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Who Was Joséphine Bonaparte?

Delving into the life of the French empress.

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  • 1801 portrait of Josephine Bonaparte.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

If you’re like me, you probably enjoyed Ridley Scott’s new film Napoleon. But if you’re like me…we all know who’s the real star of the show: Joséphine.

Not that Napoleon isn’t interesting—he’s fascinated historians and war strategists for centuries, so that almost goes without saying, but when Joséphine came on screen, I knew right away I wouldn’t get enough of her. From her subversive fashion sense to her wry sense of humor, I needed to know, who was Joséphine? Here, I’m going to hit some of the most interesting aspects of this incredible woman’s life—not all of them, just the highlights. There are plenty of sources to mine for more information listed below.

First of all: Joséphine Bonaparte was only known as such after she married Napoleon. Marie-Josèphe-Rose Tascher de La Pagerie (which, you may have noticed, is a totally different name!) went by “Rose.” She was born and raised on the Caribbean island of Martinique, then a French colony. Her family owned a sugar cane plantation, and the many slaves who worked it. Her childhood home is now a museum.

Joséphine’s birth records are ambiguous, though. According to one story, she was born on Saint Lucia, but because Saint Lucia changed between British to French hands 14 times, marking her born there would have thrown her nationality into question. She spent the majority of her early life on Martinique, regardless.

Joséphine’s first marriage is as interesting a saga as her second. Apparently, Joséphine’s paternal aunt was a mistress to a French naval officer…and the godmother to his legitimate child. When Francois de Beauharnais and his wife left for France together, Joséphine’s aunt arranged for the left-behind son, Alexandre, to marry one of her nieces.

Alexandre thought Joséphine was too closed to his own age. (He was 17, and she was 15.) So he asked to marry the younger sister instead. By the time the letter with the proposal arrived, though, Catherine-Desiree was dead. He ended up marrying Joséphine after all, when she was just 16 years old.

Joséphine did bear him two children over the course of their marriage, but he was so embarrassed of her country manners that he would not bring her to Marie Antoinette’s court. He actually moved in with a mistress for a year before Joséphine filed for and then achieved a separation (in 1785, when she was 22). She then stayed in Paris for three years, learning sophistication and style before she went back to live in Martinique.

That is, she lived in Martinique until Martinique’s short, unsuccessful slave uprisings of 1790. The brief unrest threw the country’s white occupants into such danger that she left again for Paris…which was in the middle of the French Revolution. Her husband, Alexandre, was at the time in charge of defending the French town, Mainz, from Prussians and Austrians. He failed, and after he resigned because of his failure, he was imprisoned for political plotting.

Both Joséphine and Alexandre served at Le Carmes prison. During the Reign of Terror, women in prisons were told that the only way to stave off execution was to become pregnant, which led to much sex under duress (read: rape) among female prisoners and their guards, but Joséphine did not become pregnant again—which will become relevant later.

Alexandre was executed by guillotine in July of 1794.

Five days later, Maximilian Robespierre, leader of the Revolution, tried to kill himself in court, failed, and was subsequently incarcerated. All the former aristocrats were freed from their prisons. Joséphine missed execution by a mere week.

When she was released from prison, she was a 32-year-old widowed mother of two with rotting teeth and no access to money. This is the moment when she seems to have taken hold of her own destiny. She and her best friend Terezia Tallien—an aristocrat under similar circumstances—became fashion icons.

The ladies turned their underwear into outerwear—no more corsets and giant pannier skirts. Now, they wore tubular silhouettes which had nowhere to stash a pocket, so they now carried bags. That’s right: we owe the empire waist and the handbag to the future Joséphine Bonaparte.

Not only that, the women’s hair had been shorn in preparation for beheading, and they leaned into it, spiking it around their faces to emphasize their survival. They wore choker necklaces for the same reason.

They had escaped death. They did not care if scandal followed them. Leading political figures and other powerful men followed the women, as well. Joséphine had several love affairs with such men. And then, in 1795, she met Napoleon Buonaparte.

josephine bonaparte
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  • Empress Josephine in coronation garb.

    Photo Credit: Wikipeda

Napoleon was six years younger than Joséphine, and he was absolutely obsessed with her. His family was shocked that he chose to marry an older, widowed mother of two. They were especially resistant because they felt so unsophisticated around her. Over time, he tried to strengthen the bonds between the two families by formally adopting her son Eugéne, and then marrying his brother to Joséphine’s daughter, Hortense.

Joséphine and Napoleon married by civil ceremony on March 9 1796, just a few days after he was appointed commander-in-chief of the Italian Army. They both changed their names. He became Napoleon Bonaparte, and she Joséphine Bonaparte. 

He left town for the Italian Campaign just two days later, but he wrote to her constantly, gushing love: “My unique Joséphine, away from you there is no more joy—away from thee the world is a wilderness, in which I stand alone, and without experiencing the bliss of unburdening my soul.” 

She did not go with him on his campaign because she liked the social scene in Paris. She also was not nearly so besotted with him, and she wrote him far fewer—and more tepid—letters. Napoleon even complained of the ones he did get, saying in one correspondence, “I am not satisfied with your last letter; it is cold as friendship.” That’s when she began her affair with Hussar lieutenant, Hippolyte Charles.

Napoleon learned of the affair while he was leading an army into Egypt, and he threatened divorce, even though he was conducting his own affair. The infidelities did not break them up. The affairs didn’t truly stop, either. 

They fought more about her financial excesses, since her debts grew so high that they also threatened their relationship.

Then, after his return from conquering Egypt, Joséphine found Napoleon in the bedroom of her lady-in-waiting. They fought about it, and he redirected the argument to divorce again, but this time for failing to provide him an heir. His family told him outright that he should divorce her.

They didn’t divorce then. In fact, when Pope Pius VII discovered they’d only been married in a civil ceremony, he threatened not to perform the coronation. So, Napoleon married her in a religious ceremony as well, and a religious ceremony made divorce much more difficult. Napoleon was coronated Emperor not long after. In 1804, he promptly took the crown off his own head and put it on hers because he wanted to be the one to crown her…not the Pope.

Still, the lack of an heir was a point of tension. When Napoleon’s mistress gave birth to his child in 1806, they assumed the failure to conceive was with Joséphine. They had the marriage annulled. Still, he said he wanted her to keep the rank and title of Empress.

At the divorce ceremony in 1809—yes, a ceremony for their divorce—they read statements to each other of love and devotion. Even when he married again the following year, they stayed on good terms. She lived in Chateau de Malmaison near Paris. There, she focused on developing the estate’s gardens and collection of art. It was this collection that enthralled the Russian Tsar Alexander I and bonded them in friendship. This alliance promised peace between France and Russia, too.

She lived at Chateau de Malmaison until her death by pneumonia in 1814. Napoleon learned of her death through a French publication, and he locked himself in his room for two days afterward.

Napoleon visited her grave when he returned from exile. He collected violets (her favorite flower) from her garden and wore them in a locket until his death.

When he died in his final exile, his last words were, “France, the army, head of the army, Joséphine.”