Josephine de Beauharnais, first wife of Napoleon Bonaparte

First marriage of Josephine de Beauharnais

Josephine de Beauharnais by Firmin Massot ca. 1812Josephine de Beauharnais by Firmin Massot ca. 1812

She travelled a fascinating and long way, Marie- Joseph Rose de Tascher de la Pagerie. She is 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, she ends up in the beautiful Chateau de Malmaison as the ex-wife of Emperor Napoleon. 

The kitchen of the Tascher de la Pagerie plantation, the birth place of Josephine de Beauharnais, holds the La Pagerie Museum. The main house was destroyed in a hurricane in 1766.The kitchen of the Tascher de la Pagerie plantation, the birth place of Josephine de Beauharnais, holds the La Pagerie Museum. The main house was destroyed in a hurricane in 1766.

Born in 1763 on a 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 what she and her family would have ever suspected. 

On the plantation, a slave read her hand once. She predicted that Rose would get married twice, and in her second marriage would become higher than a Queen!

On December 2, 1804, this became reality when Napoleon put the Crown on the head of his Josephine and made her the Empress of France.

DISCLOSURE: I get commissions for purchases made through some of the links in this article.

At the age of sixteen, Marie Rose was married off to Marquis Alexandre de Beauharnais. She travelled 8,000 miles to Paris to marry a guy that she had never met!

Alexandre de Beauharnais, first husband of Josephine de BeauharnaisAlexandre de Beauharnais

They had two children together, Eugène de Beauharnais is born on  3 September 1781. 


Eugène de BeauharnaisEugène de Beauharnais

and Hortense de Beauharnais, born on 10 April 1783.  The marriage was not a match made in heaven and the couple got divorced in 1785.

Josephine de Beauharnais surviving the French revolution

During the terror of the French Revolution, both Marie Rose and her ex-husband Alexandre were imprisoned. Primarily because they belonged to the old aristocracy.

Alexandre was guillotined on the Place de la Révolution (today's Place de la Concorde) in Paris on 23 July 1794, only 34 years old.

Striking detail; Robespierre, one of the instigators of the Terror, lost his head only five days later. This meant the end the reign of terror. 

Marie Rose was in prison for 3 more months. She was certainly saved by the bell. The terror ended on  July 27, 1794, when Robespierre was removed from power and guillotined.

Another salient detail;  During the Revolution, Alexander had a lover, Princess Amalie Zephyrine of Salm-Kyrburg.

Amelie survived the reign of terror. After the revolution, she found out where her lover was buried. He was put in a mass grave, together with 1306 other victims (among them the brother of Amelie). She secretly bought the burial place to turn it into a proper cemetery. Nowadays it is called the Picpus Cemetery. 

Find more Stories and Secrets of the French Revolution in a 3-Hour Walking Tour around the most significant places of the French revolution in Paris.

Josephine and Napoleon

Josephine and NapoleonJosephine and Napoleon

The widow Marie Rose is 32 years old in 1794. Together with her two children, she is taken under the wing of Barras. He is one of the directors of the new French government.

In the circles around Barras, who had noble roots, she met Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon is a Corsican General, six years younger than Marie Rose.

Although she is the mistress of Barras, it might have been his doing that Napoleon and Marie Rose 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. His plan succeeded. 

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

Barras even ended up as a witness at their wedding!

Napoleon crowns Josephine de Beauharnais to be his empress on December 2, 1804. Paining by Jacques Louis DavidNapoleon crowns Josephine de Beauharnais to be his empress on December 2, 1804. Paining by Jacques Louis David

One thing that Napoleon did not like about Rose was her name. He called her Josephine from the start, and that is how she is still known today.

Napoleon did not like their age difference much either (she was 32 and he was 26). 

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.

Curious enough, Rose is best known as Josephine de Bauharnais. The first name is the one Napoleon gave her.

The last name is the one she got from her first husband, who she divorced after 4 years of marriage.

She was married to Napoleon for 14 years. You should think that Josephine Bonaparte was the name that would go down in history!

When Napoleon was on a field trip to Egypt his wife bought an estate with a small castle,  just outside of Paris.
The Chateau de Malmaison would be her haven for the rest o f her life.   She hired two architects,  Percier and Fontaine, to start the costly renovations of the Chateau in the style of classical antiquity. 

Josephine dictates Empire fashion

Madame Theresa Tallien, best friend of Josephine de Beauharnais, wearing a greek dress in directoire styleMadame Theresa Tallien, best friend of Josephine de Beauharnais, wearing a greek dress in directoire style

From the start of their marriage, Josephine determined the style and allure of Napoleon's Parisian homes. She 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 prior to the start of a soirée. , The fabric would paste to the skin, accentuating their natural shapes. Dresses and tunics were modelled after the ancient Greeks and Romans. With loosely pinned-up curls and sandals, they wanted to look like Diana, the Roman goddess of the hunt.

The dresses were also inspired by the terror.  Women who were led to the guillotine also 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.

Josephine de Beauharnais

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 by his wife squandering money like that. But each time 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 possessed 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

The Mariage of Napoleon and Marie Louise

Despite this great love between Napoleon and Josephine the marriage ended prematurely 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 organized 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). 

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

The two children that Josephine had with her first husband provided descendants in many European royal families. 

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

Josephine’s son Eugene married Princess Augusta of Bavaria. 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.

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.

The visit of Tsar Alexander I to Malmaison by Hector Viger.The visit of Tsar Alexander I to Malmaison by Hector Viger.

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

Josephine received the handsome Czar at the Château de Malmaison. What her 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.

Tomb of Josephine de Beauharnais, Eglise Saint Pierre Saint PaulTomb of Josephine de Beauharnais, Eglise Saint Pierre Saint Paul

After a 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."

Books and films regarding Josephine de Beauharnais:

You might like these

  • Chateau de Fontainebleau

    Chateau de Fontainebleau has been continuously inhabited by French royals for eight centuries.

  • Lady Jane Grey

    Lady Jane Grey, the Nine Days'Queen was Queen of England and Ireland from 10 July until 19 July 1553.

  • Joseph Bonaparte

    Joseph Bonaparte, the elder brother of Napoleon lived in the château of Mortefontaine.

  • Catherine of Aragon, queen of England

    Catherine of Aragon, queen of England from June 1509 until May 1533. She was the first wife of King Henry VIII.