Josephine de Beauharnais

First marriage of Josephine de Beauharnais

She travelled a fascinating and long way, Marie- Joseph Rose de Tascher de la Pagerie, better known as Josephine de Beauharnais, or Empress Josephine, the first wife of the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.

Born on a simple plantation in Martinique, ending up in the beautiful Chateau de Malmaison as the ex-wife of Emperor Napoleon. 

Born in 1763 on a simple sugar cane plantation Marie Rose had a happy childhood. Playing barefoot with the slave children and sucking on a stalk of sugar cane she was destined for a simple life and she received little education. However, her charm and beauty (except for her teeth which were blackened by the sugar) took here to places beyond she and her family would have ever suspected. 

On the plantation a slave read her hand once and predicted that she was getting married twice, and in her second marriage would become higher than a Queen. 

Josephine de Beauharnais by Firmin Massot ca. 1812
The kitchen of the Tascher de la Pagerie plantation, bitrth place of Josephine de Beauharnais, holds the the La Pagerie Museum. The main house was destoyed in a hurricane in 1766.

At the age of sixteen, Marie Rose was married off to Marquis Alexandre de Beauharnais. She traveled 8,000 miles to Paris to marry a man she had never met! They had two children together, Eugène and Hortense, but the marriage was not a match made in heaven and the couple got divorced. 

On december 2 1804, this became reality when Napoleon crowned himself Emperor of France, and then put the Crown on the head of his Josephine and made her the empress of France.

Alexandre de Beauharnais

During the terror of the French Revolution both Marie Rose and her ex-husband Alexandre were jailed, because they belonged to the old aristocracy. Alexandre was beheaded. Marie Rose and her children were in prison for 3 months before being saved by the bell; the end of the terror (and the end of the dictatorship of Robespierre who now in turn lost his own head). 

Josephine and Napoleon


This widow of 32 years with her two children was taken under the wing of Barras, one of the directors of the new French government.

In the circles around Barras, who had noble roots, she met Napoleon Bonaparte, a Corsican General who was six years younger than her. It might even have been Barras’s doing that they met, he had no problem to move his mistress on to someone else. Rose always lived beyond her means and was quite an expensive women to support. Barras even ended up as a witness at their wedding!

Napoleon fell head over heels in love with her and they were married in March 1796. 

He did not like her name however, and called her Josephine instead of Rose. He did not like their age difference much either, so Josephine lied about her age on the marriage certificate, claiming to be 4 years younger. Napoleon added 18 months to his age, so in the end it appeared as if they were roughly the same age.

When Napoleon went on field trip to Egypt his wife bought a small castle with surrounding estate just outside of Paris: Chateau de Malmaison. She hired two architects Percier and Fontaine, to start the costly conversion of the Chateau in the style of classical antiquity. 

Napoleon crowns Josephine to be his empress on December 2, 1804. Paining by Jacques Louis David.
Madame Theresa Tallien, best friend of Joesphine, wearing a greek dress in directoire style.

From the start Josephine determined the style and allure of Napoleon's Parisian homes. Joséphine spent millions of francs on furniture, clothes and diamonds. Her taste for clothes was trendsetting in Paris. Now the ancien régime with its powdered wigs, rigid corsets and crinolines was over, dress and hairdo was going the opposite way. 

The ladies wore gowns of thin, smooth fabric with a raised waist. 

Josephine and her girlfriends had the habit to wet the dress with oil or water just prior to the start of a soirée, so the fabric would paste to the skin, accentuating their natural shapes. Dresses and tunics were modeled after the ancient Greeks and Romans and  with loosely pinned-up curls and sandals they wanted to look like Diana, the Roman goddess of the hunt.l

The dresses were also inspired by the terror.  Women who were led to the guillotine, wore a simple, white nightgown. The fact that you had been imprisoned during this period gave status after the revolution. Josephine and the free-spirited Thérésa Tallien, with which she became friends in jail, perfected this new look.

While the average Parisian worker had to maintain his family with 600 francs per year in that time, Joséphine bought 900 dresses and 520 pair of shoes in a year’s time.

Napoleon was not amused with his wife squandering money like that. But as soon as he came home from his campaigns and was able to enjoy the results of her spending, he would usually come around. He would even throw dresses into the fireplace if he did not like them, or thought she had worn it on too many occasions.


Napoleon in 1812 by Jacques Louis David
Josephine de Beauharnais

Josephine  possessed a high social intelligence and could interact with people of all standards. Both she and Napoleon did not take marital fidelity too serious. But that they were devoted to one another is shown by the thousands of letters they wrote, or in fact, he wrote.

Divorce of Napoleon and Josephine

Despite this great love between Napoleon and Josephine the marriage ended premature anyway. In 1810 Napoleon realized Josephine would not be able to give him the long expected heir to the throne. She was 43 years old and had never been pregnant since they got together. 

He divorced her, but showed his love by giving her several rights. She was allowed to continue to use the title Empress, and he gave her the beloved Chateau de Malmaison where, with some interruptions, she lived until her death. 

Josephine continued to lead a mondaine life and organize celebrations, parties and balls.

Napoleon married the young Marie Louise of Austria, who finally gave him a son. On March 20,1811 Prince Napoleon François Charles Joseph Bonaparte was born (Napoleon II). 

The Mariage of Napoleon and Marie Louise

Ironic is the fact that Napoleon II never ruled over France as his father would have wished and he died childless while in exile in Austria at the age of 21.

The two children of Josephine from her first marriage, however, provided for descendants in many European royal families. 

Josephine’s daughter Hortense de Beuharnais married Louis, the brother of Napoleon I and became Queen of the Netherlands. And it was her son, Napoleon III, who would become the second Emperor of France!

Josephine’s son Eugene married Princess Augusta of Bavaria, and this happy couple had seven children, who all ended up in aristocratic and royal families around Europe. Eugene’s eldest daughter, named after Josephine by request of Napoleon I, married King Oscar I and became Queen Josephine of Sweden.

Hortense de Beauharnais
Eugene de Beauharnais

After the major defeat in the battle of Leipzig Napoleon’s reign was almost over and he was exiled to Elba. On February 26, 1815 he manages to escape and return to France. This was the start of his hundred days, which ended with the battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815. Now he was exiled to the other side of the world on the tiny Island of St. Helena.

Tsar Alexander I entered Paris victoriously where he contacts ex-Empress Josephine.

Josephine received the handsome Czar at the Château de Malmaison. What their motives are not entirely clear, but Josephine is probably looking for a new patron now the cards are reshuffled in Europe. All that she owns, including her title, she received from Napoleon, who is now defeated. 

With here refined approach Josephine charmed the most diverse people, not rarely out on material gain. The Tsar was no exception and was enchanted by Josephine immediately. He even invites Josephine to live in St. Petersburg. But it never came to that.

The visit of Tsar Alexander I to malmaison by Hector Viger.
Tomb of Josephine de Beauharnais, Eglise Saint Pierre Saint Paul

After the meal, Josephine and Tsar Alexander  wandered in the rose garden for a while and she showed him her greenhouse. She caught pneumonia that night and died only a few days later, on May 29, 1814 on the first floor of her beloved Castle. She is buried in the nearby church of Saint Pierre-Saint Paul in Rueil.  

On St. Helena, Napoleon wrote:

"Josephine is the only woman I have ever truly loved. She reigns in my heart and I mourn for her."

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