by Scott Mehl
Joséphine de Beauharnais, Empress of the French
Joséphine de Beauharnais was the first wife of Napoleon I, Emperor of the French. She was born Marie-Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie (known as Rose), on June 23, 1763 in Les Trois-Îlets, Martinique, the eldest daughter of Joseph-Gaspard Tascher, Seigneur de la Pagerie, and Rose Claire des Vergers de Sannois. She had two younger sisters:
- Catherine-Désirée (1764) – died in her youth
- Marie-Françoise (1766) – unmarried
Her childhood was spent in Martinique, where her father owned a large plantation. However, after their home was destroyed by a hurricane in 1766 – combined with her father’s mismanagement of the land – the family lost much of their fortune. Young Rose didn’t attend school until she was 10, finally sent to a religious boarding school in the nearby town of Fort Royal (now Fort-de-France).
Her aunt was the mistress of the Viscount de Beauharnais, and had arranged a marriage between the Viscount’s son, Alexandre, and Rose’s younger sister, Catherine-Désirée in 1777. However, after Catherine-Désirée died in 1777, it was then decided that Rose would become his bride. On December 13, 1779, she married Alexandre de Beauharnais in Noisy-le-Grand, France. They had two children:
- Eugène de Beauharnais (1781) – later Duke of Leuchtenberg, married Augusta of Bavaria, had issue
- Hortense de Beauharnais (1783) – married Louis Bonaparte (Napoleon’s brother), had issue
The marriage was unhappy, and Alexandre managed to waste most of his fortune. In December 1785, they separated. Rose and her children took up residence at the Pentemont Abbey in Paris. Years later, in March 1794, her estranged husband was arrested during the Reign of Terror. Despite their separation, Rose was also arrested, in April, and held in the Carmes prison until the end of July. Alexandre was sentenced to death, and executed by guillotine on July 23. Rose was released five days later, and the following year was able to reclaim her late husband’s possessions.
Through those years of separation, Rose had several affairs and had become prominent in Parisian society. In 1795, she met her future husband, Napoleon Bonaparte, and quickly became his mistress. They became engaged in January 1796 and married on March 9, 1796 in Paris. It was Napoleon who began calling her Joséphine, the name with which history has remembered her. Two days after the wedding, Napoleon left to fight in Italy, leaving his new wife alone. She soon began an affair, with Hippolyte Charles, a lieutenant in the French forces. The affair lasted for several years until Napoleon threatened to divorce her, and she ended her relationship with Charles.
In April 1799, while her husband was away, fighting in the Egyptian Campaign, Joséphine purchased the Château de Malmaison just a few miles outside of Paris. A large manor house set in nearly 150 acres, Malmaison was run down and in need of significant restoration. Joséphine spent large amounts of money to create a home fit for an Emperor and Empress and devoted much of her time to developing the gardens and grounds. She had an orangery built to grow pineapple plants and a greenhouse where she grew several hundred plants that had not been grown in France before. She also developed a magnificent rose garden, with over 250 different varieties of roses from around the world. In addition, she gathered a menagerie of animals which roamed in the gardens – many brought from Australia after the Baudin expedition of 1800-1803.
In November 1799, Napoleon was named First Consul of the French Republic, and the couple took up residence at the Tuileries Palace. Five years later, on May 18, 1804, Joséphine became Empress of the French when her husband was elected Emperor. They were both crowned in a lavish coronation ceremony held at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris, on December 2, 1804.
While Joséphine was able to provide a lovely home for her husband, the one thing she was unable to give him was an heir. Without a son, Napoleon had named Joséphine’s grandson (and his own nephew), Napoleon Charles Bonaparte, as his heir. But after the young Napoleon died in 1807, the Emperor began to consider finding another wife who could provide him a son. In November 1809, he told Joséphine that he planned to divorce her and find a new wife.
She agreed to a divorce, and an elaborate divorce ceremony was held on January 10, 1810. Joséphine retained her title as Empress as well as her rank at court and received a pension of 5 million francs per year. She received several residences, including the Élysée Palace in Paris (although Napoleon would later ask her to return the palace to his use, and offered her the Château de Laeken – in present-day Belgium – instead), and the Château de Navarre in Normandy (Napoleon had created Joséphine Duchess of Navarre at the time of their divorce). After living at the Château de Navarre for two years, she returned to the Château de Malmaison, where should live for the rest of her life.
On May 29, 1814, the day after receiving a visit from Tsar Alexander I of Russia, Empress Joséphine died at the Château de Malmaison. She was buried in the nearby church of Saint Pierre-Saint Paul in Rueil. Reportedly, her name was the last word uttered by Napoleon before his death in 1821.
Joséphine’s descendants sit on the thrones of Belgium, Denmark, Luxembourg, Norway, and Sweden.