Joséphine de Beauharnais ( 23 June 1763 – 29 May 1814) was the first wife of Napoleon I, and thus the first Empress of the French.
Her first husband Alexandre de Beauharnais was guillotined during the Reign of Terror, and she was imprisoned in the Carmes prison until her release five days after Alexandre’s execution. Through her daughter, Hortense, she was the maternal grandmother of Napoléon III. Through her son, Eugène, she was the great-grandmother of later Swedish and Danish kings and queens. The reigning houses of Belgium, Norway and Luxembourg also descend from her. She did not bear Napoleon any children; as a result, he divorced her in 1810 to marry Marie Louise of Austria.
Joséphine was the recipient of numerous love letters written by Napoleon, many of which still exist. Her Château de Malmaison was noted for its magnificent rose garden, which she supervised closely, owing to her passionate interest in roses, collected from all over the world.
Early life and first marriage
Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie was born in Les Trois-Îlets, Martinique to a wealthy white 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, may have been Irish, albeit with an Anglo-Saxon name.
The family struggled financially after hurricanes destroyed their estate in 1766. Edmée (Desirée for the French), 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. 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 April 18, 1794. A warrant of arrest was issued against her on 2 Floréal, year II (April 21, 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.
Marriage to Napoléon
Joséphine de Beauharnais, now a widow, had affairs with several leading political figures, including Paul François Jean Nicolas Barras. In 1795, she met 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.” 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.
The marriage was not well received by Napoléon’s family, who were shocked that he had married an older widow with two children. His mother and sisters were especially resentful of Joséphine as they felt clumsy and unsophisticated in her presence. Two days after the wedding, Bonaparte left to lead the French army in Italy. During their separation, he 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!”
Joséphine, left behind in Paris, began an affair in 1796 with a handsome Hussar lieutenant, Hippolyte Charles. Rumors of the affair reached Napoléon; he was infuriated, and his love for her changed entirely.
In 1798, Napoléon led a French army to Egypt. During this campaign, Napoléon started an affair of his own with Pauline Fourès, the wife of a junior officer, who became known as “Napoléon’s Cleopatra.” The relationship between Joséphine and Napoléon was never the same after this. His letters became less loving. No subsequent lovers of Joséphine are recorded, but Napoléon had sexual affairs with several other women. In 1804, he said, “Power is my mistress.”
In December 1800, Joséphine was nearly killed in the Plot of the rue Saint-Nicaise, an attempt on Napoléon’s life with a bomb planted in a parked cart. On December 24, she and Napoleon went to see a performance of Joseph Haydn’s Creation at the Opéra, accompanied by several friends and family. The party travelled in two carriages. Joséphine was in the second, with her daughter Hortense, her pregnant sister-in-law, Caroline Murat, and General Jean Rapp. Joséphine had delayed the party while getting a new silk shawl draped correctly, and Napoléon went ahead in the first carriage. The bomb exploded as her carriage was passing. The bomb killed several bystanders and one of the carriage horses, and blew out the carriage’s windows; Hortense was struck in the hand by flying glass. There were no other injuries and the party proceeded to the Opéra.
Empress of the French
The coronation ceremony, officiated by Pope Pius VII, took place at Notre Dame de Paris, on December 2, 1804. Following a pre-arranged protocol, Napoléon first crowned himself, then put the crown on Joséphine’s head, proclaiming her empress. 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, Élisabeth de Vaudey, and Napoléon threatened to divorce her as she had not produced an heir. Eventually, however, through the efforts of her daughter Hortense, the two were reconciled.
When, after a few years, it became clear she could not have a child, Napoléon while he still loved Joséphine, began to think very seriously about the possibility of divorce. The final die was cast when Joséphine’s grandson Napoléon Charles Bonaparte who had been declared Napoléon’s heir, died of croup in 1807. Napoleon began to create lists of eligible princesses. At dinner on November 30, 1809, he let Joséphine know that — in the interest of France — he must find a wife who could produce an heir. From the next room, Napoléon’s secretary heard the screams.
Joséphine agreed to the divorce so the Emperor could remarry in the hope of having an heir. The divorce ceremony took place on January 10, 1810 and was a grand but solemn social occasion, and each read a statement of devotion to the other.
On March 11, Napoléon married Marie-Louise of Austria by proxy; the formal ceremony took place at the Louvre in April. Napoléon once remarked after marrying Marie-Louise that “he had married a womb”. Even after their separation, Napoleon insisted Josephine retain the title of empress. “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.”
Later life and death
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.
In March 1811 Marie Louise delivered a long-awaited heir, to whom Napoleon gave the title “King of Rome”. Two years later Napoleon arranged for Joséphine to meet the young prince “who had cost her so many tears”.
Joséphine died of pneumonia in Rueil-Malmaison on May 29, 1814, four days after catching cold during a walk with Tsar 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.
Napoleon learned of her death via a French journal while in exile on Elba, and stayed locked in his room for two days, refusing to see anyone. He claimed to a friend, while in exile on Saint Helena, that “I truly loved my Joséphine, but I did not respect her.” Despite his numerous affairs, eventual divorce, and remarriage, the Emperor’s last words on his death bed at St. Helena were: “France, the Army, the Head of the Army, Joséphine.”(“France, l’armée, tête d’armée, Joséphine”).
Hortense’s son became Napoléon III, Emperor of the French. Eugène’s son Maximilian de Beauharnais, 3rd Duke of Leuchtenberg married into the Russian Imperial family, was granted the style of Imperial Highness and founded the Russian line of the Beauharnais family, while Eugene’s daughter Joséphine, married King Oscar I of Sweden, the son of Napoléon’s one-time fiancée, Désirée Clary. Through her, Joséphine is a direct ancestor of the present heads of the royal houses of Belgium, Denmark, Greece, Luxembourg, Norway and Sweden and of the grandducal house of Baden.
Through the Leuchtenberg inheritance, the Norwegian royal family holds Joséphine’s emerald and diamond tiara while the Swedish royal family holds her sapphire parure, amethyst tiara and the Cameo tiara, worn by Sweden’s royal brides.
Another of Eugène’s daughters, Amélie de Beauharnais von Leuchtenberg, married Emperor Pedro I of Brazil (also former king Pedro IV of Portugal) in Rio de Janeiro, and became Empress of Brazil, and they had one surviving daughter.
Time journalist Nathalie Alexandria Kotchoubey de Beauharnais, was a direct descendant of Joséphine through her son Eugène and the Russian line founded by Josephine’s grandson Maximilian de Beauharnais, 3rd Duke of Leuchtenberg. She married André Laguerre, longtime managing editor of Sports Illustrated in 1955 and had two daughters, Michèle and Claudine.
Nature and appearance
Biographer Carolly Erickson wrote, “In choosing her lovers Rose [Josephine] followed her head first, then her heart”, meaning that she was adept in terms of identifying the men who were most capable of fulfilling her financial and social needs. She was not unaware of Napoleon’s potential. Joséphine was a renowned spendthrift and Barras may have encouraged the relationship with Général Bonaparte in order to get her off his hands. Josephine was naturally full of kindness, generosity and charm, and was praised as an engaging hostess.
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. She was praised for her elegance, style, and low, “silvery”, beautifully modulated voice.
Patroness of roses
In 1799 while Napoleon was in Egypt, Josephine purchased the Chateau de Malmaison. She had it landscaped in an “English” style, hiring landscapers and horticulturalists from the United Kingdom. These included: Thomas Blaikie, a Scottish horticultural expert, another Scottish gardener, Alexander Howatson, the botanist, Ventenat, and the horticulturist, Andre Dupont. The rose garden was begun soon after purchase; inspired by Dupont’s love of roses. Josephine took a personal interest in the gardens and the roses, and learned a great deal about botany and horticulture from her staff. Josephine wanted to collect all known roses so Napoleon ordered his warship commanders to search all seized vessels for plants to be forwarded to Malmaison. Pierre-Joseph Redouté was commissioned by her to paint the flowers from her gardens. Les Roses was published 1817-20 with 168 plates of roses; 75-80 of the roses grew at Malmaison. The English nurseryman Kennedy was a major supplier, despite England and France being at war, his shipments were allowed to cross blockades. Specifically, when Hume’s Blush Tea-Scented China was imported to England from China, the British and French Admiralties made arrangements in 1810 for specimens to cross naval blockades for Josephine’s garden. Sir Joseph Banks, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, also sent her roses. The general assumption is that she had about 250 roses in her garden when she died in 1814. Unfortunately the roses were not catalogued during her tenure. There may have been only 197 rose varieties in existence in 1814, according to calculations by Jules Gravereaux of Roseraie de l’Haye. There were 12 species, about 40 centifolias, mosses and damasks, 20 Bengals, and about 100 gallicas. The botanist Claude Antoine Thory, who wrote the descriptions for Redouté’s paintings in Les Roses, noted that Josephine’s Bengal rose R. indica had black spots on it. She produced the first written history of the cultivation of roses, and is believed to have hosted the first rose exhibition, in 1810.
Modern hybridization of roses through artificial, controlled pollination began with Josephine’s horticulturalist Andre Dupont. Prior to this, most new rose cultivars were spontaneous mutations or accidental, bee-induced hybrids, and appeared rarely. With controlled pollination, the appearance of new cultivars grew exponentially. Of the roughly 200 types of roses known to Josephine, Dupont had created 25 while in her employ. Subsequent French hybridizers created over 1000 new rose cultivars in the 30 years following Josephine’s death. In 1910, less than 100 years after her death, there were about 8000 rose types in Gravereaux’s garden. Bechtel also feels that the popularity of roses as garden plants was boosted by Josephine’s patronage. She was a popular ruler and fashionable people copied her.
Brenner and Scanniello call her the “Godmother of modern rosomaniacs” and attribute her with our modern style of vernacular cultivar names as opposed to Latinized, pseudo-scientific cultivar names. For instance, R. alba incarnata became “Cuisse de Nymphe Emue” in her garden. After Josephine’s death in 1814 the house was vacant at times, the garden and house ransacked and vandalised, and the garden’s remains were destroyed in a battle in 1870. The rose Souvenir de la Malmaison appeared in 1844, 30 years after her death, named in her honor by a Russian Grand Duke planting one of the first specimens in the Imperial Garden in St. Petersburg.