Who Was Empress Joséphine? The Woman Who Captured Napoleon’s Heart

Alice Roberts

5 mins

30 Oct 2019

Napoleon Bonaparte was one of the most powerful men in history, as he commanded a sprawling empire covering most of continental Europe. Yet behind the facade of military splendour, he was plagued with a blazing passion for the woman he loved until his dying day.

So, who was the femme fatale who captured Napoleon’s heart?

A marriage of convenience

The future Empress of France was born Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie. Her wealthy French family were based in Martinique and owned a sugarcane plantation. This childhood, with tropical gardens and balmy nights, was paradise for a young child. Joséphine later wrote about it:

‘I ran, I jumped, I danced, from morning to night; no one restrained the wild movements of my childhood.’

In 1766, the family fortunes dived as hurricanes tore through the sugarcane estates. Joséphine’s need to find a wealthy husband became more pressing. Her younger sister, Catherine, was arranged to be married to a relative named Alexandre de Beauharnais.

When 12-year-old Catherine died in 1777, Joséphine was quickly found as a replacement.

Alexandre de Beauharnais was Josephine’s first husband.

In 1779, Joséphine set sail to France to marry Alexandre. They had a son, Eugène, and a daughter, Hortense, who later married Louis Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother. The marriage was miserable, and Alexandre’s long indulgences in drink and women prompted a court-ordered separation.

On 21 October 1805 the British Royal Navy defeated the combined battle fleets of the French and Spanish empires 20 miles northwest of a promontory of rock and sand in southern Spain. This is the story of the Battle of Trafalgar.Watch Now

Revolutionary turmoil

In 1793, the Reign of Terror tightened its grip on the privileged members of society. Alexandre and Joséphine were in the firing line, and the Committee for Public Safety soon ordered their arrest. They were held at Carmes prison in Paris.

Just five days before the dramatic fall of Robespierre, Alexandre and his cousin, Augustin, were dragged to the Place de la Révolution and executed. Joséphine was released in July, and recovered the possessions of her dead ex-husband.

Louis XVI was executed in the Place de la Révolution, a fate met by others such as Alexandre.

After this close shave in the Carmes prison, Joséphine enjoyed debauched affairs with several leading political figures, including Barras, the main leader of the Directory regime of 1795–1799.

In an effort to de-tangle himself from Josephine’s clutches, Barras encouraged her relationship with a shy young Corsican officer, Napoleon Bonaparte, who was six year her junior. They soon became passionate lovers.  Napoleon was besotted, writing in his letters,

‘I awake full of you. Your image and the memory of last night’s intoxicating pleasures has left no rest to my senses.’

A young Napoléon and Joséphine.

Passion and betrayal

On 9 March 1796, they married in a civil ceremony in Paris, which was invalid in many respects. Joséphine reduced her age to 29, the official who conducted it was unauthorised and Napoleon gave a false address and date of birth.

These illegalities would prove convenient at a later date, when a divorce was warranted. It was at this point that she dropped her name as ‘Rose’, and went by ‘Joséphine’, the name of her husbands’ preference.

Dan talks to Adam Zamoyski, a historian who has recently written a new biography of Napoleon.Listen Now

Two days after their marriage Napoleon zipped away to lead the Army of Italy in a triumphant campaign. He wrote numerous impassioned letters to his new wife. Any response from Joséphine, if there was any, was aloof. Her affair with a Hussar lieutenant, Hippolyte Charles, soon reached the ears of her husband.

Infuriated and aggrieved, Napoleon began an affair with Pauline Fourès during the campaign in Egypt, who became known as ‘Napoleon’s Cleopatra’. Their relationship would never recover.

‘Coronation of Emperor Napoleon I and Coronation of the Empress Josephine in Notre-Dame de Paris’, painted by Jacques-Louis David and Georges Rouget.

Napoleon was crowned Emperor of the French in 1804 in an elaborate coronation ceremony at Notre Dame. Joséphine’s meteoric rise reached its apex as she was crowned Empress of France.

However, this moment of rejoicing was soured by the ebullition of suppressed rage: shortly before the ceremony, Joséphine caught Napoleon embracing her lady-in-waiting, which almost sundered their marriage.

A dutiful wife

It soon became apparent that Joséphine could no longer bear children. The nail in the coffin was the death of Napoleon’s heir and Joséphine’s grandson, Napoléon Charles Bonaparte, who died of a respiratory infection in 1807. Divorce was the only option.

At dinner on 30 November 1809, Joséphine was informed it was her national duty to consent and enable Napoleon to acquire an heir. On hearing the news, she screamed, collapsed on the floor and was carried to her apartments.

‘The Divorce of the Empress Josephine in 1809’ by Henri Frédéric Schopin.

At the divorce ceremony in 1810, each party read a solemn statement of devotion to one another, with Joséphine sobbing through the words. It seems over time, Joséphine grew to deeply love Napoleon, or at least forge a deep connection.

Despite the split, Napoleon made provisions to ensure his ex-wife wouldn’t go unattended,

‘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.’

He married Marie-Louise of Austria, who bore him a son in 1811, Napoléon François Joseph Charles Bonaparte. This baby, who was titled King of Rome, would rule briefly as Napoleon’s successor.

Much to Napoleon’s delight, Marie-Louise soon gave birth to a son, the King of Rome.

After the divorce, Joséphine lived comfortably at the Château de Malmaison, near Paris. She entertained lavishly, filled her menagerie with emus and kangeroos, and enjoyed the €30 million of jewellery which would be bequeathed to her children.

A portrait of Joséphine later in life, painted by Andrea Appiani.

Shortly after taking a walk with the Russian Tsar Alexander, she died in 1814 aged 50. Napoleon was distraught. He read of the news in a French journal while in exile on Elba, and stayed locked in his room, refusing to see anyone. Perhaps referring to her numerous affairs, Napoleon later admitted,

‘I truly loved my Joséphine, but I did not respect her’

His last words were said to be,

‘France, l’armée, tête d’armée, Joséphine’

With an unrivalled arrange of monuments - ranging from grand royal tombs to the grave of The Unknown Warrior - and spectacular architecture spanning nearly 1,000 years, join Dan Snow and Sir David Cannadine as they explore Britain's greatest church.Watch Now

A mixed legacy

Recently, Joséphine has grown to symbolise white plantation owners, as it was rumoured that she convinced Napoleon to re-institute slavery in the French Colonies. In 1803, she informed her mother,

‘Bonaparte is very attached to Martinique and is counting on the support of planters of that colony; he will use all means possible to preserve their position.’

In light of this, in 1991, a statue in Martinique was torn down, decapitated and splattered with red paint.

The decapitated statue of Joséphine. Image source: Patrice78500 / CC BY-SA 4.0.

On a brighter note, Joséphine was a famed cultivator of roses. She brought in horticulturists from the United Kingdom, and Napoleon ordered his warship commanders to search any seized vessels for plants to be sent to Joséphine’s collections.

In 1810, she hosted a rose exhibition and produced the first written history on the cultivation of roses.

Despite never producing the heir Napoleon desired, the ruling families of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Belgium and Luxembourg descend directly from her.