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Josephine de Beauharnais, Napoleon's First Wife
Josephine de Beauharnais, Napoleon’s First Wife

Joséphine de Beauharnais (1763-1814)- Introduction

Joséphine de Beauharnais (1763-1814): The Remarkable Life of Napoleon’s First Empress

Early Years in Martinique

Born as Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie on June 23, 1763, in Martinique, Joséphine’s family had humble origins as French colonial gentry. Her grandfather, Gaspard Tascher, ventured to Martinique in 1726 in pursuit of prosperity through sugar cane plantations. Unfortunate circumstances, including natural disasters, hampered his success. In 1752, her father, Gaspard-Joseph, secured a role at the court of Louis XV, only to later return to manage the family plantation, Les Trois-Îlets.

Joséphine’s early life was intertwined with the plantation’s beauty, its sugarcane fields, and the enslaved individuals who worked there. She was cared for by an enslaved nurse named Marion, who left a lasting impression. Joséphine’s family included two younger sisters, Catherine-Désirée and Marie-Françoise. In 1773, Joséphine and Catherine-Désirée attended a boarding school in Fort-Royal, where they received a modest education encompassing writing, singing, dancing, and embroidery. Tragedy struck in 1777 when Catherine-Désirée passed away, prompting Joséphine’s return home at the age of 14.

Marriage to Alexandre de Beauharnais

At 16, Joséphine embarked on a new journey by marrying French viscount Alexandre de Beauharnais in 1779. The couple settled in Paris, yet their marriage was marked by turmoil.

Surviving the French Revolution

The tumultuous years of the French Revolution brought challenges to the couple. Alexandre faced imprisonment, and Joséphine’s life was threatened by the guillotine. Her life was spared as the Reign of Terror came to an end.

Marriage to General Napoleon Bonaparte

In March 1796, Joséphine’s life took a momentous turn when she married General Napoleon Bonaparte. This marked the beginning of an extraordinary journey, with Joséphine becoming Empress of the French when Napoleon proclaimed the First French Empire in May 1804.

Legacy and Her Name

Joséphine’s legacy extends beyond her role as Empress. Despite challenges in providing an heir to Napoleon, her descendants from her first marriage left a significant impact on history. Her grandson, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, would rise to power as Napoleon III, ruling over the Second French Empire from 1852 to 1870.

It is important to note that Joséphine went by different names in her lifetime. She was known as Marie-Rose before meeting Napoleon and adopted the name Joséphine Bonaparte after their marriage. While historians during the Bourbon Restoration era referred to her as Joséphine de Beauharnais, today, she is commonly recognized by this name.

Marriage to Alexandre de Beauharnais

Around the late 1770s, François de Beauharnais, a prosperous French naval officer and former governor of Martinique, was on the lookout for a suitable bride for his son, Alexandre. Alexandre de Beauharnais, born in Martinique in 1760, had shared part of his infancy with the Tascher family, as he was considered too young to accompany his parents to France. One of the reasons behind their union was their shared childhood experiences. Furthermore, Alexandre’s mistress happened to be Joséphine’s paternal aunt, adding to the match’s suitability.

The Shift in Betrothal

Initially, the plan was for Alexandre to marry Joséphine’s younger sister, Catherine-Désirée. However, after Catherine-Désirée’s untimely death in 1777, the betrothal transitioned to Joséphine. In October 1779, Joséphine accompanied her father to Paris, where she married Alexandre two months later. This marked the start of an extraordinary tale set against the backdrop of historical events.

Family Beginnings

Upon settling in Paris, the couple welcomed two children. Their son, Eugène de Beauharnais, was born on September 3, 1781, followed by the birth of their daughter, Hortense de Beauharnais, on April 10, 1783.

Surviving the French Revolution

The marriage between Alexandre de Beauharnais and Joséphine encountered considerable difficulties. Alexandre, as an educated gentleman, felt embarrassed by Joséphine’s provincial manners and perceived lack of sophistication. This led to her exclusion from social gatherings, placing a strain on their relationship.

Abuse and Unfaithfulness

Alexandre’s behavior became abusive, characterized by frequent beatings and even the abduction of their child, Eugène, while Joséphine sought refuge from the abuse. He was unfaithful, frequenting brothels and, at times, abandoning his family to be with his mistresses. In 1785, Joséphine managed to secure a separation from her husband, embarking on a new chapter in Paris.

During the Reign of Terror

While Joséphine resided in Paris, events in France took a momentous turn. The French Revolution was in full swing, and Alexandre had been an active supporter of revolutionary ideals. He had served as a deputy of the nobility in the Estates-General of 1789 and had become an officer in the French Revolutionary Army. However, despite Alexandre’s support for the Revolution, his aristocratic background made him a subject of suspicion during the Reign of Terror.

Arrest and Imprisonment

Due to allegations of poor command during the Siege of Mainz, Alexandre was arrested on March 2, 1794. Joséphine valiantly defended her husband, leading to her own arrest on April 22, 1794. She would endure three distressing months as a prisoner during the Reign of Terror, confined to the dim and damp crypt beneath the Church of Saint-Joseph-des-Carmes.

Life in Captivity

Joséphine’s imprisonment was marked by deplorable conditions. The underground cells were poorly ventilated with no restroom facilities. Inmates lived in constant fear of the guillotine, with limited access to water. In addition, the sounds of intimate encounters between inmates and guards filled the hallways.

Alexandre’s Fate

Tragically, Alexandre de Beauharnais met the guillotine on July 23, 1794, just four days before the fall of Maximilien Robespierre, which brought the Reign of Terror to an end. Joséphine was subsequently released from prison, narrowly escaping the same fate. If the Reign of Terror had continued for a few more weeks, her life might have met a different end.

Rebuilding Her Life

Following her release, Joséphine adopted a promiscuous lifestyle, seeking solace through affairs with influential figures in French society. She immersed herself in luxury and fashion. This phase can be understood, in part, as an expression of post-traumatic stress, a desire to find protectors among France’s most influential men.

Affairs and Encounters

Joséphine’s journey led her into an affair with General Lazare Hoche, who chose not to leave his wife for her. Subsequently, she entered a relationship with Paul Barras, a prominent figure in the French Directory. Her liaison with Barras continued during the summer of 1795.

Introduction to Napoleon Bonaparte

Paul Barras, known for his numerous affairs, introduced Joséphine to the rising star, General Napoleon Bonaparte. This encounter marked the commencement of an extraordinary chapter in her life.

Marriage to Napoleon Bonaparte- An Unlikely Pair

Joséphine and Napoleon’s first encounter was a curious blend of strategic intent and genuine affection. In their initial meeting, Napoleon was 26, and Joséphine was 32. Joséphine was renowned for her beauty and charm, but she was also meticulous in her grooming, often flashing a closed-lip smile to hide the stains on her teeth, possibly caused by her childhood habit of chewing sugar cane. Their first interaction didn’t leave a significant impression on Joséphine. Still, she had substantial debts and could see the advantages of marrying Napoleon, who had recently been named the commander of the Army of Italy.

Napoleon’s Attraction and Early Affection

Napoleon’s attraction to Joséphine was not merely for strategic purposes. He seemed genuinely smitten by her. Just two months after their first encounter, he initiated a flurry of romantic correspondence. He began calling her ‘Joséphine,’ a name that would remain with her throughout her life. On March 9, 1796, the couple had a civil ceremony in which the bride wore a tricolor revolutionary sash over her muslin dress. Two days later, Napoleon left Paris to take command of the Army of Italy.

A Romantic Connection Amidst War

Napoleon’s Italian campaign, waged from 1796 to 1797, was a resounding success, catapulting the young general into the limelight and solidifying his reputation as a military genius. During this campaign, he kept a portrait of Joséphine, which he kissed habitually and proudly exhibited to his officers, believing it brought him luck. He wrote passionate letters to Joséphine almost daily, expressing his feelings with a touch of melodrama: “The thought of you has taken precedence of all else in my soul…beautiful you are, gracious; a sweet, a celestial soul expresses itself in heavenly tints on your face.” However, Joséphine’s responses were sparse and lacked the same ardor.

Infidelity Challenges Their Relationship

In 1798, while Napoleon was on his Campaign in Egypt and Syria, he discovered Joséphine’s affair with a young and handsome hussar lieutenant, Hippolyte Charles. Enraged, he initiated an affair of his own with Pauline Fourès, who became known as ‘Napoleon’s Cleopatra.’ When Napoleon returned to Paris in October 1799, the couple confronted each other about their infidelities, leading to a dramatic confrontation in the street. They reached the brink of separation, with Napoleon even packing his bags. However, the intervention of Joséphine’s children prevented his departure, and the couple managed to reconcile.

Rise to Empress of the French

In November 1799, Napoleon staged the Coup of 18 Brumaire, seizing control of the French government. Four years later, he proclaimed himself Emperor of the French and crowned Joséphine as Empress of the French during a ceremony at Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral on December 2, 1804. In March 1805, Napoleon added King of Italy to his ever-expanding list of titles, bestowing upon Joséphine the title of Queen of Italy.

Notably, Joséphine’s children from her first marriage were also promoted to significant positions within the new French Empire. Eugène de Beauharnais was appointed Viceroy of the Kingdom of Italy in 1805, often entrusted with crucial commands during the Napoleonic Wars. Hortense de Beauharnais married Napoleon’s brother, Louis Bonaparte, in 1802, becoming a queen in 1806 when Napoleon granted Louis the Kingdom of Holland. Hortense and Louis had three children, including the future French Emperor Napoleon III, making him both Joséphine’s grandson and Napoleon’s nephew.

Joséphine’s Contribution to Art and Elegance

While Napoleon was busy expanding his empire, Joséphine remained in Paris, where she became one of the most fashionable and sophisticated women of her time. She played a significant role in promoting the neoclassical ‘Empire style’ of design that influenced furniture and architecture during the Napoleonic era. She encouraged the revival of opulent styles reminiscent of the days of Louis XIV of France and brought out lavish tapestries and bronzes from storage to adorn the Tuileries Palace. She hosted lavish dinners for 200 guests every ten days at the Tuileries, reinstating pre-revolutionary court etiquette.

Her personal residence, the Château de Malmaison, was decorated with Pompeian frescoes and filled with neoclassical artwork. The estate spanned 300 acres of gardens and woods, even housing a menagerie of exotic animals, including kangaroos and emus. Joséphine was a significant patron of the arts, commissioning works from renowned artists such as Jacques-Louis David, François Gérard, and Antoine-Jean Gros. She also engaged the Italian sculptor Antonio Canova to create four significant artworks, including the ‘Three Graces,’ a neoclassical statue depicting the three Charites, embodying youth, mirth, and elegance.

However, Joséphine’s opulent lifestyle came at a substantial cost, resulting in expenses rivaling those of Marie Antoinette.

Annulment and Passing

By 1809, Joséphine had been unable to provide Napoleon with a child, which placed a significant strain on their marriage. Napoleon believed that an heir was necessary to secure the dynasty’s future, but after 13 years of trying, it became evident that the 46-year-old Joséphine was unlikely to bear any more children. On November 30, 1809, Napoleon informed Joséphine over dinner that he had made the challenging decision to annul their marriage.

He explained, “You have children. I have none. You must feel the necessity that lies upon me of strengthening my dynasty.” Joséphine was devastated and burst into tears, begging him to reconsider. The annulment was formalized on December 16, and on January 10, 1810, they held a divorce ceremony, during which each party read a statement of devotion to the other.

Napoleon allowed Joséphine to retain the title of ’empress’ and granted her ownership of the Château de Malmaison, where she resided from that point onward. He also bestowed upon her the title of Duchess of Navarre. Meanwhile, Napoleon entered into a proxy marriage with Marie Louise of Austria, the daughter of the Austrian emperor, on March 11, 1810. A year later, Marie Louise gave birth to a son, Napoleon II, who was styled as the King of Rome. Throughout all these developments, Napoleon and Joséphine maintained an amicable relationship. Some even claimed that they remained in love, although the depth of their feelings is difficult to ascertain.


In April 1814, following his defeat in the War of the Sixth Coalition, Napoleon was compelled to abdicate his throne. He was exiled to the island of Elba, while Louis XVIII of France, a Bourbon monarch, assumed the throne. Joséphine continued to live extravagantly at Malmaison, hosting elaborate dinners and grand balls. After one such event, she ventured out for a walk in the cold night air with Tsar Alexander I of Russia, who assured her of his protection. Unfortunately, Joséphine contracted pneumonia and passed away five days later, on May 29, 1814, at the age of 50. Upon hearing the news of her death, Napoleon reportedly remarked, “Ah! She is happy now.”

Although Joséphine was no longer the Empress of the French at the time of her death, several of her descendants achieved prominence in European royalty. Her most famous descendant was her grandson through Hortense, Napoleon III, who ruled during the Second French Empire (1852-1870).

One of Eugène’s daughters, Amélie of Leuchtenberg, became the Empress of Brazil upon her marriage to Pedro I of Brazil in 1829. Another of Eugène’s daughters, also named Joséphine, married King Oscar I of Sweden, making Joséphine the direct ancestor of the present heads of the royal houses of Sweden, Norway, Belgium, and Denmark. Several of Joséphine’s jewels continue to be worn by contemporary royalty. Her story remains captivating and has been portrayed in various films and television productions.

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