Empress Joséphine de Beauharnais was Napoleon’s first wife and the first Empress of the French. During the Reign of Terror, Joséphine’s first husband had been guillotined. Due to not bearing any children for Napoleon, he divorced her in 1810 after fourteen years of marriage so he could marry Marie Louise of Austria.
On June 23, 1763, Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie was born in Les Trois-Îlets, Martinique to Joseph Gaspard Tascher and Rose-Claire des vergers de Sannois. Her family was very wealthy and owned a sugarcane plantation. However, they began to struggle financially when their plantation was destroyed by hurricanes in 1766. When Joséphine’s aunt arranged a marriage between her sister and François, Vicomte de Beauharnais’s son, the family would regain their wealth, but Catherine-Désirée, her sister, died before leaving Martinique. So instead, Joséphine took her sister’s place.
In October of 1779, Joséphine and her father left for France. On December 15, 1779, she married Alexandre de Beauharnais in Noisy-le-Grand. In 1881, their first son, Eugéne de Beauharnais, was born and in 1783, their daughter Hortense de Beauharnais. Hortense later went on to marry Napoleon’s brother in 1802. However, the marriage between Joséphine and Alexandre was very unhappy. This led to a separation ordered by the court and the children lived with their father in the Pentemont Abbey.
Alexandre’s arrest was ordered on March 2, 1794 by the Committee of Public Safety during the Reign of Terror. He was imprisoned in Paris and was guillotined on July 23, 1794. Joséphine was also put in jail on April 18, 1794, but was released on July 28.
Joséphine had many affairs during her lifetime with various political figures in France, one of them being Paul François Jean Nicolas Barras. She met Napoléon Bonaparte in 1795, who was six years her junior and twenty-six years old. When they first met, she was his mistress and he wrote many love letters to her.
Napoléon proposed in January of 1796 and the two wed on March 9. While Joséphine had been known as Rose before, he preferred Joséphine, which was from then on the name she used. The groom’s family did not react well to the marriage, especially since Joséphine was older and a widow with two children. He left two days after the wedding to lead the French army in Italy and wrote many more love letters to her while they were separated. “You to whom nature has given spirit, sweetness, and beauty, you alone can move and rule my heart, you who know all too well the absolute empire you exercise over it!” he wrote in February of 1797.
While Napoléon was off in Italy, Joséphine also was having an affair with Hippolyte Charles, a handsome hussar lieutenant. Eventually the news of the affair reacher her husband, who was furious. From then on, he did not love her the same as before. In fact, he began his own affair when leading the French army in Egypt in 1798 with Pauline Fourès, a junior officer’s wife. She became known as “Napolépn’s Cleopatra”. This only further ruined the relationship between Napoléon and his wife, his letters much less loving than they had been before. Napoléon continued to have many affairs throughout their marriage, but there were no more recorded of Joséphine’s.
During his time in Egypt in 1799, Joséphine bought the Château de Malmaison and had it landscaped to resemble the English style with landscapers from Britain. Soon after she purchased it, Andre Dupont was inspired by his love of roses and began a rose garden. Joséphine was personally interested in the roses and gardens, and her staff taught her much about botany and horticulture. In fact, she became so fascinated with roses, that she wanted to collect all known types. So, Napoléon ordered for his warship commanders to search all vessels they had seized for plants that could be given to his wife for Malmaison. During her lifetime, she had about 197-200 types of roses at her home. This earned her the nickname of the “Godmother of modern rosomanicas”. The garden she took such pride in was destroyed many years after her death in 1870.
Joséphine almost died in the Plot of the rue Saint-Nicaise when a bomb was planted in one of her husband’s parked carts. They had gone to the Opera to see Joseph Haydn’s Creation on December 24, 1800 with many friends and family members. She was in the second carriage along with her daughter and a few others. Since she had taken awhile to correctly drape her new silk shawl, Napoléon went ahead in his carriage and theirs was delayed. As the carriage passed, the bomb went off and many bystanders were killed and one of the carriage windows. Hortense was the only one to be injured when flying glass struck her hand.
On December 2, 1804, Pope Pius VII officiated Napoléon and Joséphine’s coronation ceremony as Emperor and Empress of the French at Notre Dame de Paris. First, Napoléon crowned himself before proclaiming his wife his empress when he crowned her. Shortly before the ceremony though, their marriage had nearly ended when Joséphine caught him in the bedroom with Élisabeth de Vaudey, her lady-in-waiting. Napoléon first threatened to divorce her then because she had yet to produce him an heir.
Joséphine was described as being very tall, her chestnut-brown hair silky and long, and her eyes the color of hazel. Her nose was small and straight and she had a well-formed mouth that was often kept closed due to her bad teeth. Many praised her for her elegance and style along with her beautiful voice described as low and “silvery”.
A few more years passed and it had become clear by that point that Joséphine would not be bearing any more children and producing an heir for Napoléon. He began to seriously think about divorcing her for this. In 1807, to further worsen the situation for Napoléon, his heir and Joséphine’s grandson, Napoléon Charles Bonaparte, died of croup. From there, he began to create lists of princesses he could possibly marry. And on November 30, 1809, Joséphine was eating dinner with her husband when he told her that he would divorce her and marry someone who could give him an heir.
Joséphine agreed and the divorce ceremony took place on January 10, 1810. The ceremony was solemn yet very grand and both Joséphine and Napoléon read each other a statement of devotion. Even after, Napoléon insisted that she keep her title, saying “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.”
Just two months after the divorce, Napoléon married Marie-Louise of Austria on March 11. She gave birth to a son on March 20, 1811 named Napoléon François Joseph Charles Bonaparte.
After the divorce, Joséphine lived near Paris at the Château de Malmaison and she and Napoléon remained on good terms. He arranged for her to meet his son two years after he was born in 1813. Napoléon II once said regarding his father’s first wife, “If Joséphine had been my mother, my father would not have been buried at Saint Helena and I should not be at Vienna. My mother is kind but weak; she was not the wife my father deserved.”
On May 29, 1814, Joséphine died in Rueil-Malmaison at the age of fifty. Not long before, she had walked through the gardens of Malmaison with Tsar Alexander of Russia. Joséphine was buried nearby in Rueil at the church of Saint Pierre-Saint Paul. Later on, her daughter Hortense was interred near her.
Napoléon was in exile in Elba when he learned of his first wife’s death. upon hearing the news, he would not leave his locked room for two days and refused to see anyone. “I truly loved my Joséphine, but I did not respect her,” he said in Saint Helena later on to a friend. He died in Saint Helena on May 5, 1821 and his last words were, “France, the Army, the Head of the Army, Joséphine.”