Josephine and Napoleon

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Josephine de Beauharnais, a widow, had affairs with 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.’
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.
The marriage was not well received by Napoléon’s family, who were shocked that he had married an older widow with two children. His mother and sisters were especially resentful of Joséphine as they felt clumsy and unsophisticated in her presence.
Two days after the wedding, Bonaparte left to lead the French army in Italy. During their separation, he 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 most were lost or there weren’t very many.
Joséphine, left behind in Paris, began an affair in 1796 with a handsome Hussar lieutenant, Hippolyte Charles. Rumors of the affair reached Napoléon; he was infuriated, and his love for her changed entirely.
In 1798, Napoléon led a French army to Egypt. During this campaign, Napoléon started an affair of his own with Pauline Fourès, the wife of a junior officer, who became known as ‘Napoléon’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 had sexual affairs with several other women. In 1804, he said, ‘Power is my mistress.’
In December 1800, Joséphine was nearly killed in the Plot of the Rue Saint-Nicaise, an attempt on Napoléon’s life with a bomb planted in a parked cart. On 24 December, she and Napoleon went to see a performance of Joseph Haydn’s Creation at the Opéra, accompanied by several friends and family. The party travelled in two carriages. Joséphine was in the second, with her daughter Hortense, her pregnant sister-in-law, Caroline Murat, and General Jean Rapp. Joséphine had delayed the party while getting a new silk shawl draped correctly, and Napoléon went ahead in the first carriage. The bomb exploded as her carriage was passing. The bomb killed several bystanders and one of the carriage horses, and blew out the carriage’s windows; Hortense was struck in the hand by flying glass. There were no other injuries and the party proceeded to the Opéra.
In 1804, Napoleon used the various plots against his life to justify the re-creation of a hereditary monarchy in France with himself as Emperor Napoléon I, which would make Joséphine Empress of the French.
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.
As Empress, Joséphine was popular, known for kindness and generosity to foundlings.
When, after a few years, it became clear she could not have a child, Napoléon while he still loved Joséphine, began to think very seriously about the possibility of divorce.
The final die was cast when Joséphine’s grandson Napoleon Charles Bonaparte who had been declared Napoléon’s heir, died of croup in 1807. Napoleon began to create lists of eligible princesses. At dinner on 30 November 1809, he let Joséphine know that , in the interest of France, he must find a wife who could produce an heir. From the next room, Napoléon’s secretary heard the screams.
‘No, I can never survive it!’ Joséphine cried, and collapsed. The following day servants took her possessions to Malmaison, which was to remain her home. She continued to make public appearances as Empress, but the impending divorce was common knowledge.
Joséphine agreed to a divorce so the Emperor could remarry in the hope of having an heir. The divorce ceremony took place on 10 January 1810 and was a grand but solemn social occasion, and each read a statement of devotion to the other.
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’.
Even after their separation Napoleon insisted Josephine retain the title of Empress. ‘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.’
Later life and death
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.
In March 1811 Marie Louise delivered a long-awaited heir, to whom Napoleon gave the title ‘King of Rome’. Two years later Napoleon arranged for Joséphine to meet the young prince ‘who had cost her so many tears’.
Joséphine died of pneumonia in Rueil-Malmaison on 29 May 1814, four days after catching cold during a walk with Tsar Alexander in the gardens of Malmaison. She was buried in the nearby church of Saint Pierre-Saint Paulin Rueil. Her daughter Hortense is interred near her.
Napoleon learned of her death via a French journal while in exile on Elba, and stayed locked in his room for two days, refusing to see anyone. He 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.’

1 Comment

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One response to “Josephine and Napoleon

  1. Bianca

    I really enjoyed reading this article.

    Like

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