alexandre-François-Marie, vicomte de Beauharnais, in 1779; married Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821), emperor of France (r. 1804–1815), in 1796; children: (first marriage) Eugène-Rose de Beauharnais (b. 1781, who marriedAmalie Auguste [1788–1851]); Hortense de Beauharnais (1783–1837).
Sailed to France for an arranged marriage (1779); left husband and took up residence in convent (1783); legally separated from husband (1785); returned permanently to France after final visit to Martinique (1790); arrested, then released during the Terror, became mistress to French revolutionary leader, Paul Barras (1794); married Napoleon and started love affairwith Captain Hippolyte Charles (1796); Napoleon, campaigning in Egypt, learned of her marital infidelity; Napoleon took dictatorial power upon his return to France (1799); became empress when Napoleon became emperor (1804); Napoleon began love affair with Polish noblewoman Maria Walewska (1807); illegitimate child born to Napoleon and Maria; divorced by Napoleon who then married Princess Marie Louise of Austria (1810); received final letter from Napoleon; had friendship with Tsar Alexander I of Russia (1814).
The quarter century following the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 carried millions of Europeans in new and completely unexpected directions. Aristocrats at the top of the social ladder found themselves displaced, impoverished, and often put into deadly peril. Individuals from obscure backgrounds rose to positions of sweeping power and authority. At the same time, the course of war and politics brought countless individuals together in unanticipated personal relationships and often tore them apart. The young daughter of a creole family in Martinique who became the Empress Josephine in 1804 was at the center of such developments. Her life vividly illustrates the personal dimensions of the violent twists and turns in European history over this era.
The Revolution that broke out in France in 1789 began by limiting the power of the French monarchy and ending the privileges of the aristocracy. But the Revolution did not lead to a new period of stability. As social, religious, and political divisions widened at home, and as France began to threaten and to feel threatened by its conservative neighbors like Spain, Austria, and Prussia, the Revolution grew increasingly radical and violent. This culminated in the Reign of Terror in 1793 and 1794, in which leaders of the radical Jacobin Party executed tens of thousands of French men and women, many of them members of the French aristocracy.
The Terror was followed by a period of domestic relaxation under the Directory, a corrupt government that came to depend increasingly on the power of the army. In 1799, after establishing a spectacular military reputation during campaigns in Italy and Egypt, the young general Napoleon Bonaparte pushed the leaders of the Directory aside to become dictator of France. In 1804, in a glittering ceremony at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, he crowned himself emperor, then placed the crown of empress on the head of his wife, Josephine.
Starting in 1805, Napoleon engaged in almost constant warfare against the other powers of Europe. His campaigns in Central and Eastern Europe produced a series of dazzling military victories. While Josephine languished in Paris, her husband made himself master of much of the Continent. He expanded French territory, established a string of satellite states, and even exerted significant influence over independent countries such as the Austrian Empire and Russia. Nonetheless, the whole structure remained rickety. It was dependent on the continuing success of Napoleon's military forces, which were themselves increasingly comprised of non-French troops. Moreover, without a legitimate heir and faced with the threat of his own death either in battle or at the hands of assassins, Napoleon had no assurance that his empire would outlive him. His divorce from Josephine followed 14 years of marriage in which she had not been able to provide the child he required for political purposes.
The great love of Napoleon's life was born to a family of French sugar planters on the island of Martinique on June 23, 1763. She was the eldest of three daughters of Joseph-Gaspard Tascher de la Pagerie, whose father had come to Martinique in 1726 to make his fortune. The Tascher family were thus "creoles," French who settled in the Caribbean island possessions of their country but who retained close ties to their homeland. The family did not prosper as some sugar planters were able to do, and Joseph-Gaspard, Josephine's father, obtained his own plantation, Trois Islets, through his fortunate marriage to Rose-Claire des Vergers de Sannois , the daughter of a more successful clan. The future empress, who adopted the name Josephine at Napoleon's request early in their marriage, was born on this modest family plantation and spent her childhood there. She was the oldest of three daughters. A hurricane destroyed the family home when she was three, and her indolent father chose not to rebuild but instead expanded the plantation's sugar mill into a residence. In her years as empress, Josephine repeated a colorful story from her girlhood. An elderly black woman
on this Caribbean island supposedly told the young planter's daughter she would have an unhappy marriage, experience life as a widow, but one day she would be "more than a queen."
Josephine's marriage to a young French aristocrat resulted from a longstanding romantic liaison conducted between her father's sister Désirée Tascher de la Pagerie and the governor of Martinique, François de Beauharnais. Although both of them were married to other parties, Désirée followed her lover back to France where their relationship continued. To strengthen her tie with the Beauharnais family, Désirée promoted a marriage between her lover's son, Alexandre de Beauharnais, and one of the three Tascher girls. Josephine's younger sister Catherine was the first choice to become Alexandre's bride, but Catherine's death from tuberculosis gave that role to Josephine.
The future empress left Martinique for the first time in 1779 at the age of 16. Her marriage soon turned into a calamity. Her husband found the young creole girl uncouth and unattractive. He deliberately spent long periods away from her, ostensibly to fulfill his duties as an officer in the French army, but in fact to pursue his own romantic agenda with other women. The birth of a son, Eugène de Beauharnais, in 1781, did nothing to bring the couple together. The birth of a daughter, Hortense de Beauharnais , in 1783, actually worsened the marriage. During this second pregnancy, Alexandre left, accompanied by his mistress, to campaign against the British in the Caribbean. There, he became convinced that he could not be the father of Hortense, the child Josephine delivered during his long absence; he also claimed to have discovered evidence of her promiscuous conduct in Martinique prior to their marriage. His return to France was followed by the collapse of their relationship.
She was a woman in every sense of the word, vivid, vivacious, and so tender-hearted.
The terms of the legal separation were worked out between 1783 and 1785. In November 1784, Josephine took up residence in the convent of Penthémont. Her stay there, which lasted until September 1785, helped make her into a confident and attractive woman. Writes Evangeline Bruce , Penthémont was less a convent than "an elegant retreat with separate apartments and communal parlors" for aristocratic women in awkward family situations. Her fellow residents offered her examples of cultivated speech, manners, and poise, all of which she embraced with enthusiastic success. She had always been favored with beautiful chestnut hair, large hazel eyes, and a sweet nature, and French men were intrigued by her creole drawl. Now she learned to carry herself with grace and elegance. Her one great physical flaw, bad teeth that grew worse as she became older, she hid behind a small, mysterious smile.
During the final years before the Revolution, Alexandre de Beauharnais entered circles of liberal reformers, while Josephine lived on a modest annual allowance from her estranged husband. The personal details of her life are uncertain, but she may have become romantically involved with several prominent nobles. Josephine's detractors, ranging from a Beauharnais' mistress in 1782 to political enemies of Napoleon during his reign and after his fall, spread rumors of her promiscuity, which had allegedly started in her girlhood years in Martinique.
Josephine returned to her birthplace in 1788 and the outbreak of Revolution in France in 1789 soon affected this distant tropical island. In the summer of 1790, Martinique witnessed growing unrest that combined a slave rebellion and a mutiny of the military garrison. Under cannon fire from the insurgents, Josephine and her young daughter Hortense fled the island's capital of Fort-Royal and returned to France.
Between 1790 and 1794, as the Revolution grew more violent, Alexandre de Beauharnais in the role of liberal reformer rose to prominence as a political and military figure, then fell victim to more radical leaders. In March 1794, he was arrested and imprisoned. Josephine had no interest in the politics of the time, but she realized the danger of being identified as an aristocrat. She ceased to refer to herself as the Vicomtesse de Beauharnais, preferring the politically safer name of Citizeness Beauharnais. In her contacts with political authorities, she described herself as "an American," with a "republican household." It did no good. She was the victim of an anonymous denunciation and, in April 1794, joined her husband in the infamous Carmes prison.
Alexandre de Beauharnais went to the guillotine in July 1794. Though the Terror was close to its conclusion with the imminent fall of the radical leader Robespierre and his colleagues on the Committee of Public Safety, Josephine remained in peril. She allegedly survived these final dangerous days due to the favor of a minor employee of the Committee, Delperch de la Bussière, who destroyed the documents pertaining to her case and thus delayed her trial. In 1803, she made a monetary payment to him, explaining it was "in grateful remembrance."
As France relaxed from the era of the Terror, there followed an era of government corruption and open sexual indulgence. Josephine became the mistress of Paul Barras, a former revolutionary leader who had played a prominent role in toppling Robespierre. Meanwhile, the danger of popular unrest remained, and the rising young general Napoleon heightened his reputation and solidified his political contacts by putting down a popular uprising in Paris in October 1795. Later that month, now in a top military position in Paris at the headquarters of the Army of the Interior, Napoleon met his future wife.
The two probably first encountered each other at the home of Barras, but some biographers accept a more romantic version of their first meeting. In this tale, Josephine's son Eugène visited military headquarters in Paris to request permission to keep his deceased father's sword following an order for unauthorized weapons to be handed over to the government. Napoleon granted the teenager this favor; Josephine called on the young general to express her thanks.
The often stormy relationship between the attractive aristocrat, then 31 years of age, and the military hero six years her junior, began in the winter of 1795–96. In its first several years, it was marked by Napoleon's passionate desire for Josephine and her measured response to his devotion. Within four months after their first meeting, the two were married. In the face of objections from Josephine's children and her own cool response to his enthusiastic courtship, Napoleon's enthusiasm carried the day. Most biographers discount the idea that Napoleon had ulterior motives. It was a love match for him, not a desire for marriage to an aristocrat, an effort of currying favor with Barras by relieving him of a now unwanted mistress, nor an attempt to marry someone of financial means.
The marriage ceremony took place in a shabby local official's office in central Paris. Both bride and groom lacked the proper documents, and, in drafting new ones, they fibbed about their ages. Napoleon added a few years, Josephine subtracted a few years, and both claimed to be 28. In less than two days after the wedding, however, Napoleon left to take command of the Army of Italy and to start the string of military successes that opened the way to political power. Away on campaign, he wrote her twice a day—his habit of addressing her as "Josephine" dates from this period—but found her less than eager to reply. She was even less inclined to join him in Italy. In her husband's absence, Josephine began an extended love affair with a handsome and cultivated young army officer, Hippolyte Charles. She also dabbled in shady financial transactions, using her contacts to help military suppliers gain lucrative contracts.
Napoleon completed his victorious campaigns in Italy and left in May 1798 to seek new laurels in Egypt. By then, strains in the marriage were developing. Josephine and the Bonaparte clan were at odds. Napoleon's mother, Letizia Bonaparte , polite to Josephine in public, privately referred to the older, somewhat disreputable woman her son had married as "the whore." Other members of the family were openly hostile toward her. She spoke of them, in return, as "those monsters." Meanwhile, Napoleon was growing increasingly disappointed at Josephine's failure to get pregnant; and he was jolted by the way she ran up debts. Throughout her adult life, from her marriage to Beauharnais to her death, Josephine lived extravagantly whether or not she had the income to match her expenses. Her most important purchase came in April 1799: the château of Malmaison outside Paris, which she transformed into her favorite residence.
Later that year, when Napoleon returned from Egypt in October 1799, Josephine found her marriage in peril, and their relationship entered a new phase. During the Italian campaign, Napoleon had first expressed jealousy about her tie to Hippolyte Charles. Campaigning in Egypt, however, he had received further and convincing word of her infidelity. Consumed with outrage, the young general had taken a mistress, the wife of one of his subordinates in Egypt. Now, Josephine persuaded him to continue their marriage, but, as Theo Aronson notes, "From this point on, their roles were reversed. Josephine was to become the wooer, and Napoleon the wooed; she the faithful one and he the philanderer."
In November 1799, Napoleon took dictatorial power in a coup backed by the army. In the view of Ernest John Clapton, one of Josephine's biographers, it was "a classic example of how a determined minority, backed by the bayonets of obedient soldiers, can overthrow a spineless regime." In the tense weeks leading up to the coup, Josephine was vaguely aware that momentous events were in progress. She played a small role in aiding her husband, attempting unsuccessfully to cajole Louis Gohier, a member of the Directory, in visiting her on the day of the coup. Gohier refused the invitation and thus avoided falling into the hands of Napoleon's soldiers.
Between in 1799 and 1804, Josephine went from being the wife of the nation's dictator—Napoleon took the successive titles of First Consul and Consul for Life—to becoming France's empress. Resolutely unpolitical, she played the role of gracious host in public and devoted spouse in private. She indulged herself in purchases of clothes and jewelry, and began to create a renowned art collection as well as a garden at Malmaison, featuring exotic plants from throughout the world. Nonetheless, political events intruded. As the dictator's consort, she was deluged with requests from aristocrats who had fled France in earlier years and now wished her help in returning. She responded generously. More ominously, she faced the threat of assassination as she accompanied her husband at public appearances. On Christmas Eve of 1800, her coach was nearly destroyed by a bomb intended to kill the imperial couple on their way to the opera.
Josephine's continuing inability to produce an heir gave her enemies in the Bonaparte family a sharp weapon to use against her. Meanwhile, Napoleon began to indulge himself with mistresses both at home and while on his military campaigns. In 1804, Napoleon's decision to be crowned emperor with Josephine as his empress was a sign he was willing to continue their marriage. In a dramatic and lavish ceremony at the Cathedral of Notre Dame with Pope Pius VII in attendance, the two received their crowns on December 2. Josephine used the occasion to secure her position further by informing the pope that she and Napoleon had been married only in a civil ceremony. The leader of the Catholic Church thereupon informed Napoleon that he would not preside over the coronation unless it was preceded by a marriage within the church. Napoleon agreed, and the religious ceremony took place on the afternoon of December 1, the day before the coronation.
In 1805, Napoleon began a series of military campaigns that lasted until his fall from power in 1814. Away from Josephine for long intervals, he continued to indulge himself in a series of sexual liaisons. In 1807, following his victory over the Prussians at Jena and his advance into Poland, he began a passionate and extended affair with Maria Walewska , an 18-year-old Polish noblewoman.
The vivacious and still attractive empress found her life darkening. Her beloved grandson and Hortense's eldest son, Napoleon Charles, died suddenly at the age of four and a half. Her requests to join Napoleon in Poland brought firm rejections. "The weather is too bad, the roads are unsure and atrocious, the distances are too great for me to permit you to come here," he wrote. Rumors swirled that the emperor would divorce her: Joseph Fouché, the minister of police, told her bluntly, "The political future of France is compromised by the want of an heir for the emperor." Meanwhile, Josephine occupied herself with the redecorating of Malmaison. There she established a vast collection of flowers and plants as well as a famous gallery of paintings.
The imperial marriage came to end in 1809. During the previous year, Napoleon had begun to contact the ruling houses of Europe to arrange for a suitable bride. His twin goals were to obtain a son and heir and to strengthen his ties with one or another of the great powers of Europe. He began to negotiate with Tsar Alexander I of Russia for the hand of his young sister, Grand Duchess Anna Pavlovna , while making approaches to the Habsburg dynasty for Princess Marie Louise of Austria (1791–1847). Two events in late 1809 brought things to a head. In the fall, Napoleon was nearly assassinated in Vienna, and his generals urged him to consider the consequences if he died without a generally accepted heir to inherit his throne. Meanwhile, Napoleon received word that Maria Walewska was pregnant, convincing him that Josephine's childlessness was due to her physical problems rather than his own.
In a brief dinner meeting in Paris on November 30, Napoleon informed Josephine that political factors dictated that their marriage must end. He set his lawyers to work to dissolve their civil marriage and to find cause to annul their religious marriage as well. Both tasks were completed by January 1810. Josephine kept her title of empress-queen, the château at Malmaison, and a generous annual allowance. On March 11, 1810, a ceremony at Vienna attended by Princess Marie Louise and a proxy for Napoleon united the emperor of France and the Habsburg princess in marriage. That same day, Napoleon bestowed a new estate on Josephine and made it clear that she was expected to leave Malmaison for this more remote locale, 60 miles away from Paris.
In the years following, Napoleon and Josephine kept in contact through occasional letters and infrequent visits. The great French empire Napoleon had created began to collapse after his defeat in Russia in 1812. By the spring of 1814, Austrian, Prussian, and Russian armies had pushed into eastern France and occupied Paris. Before leaving for exile on the small island of Elba off the Italian coast, Napoleon told several of his associates that Josephine had provided the greatest happiness in his life, and she remained in his thoughts.
Josephine retired to Malmaison to guard her treasured château. There, in early April 1814, she received a last letter from Napoleon. By that time, she was receiving warm messages from Napoleon's conquerors including Tsar Alexander I. They may have had political motives, since she remained a respected figure among the French population. Possibly, they also wanted to encounter her legendary charm face to face.
This final stage in her adventurous life came to a rapid conclusion. Josephine contracted a chill in late May; it turned into a dangerous inflammation of the trachea. She died on May 29, 1814, probably from diphtheria. Some biographers believe her death was hastened by a cancer on her larynx. She died only a few weeks before her 51st birthday.
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Cole, Hubert. Joséphine. NY: Viking Press, 1962.
Cronin, Vincent. Napoleon: An Intimate Biography. NY: Morrow, 1972.
Herold, J. Christopher. Age of Napoleon. NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1986.
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Stacton, David. The Bonapartes. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1966.
Napoleon (various versions range in time from 270 minutes to five hours), directed by Abel Gance and released in 1928, restored by Kevin Brownlow and rereleased with musical score in 1981.