Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Consort Profile: Joséphine de Beauharnais

Joséphine de Beauharnais, the first Empress of the French, had a life, in many ways, as tumultuous as her famous husband, Napoleon Bonaparte. She made many friends, many enemies and was able to inspire intense feelings of devotion and anger in the “Little Corporal”. Despite their many ups and downs, probably no other woman ever held the affection of the parvenu emperor in quite the same way as his beloved Joséphine. A product of the colonial empire of the Kingdom of France, she was born Marie Joséphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie on the Caribbean island of Martinique on June 23, 1763. Her father was an officer in the Troupes de Marine and after a hurricane devastated the family sugar plantation a profitable marriage was sought for Joséphine in an effort to change the fortunes of the family. As a result, on December 13, 1779 Joséphine was married to Alexandre Vicomte de Beauharnais but, despite the birth of a son and daughter in subsequent years, the marriage was not a happy one.

When the Revolution broke out the Vicomte de Beauharnais was arrested by the “Committee of Public Salvation” as a counter-revolutionary. Only a few days later Joséphine was arrested as well but freed following the overthrow of Robespierre five days after her husband was sent to the guillotine for being insufficiently zealous in his support of the republic. After recovering the family fortune, Joséphine regained her status somewhat as a leading society figure and known, aside from her bad teeth, as a famous beauty. In 1795 she first met the up and coming General Napoleon Bonaparte, six years younger than her but who was nonetheless smitten by the glamorous widow. Joséphine was more amused by Napoleon than in love with him but, given that her lavish lifestyle had mostly eaten up her fortune, still became his mistress as a means of preserving the lifestyle to which she had become accustomed. Napoleon was underestimated by many at that time as something of a country bumpkin, a disheveled Corsican who had become the flavor of the month, whose time would soon pass and who lacked the manners and deportment of fashionable society. Joséphine soon had Napoleon eating out of her hand and as far as he was concerned, the world revolved around his beloved Joséphine.

Things changed, however, when Napoleon went off on campaign and Joséphine began an affair with a young army officer. Napoleon was positively devastated when the rumors reached him that his beloved wife was being unfaithful and he reacted with sorrow and immense anger. It may not have been so bad had he not placed Joséphine on such a lofty pedestal. While on his famous campaign in Egypt to cut off the British from India, Napoleon took the first of what would be many mistresses. However, as seems to often be the case, it was after Napoleon had been shattered by Joséphine that she became the most devoted to him, begging his forgiveness and never (best as we can tell) having another affair again. However, the magic was lost and Napoleon would continue his womanizing for the rest of his career. Yet, no other woman ever held is heart the way Joséphine did. His wandering ways did seem to give Joséphine a taste of the betrayal Napoleon had felt and when she once caught him with one of her ladies-in-waiting there was a dramatic scene and the first threats of a divorce but the two were finally reconciled. Joséphine stood by her husband at his supreme moment of glory in 1804 when he crowned himself Emperor of the French at Notre Dame cathedral with the blessing of Pope Pius VII. Napoleon himself crowned Joséphine his Empress.

However, Empress Joséphine proved lacking in the one area most vital to a royal consort: producing an heir to the throne. She had children before marrying Napoleon, whom the Emperor had adopted as his own, and Napoleon had children by his mistresses (he acknowledged two, both sons) but none were forthcoming from Empress Joséphine. Although it hurt her deeply, Joséphine accepted that Napoleon had to have an heir and so agreed to a divorce so that he might marry a younger woman, hopefully fertile, and preferably of established royal blood. On January 10, 1810 the couple divorced and Napoleon later married Archduchess Marie-Louise of Austria of the venerable House of Hapsburg-Lorraine and who gave him his son, Napoleon II. Joséphine managed to see the baby boy, at least once, but lived mostly apart from the court in her chateau near Paris. She and her ex-husband remained friendly with each other, Napoleon saying once that his only annoyance on her part was having to take care of her debts as she never did learn to manage money.

Although she had been replaced as Empress, Joséphine was still a star in her own way and entertained the most prestigious foreign guests from time to time. The pneumonia that finally took her life came on after walking in the cold during a visit by HIM Tsar Alexander I of Russia. She died on May 29, 1814 at the age of 50. When the former Emperor himself finally died in his lonely exile on St Helena in the South Atlantic, the very last words on his lips as he passed away was “Joséphine”. Her time as Empress consort had not been long yet, through the children Napoleon adopted she was to have many royal descendants across the globe including members of the royal families of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Luxembourg, Greece and Brazil.


  1. I've always seen it translated as "Committee for Public Safety".

    Your assessment of Josephine is quite correct. Her romance with Napoleon is remembered as one of the greats, I believe. Marc Anthony and Cleopatra, Romeo and Juliet, Napoleon and Josephine. And although Napoleon did love his second wife, his heart would always belong to Josephine, I think.

  2. That is the way I've usually seen it myself but I often say Committee of Public Salvation because of the lofty pretensions of the revolutionary regime. And, though I wouldn't dare attempt the French, is not the word used, usually translated as "safety" also the same word for "salvation"?

  3. bonjour et merci, je savait pas qui e Josephine, meme je suis de Montreal Quebec


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