Joséphine de Beauharnais (23 June 1763 – 29 May 1814) was the first wife of Napoléon Bonaparte, and thus the first Empress of the French. Her first husband Alexandre de Beauharnais had been guillotined during the Reign of Terror, and she had been imprisoned in the Carmes prison until her release five days after Alexandre’s execution. (from wikipedia)

Through her daughter, Hortense, she was the maternal grandmother of Napoléon III. Through her son, Eugéne, she was the great-grandmother of later Swedish and Danish kings and queens, as well as the last Queen of Greece. The current reigning houses of Belgium, Norway and Luxembourg also descend from her.

CHILDLESS

She did not bear Napoleon any children; as a result he divorced her in 1810 to marry Marie-Louise of Austria.

Josèphine was the recipient of numerous love letters written by Napoleon, many of which still exist. Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de la Pagerie was born in Les Trois-Îlets, Martinique to a wealthy 

Portrait of Empress Josephine with Creole attendant in Pagerie Museum

Creole family that owned a sugar plantation. She was a daughter of Joseph-Gaspard Tascher (1735–1790), chevalier, Seigneur de la Pagerie, lieutenant of Troupes de Marine, and his wife, the former Rose-Claire des Vergers de Sannois (1736–1807), whose maternal grandfather, Anthony Brown, was Irish.

The family struggled financially after hurricanes destroyed their estate in 1766. Edmée, Joséphine’s paternal aunt, had been the mistress of François, Vicomte de Beauharnais, a French aristocrat. When François’s health began to fail, Edmée arranged the advantageous marriage of her niece, Catherine-Désirée, to François’s son Alexandre. This marriage would be highly beneficial for the Tascher family, because it would keep the Beauharnais money in their hands; however, twelve-year old Catherine died on 16 October 1777, before leaving Martinique for France. In service to their aunt Edmée’s goals, Catherine was replaced by her older sister, Joséphine.

In October 1779, Joséphine went to France with her father. She married Alexandre on 13 December 1779, in Noisy-le-Grand. Although their marriage was not happy, they had two children: a son, Eugène de Beauharnais (1781–1824), and a daughter, Hortense de Beauharnais (1783–1837), who married Napoléon’s brother Louis Bonaparte in 1802.

REIGN OF TERROR

On 2 March 1794, during the Reign of Terror, the Comité de Salut public ordered the arrest of her husband. He was jailed in the Carmes prison in Paris. Considering Joséphine as too close to the counter-revolutionary financial circles, the Committee ordered her arrest on 19 April 1794. A warrant of arrest was issued against her on 2 Floréal, year II (21 April 1794), and she was imprisoned in the Carmes prison until 10 Thermidor, year II (28 July 1794). Her husband was accused of having poorly defended Mainz in July 1793, and considered an aristocratic “suspect”, was sentenced to death and guillotined, with his cousin Augustin, on 23 July 1794, on the Place de la Révolution (today’s Place de la Concorde) in Paris. Joséphine was freed five days later, thanks to the fall and execution of Robespierre, which ended the Reign of Terror. On 27 July 1794 (9 Thermidor), Tallien arranged the liberation of Thérèse Cabarrus, and soon after that of Joséphine.

In June 1795, a new law allowed her to recover the possessions of Alexandre.

Meeting Napoleon

Portrait of the Empress Joséphine, by François Gérard

Joséphine de Beauharnais, now a widow, became the mistress of 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.” Joséphine was a renowned spendthrift and Barras may have encouraged the relationship with Général Bonaparte in order to get her off his hands.

Joséphine was described as being of average height, svelte, shapely, with silky, chestnut-brown hair, hazel eyes, and a rather sallow complexion. Her nose was small and straight, and her mouth was well-formed; however she kept it closed most of the time so as not to reveal her bad teeth.[1] She was praised for her elegance, style, and low, “silvery”, beautifully-modulated voice.[2]

Prominent in Parisian social circles during the 1790s, Joséphine married the young general Napoleon Bonaparte. The couple divorced in 1809 despite Joséphine’s popularity as empress.

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. Two days after the wedding, Bonaparte left to lead the French army in Italy, and during their separation, 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!”[3] Many of his letters are still intact today, while very few of hers have been found; it is not known whether this is due to their having been lost or to their initial scarcity.

In the meantime, Joséphine, left behind in Paris, began an affair in 1796 with a handsome HussarHippolyte Charles lieutenant, .[4] The rumours that reached Bonaparte so infuriated him[5] that his love changed entirely.[5]

ROYAL COLLECTIONS

Josephine was a great hostess and collected more than 13,000 bottles of wine, her cellar filled with Grands Crus, bordeaux, and other fine wines from around the world.  The Emperor and Empress drank out of elaborate champagne flutes engraved with their initials, J and N.

The empress also kept hundreds of bottles of rum from her native Martinique, which she would serve at dinner parties in punches kept in gilded bowls. (from http://www.telegraph.co.uk)

“We know from her head chambermaid that Josephine was a ‘very sober woman,'” said Mr Lefebure. “She was partial to very sweet wines including champagne and also rum punches that drew on her Creole origin, but we know she drank it all with moderation – like Napoleon.”

The emperor’s favourites were burgundy and champagne, but he also grew fond of South African wines during his time in exile on Saint Helena, the South Atlantic island where he died in 1821 at age 52 – not far from Cape Town.

Empress and Flowers

Josephine loved flowers and had different species imported from Martinique, as well as gathering together plants from captured ships.  She planted famous, lavish, gardens at Château de Malmaison just outside Paris. Josephine and her ladies were all uniformly dressed in white. The late queen, Marie-Antoinette, had already made the wearing of simple, white muslin fashionable, playing at country maid in her dairy at Versailles. In fact, it was the Creole ladies who brought the fashion of muslin to France

During the Egyptian campaign of 1798, Napoléon Bonaparte started an affair of his own with Pauline Bellisle Foures, the wife of a junior officer who became known as “Napoleon’s Cleopatra.” The relationship between Joséphine and Napoléon was never the same[citation needed] after this. His letters became less loving. No subsequent lovers of Joséphine are recorded, but Napoléon continued to have sexual affairs with other women. In 1804, he said, “Power is my mistress.”[citation needed]

An Empress

Joséphine kneels before Napoléon during his coronation at Notre Dame.

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. This was impossible for Joséphine, who was infertile due either to the stresses of her imprisonment during The Terror having triggered menopause, or to injuries she suffered in a fall from a collapsing balcony in 1798.[citation needed] 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.

When, after a few years, it became clear she could not have a child, Joséphine agreed to a divorce so the Emperor could remarry in the hope of having an heir. The divorce took place on 10 January 1810. 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.”

Later life and death

Divorce letter to Napoléon

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.

Joséphine died of pneumonia in Rueil-Malmaison, four days after catching cold during a walk with Czar Alexander in the gardens of Malmaison. She was buried in the nearby church of Saint Pierre-Saint Paul in Rueil. Her daughter Hortense is interred near her.

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