With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, this month’s Book Club looks at one of history’s best-known love stories: the relationship between Napoleon Bonaparte and Josephine de Beauharnais. Married in 1796 and divorced in 1810, the romance between this fascinating pair coincided directly with the zenith of Napoleon’s own military and political power. Napoleon and Josephine: an improbable marriage by Evangeline Bruce was discussed Laura O’Brien, Lecturer in Modern European History with the University of Sunderland; journalist, Carol Hunt and Hugh Gough, Emeritus Professor of Modern European History at UCD.
Why Napoleon and Josephine continue to arouse so much curiosity as one of history’s great romantic pairings
- A story with everything: glamour, revolution, war, and romance. The surviving love letters sent to her by Napoleon have helped create an idea of them as a very emotionally involved, romantic couple. The quote we’ve just heard illustrates the kind of passion – for good or ill – that characterised their relationship.
- There’s also the Napoleon factor. Regardless of how one sees him and his actions while in power, he remains a historical figure that attracts huge interest in France and globally.
- The story of Napoleon and Josephine has attracted attention because it offers an insight into the private life of a major historical figure. People like to see behind the political decisions and his military achievements, to see the human side of this story. And, as events in France over the past few weeks have once again shown, there will always be a certain amount of interest in the private and personal lives of political leaders!
Josephine: a brief background
- Josephine is born in 1763, which makes her six years older than Napoleon Bonaparte. Her birth name was Marie Josèphe Rose, and everyone called her Rose – until Napoleon, who swiftly renamed her ‘Josephine’.
- She was born not in France, but on the island of Martinique in the Caribbean – then, as now, a French possession. Her family were French – her father ran a rather shabby sugar plantation, though he had worked as a page at the court of Versailles in his youth. Many of the contemporary sources note Josephine’s status as a ‘Creole’, a term used to describe anyone born in France’s Caribbean possessions.
- She came to France in 1779 to marry Alexandre de Beauharnais, a minor aristocrat – the marriage was arranged by Josephine’s aunt, the mistress of Alexandre’s father, who clearly wanted to keep their wealth in the family.
- The marriage was not happy. As Bruce details in her book, Alexandre did not really think Josephine was good enough for him – and he treated her quite cruelly, spreading rumours that she was not of ‘good morals’ and querying whether he was really the father of their daughter. Nevertheless, they had two children – Eugène and Hortense. Hortense is later married off to Napoleon’s younger brother Louis, and is the mother of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte who declares himself Napoleon III in 1852.
Napoleon: A brief background
- Napoleon Bonaparte – or, to give him his birth name, Napoleone di Buonaparte – was, famously, born on the island of Corsica in 1769. As his name suggests, his family were of Italian origin – indeed, Corsica had only just been transferred to the control of France by the Republic of Genoa in 1768, a year before Napoleon’s birth. Of course, once he set out on his military career he tweaked his name to the much more French-sounding ‘Napoléon Bonaparte’.
- Napoleon left Corsica at about the age of ten, and heads for the French mainland where he spent five years at a military academy before entering the elite École Militaire in Paris in 1784. He graduated a year later, towards the lower end of his class – though it’s worth noting that he managed to complete his course in one year, when it took most cadets two or three. After leaving the École Militaire, he becomes a second lieutenant in an artillery regiment where he serves until things change forever in July 1789.
The major events of the French Revolution:
- May 1789 – Estates-General called to Versailles; then in June the Third Estate go out on their own and call themselves the ‘National Assembly’.
- July 1789 – Paris rises in revolt, leading to the famous storming of the Bastille
- Establishment of constitutional monarchy
- June 1791 sees attempted flight of royal family from Paris, bound for Austria – they are captured at Varennes and returned.
- April 1792 sees the declaration by revolutionary France of war on Austria. Beginning of the Revolutionary Wars.
- August 1792 – overthrow of the monarchy, leading to establishment of first French Republic in September. Trial of Louis XVI begins in December 1792.
- January 1793 – execution of the king. September 1793 sees the passing of the Law of Suspects and the beginning of what becomes known as the ‘Terror’.
In the midst of arrests and denunciations that accompany the Terror, Josephine herself is caught up in the turmoil.
- Josephine originally seems to play the revolutionary game quite well – she starts using what high-society types would have seen as sans-culotte language, signing her letters salut et fraternité or ‘Greetings and fraternity’ and embracing the move towards the more casual tu and toi, rather than vous. Her husband, the feckless Alexandre de Beauharnais, makes a great fuss about renouncing his aristocratic titles in 1789 and ends up as president of the Constituent Assembly in 1791. When his term comes to an end he rejoins the army and ends up as an officer in the Army of the North, fighting for the revolution against the Prussians.
But this proves to be his undoing in the end.
- In July 1793 Alexandre and his inept leadership are blamed for the loss of the strategic city of Mainz. As France moves into the height of the Terror there are calls for his arrest – which, despite Josephine’s best efforts to lobby members of the revolutionary Commune in his favour, happens in January 1794. Alexandre is thus carted off to the prison of Les Carmes in Paris.
And his wife was not too far behind…
- Josephine was arrested in April 1794 and brought to the same prison as her husband – where she found him engaged in a passionate affair with a fellow prisoner! The rather licentious atmosphere in the prison of Les Carmes, however, soon allowed Josephine to play her husband at his own game. She rapidly becomes deeply attached to the dashing young general Lazare Hoche, who was known during his imprisonment to have a particular penchant for the ladies at Les Carmes. This is the same Lazare Hoche who leads the disastrous Bantry Bay expedition to Ireland in 1796.
- Alexandre de Beauharnais, meanwhile, missed out on surviving the Terror by just five days. On 22 July 1794 he went to the guillotine, having been found guilty of treason and conspiracy by the Revolutionary Tribunal. On 27 July, the Thermidorian Reaction overthrew Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety, bringing the so-called ‘Reign of Terror’ to an end.
And this period, generally referred to as ‘Thermidor’ after the month of the revolutionary calendar when the fall of the Committee of Public Safety happened, saw a strong reaction against the Terror in both political and social life.
- As you might expect the immediate post-Thermidor period saw a particularly firm reaction against the remaining Jacobins, both in the Convention and in the political clubs and the Paris sections. Furthermore, the Convention also revoked Jacobin legislation controlling prices, leading to massive price hikes for essentials and a growing gap between rich and poor, especially in Paris.
- However, in spite of (or perhaps because of) this growing inequality the wealthier elements in Thermidorian society flung themselves into celebrating the end of the Jacobin dictatorship. The Parisian social scene enjoyed a kind of renewal, with theatres and dance halls reopening. There was a taste for sensationalism and excess, which translated itself into flamboyant new fashion trends, especially among young men, and macabre parties like the ‘Bal des Victimes’, where attendance was restricted to those who had lost at least one close relative to the guillotine.
Against this post-Terror backdrop of parties and living life to the full, as it were, Josephine de Beauharnais becomes a kind of eighteenth-century ‘It Girl’.
- During this period Josephine is part of a group of women known as the ‘Merveilleuses’, or the ‘Marvels’ – essentially the group of socialites who dominate the Parisian scene during Thermidor. The leading figure in this group is Therésia Tallien, probably Josephine’s best friend, whom she met when they were both imprisoned in Les Carmes during the last months of the Terror.
- The ‘Merveilleuses’ were known for their scandalous light, clingy dresses, designed in the classical style that was so fashionable at this time. English caricaturists like George Cruikshank mocked the ‘Merveilleuses’ with drawings of them wearing dresses that were almost transparent, even in winter.
- Having survived the guillotine, Josephine is now a kind of mini-celebrity: her profile on the Parisian circuit is far higher than it had been in the years preceding the Revolution, and this – especially her relationship with Therésia Tallien – gives her access to some of the most powerful figures in Thermidorian France.
While his future wife is celebrated as a social butterfly, Napoleon is starting to make a bit of a name for himself in the military.
- Thermidor reveals Napoleon’s tendency to carefully follow the way the political wind was blowing. He had openly courted the Jacobins when they were in power, attracting the attention of the Committee of Public Safety after his role in the republican capture of the port of Toulon in 1793.
- As a result he was arrested immediately after 9 Thermidor but was soon released, having hastily written a letter to the Convention denouncing what he called ‘Robespierre’s conspiracy’.
- It’s clear that his talents as a military tactician were being recognised at this stage, but in April 1795 he was ordered to join the Army of the West – still fighting the rebellion in the Vendée, in the west of France.
- Napoleon immediately decided that he would simply not go to the Vendée, as he felt that serving under Lazare Hoche would reduce his own chances of achieving ‘glory’. Instead, he took sick leave – the kind of action he himself would not have tolerated from his own generals – and proceeded to lobby influential contacts around Paris.
This decision to cry off sick led to his name being taken off the list of generals in active service – but, in a roundabout way, it also led him to Josephine.
- During Napoleon’s round of lobbying and currying favour with various influential people in Paris, he was invited for dinner at the home of a man named Paul Barras.
- Paul Barras was an influential member of the Convention, who would go on to become one of the five ‘Directors’ who run France after October 1795 – the period known as the ‘Directory’.
- After inviting Bonaparte for dinner earlier that year, the young general essentially becomes Barras’ protégé. He brings Napoleon to the salons run by powerful women like Germaine de Staël. Thanks to Barras, Napoleon Bonaparte is introduced into far more upmarket and potentially more powerful social (and political) circles than ever before.
- That said, it’s worth noting that he wasn’t exactly well received by the denizens of these salons – he was described by another salon regular as ‘the least noticeable and the least impressive’ of the attendees. Then again, his rather shambolic appearance and lack of personal hygiene might have made him almost impossible to ignore – women at the salons were said to have complained that he was ‘unwashed’, and he suffered from a bad case of scabies he had picked up at Toulon.
It’s through these salons that he meets the widowed Madame de Beauharnais – who, it’s fair to say, enjoyed a special relationship with Paul Barras.
- The polite way to put it is that Josephine was Barras’ official mistress, though it’s clear that he also maintained a relationship with her best friend Therésia Tallien. The blunt way of putting it is, as a contemporary said, that Josephine was part of Paul Barras’ ‘harem’.
- One way or another this meant that, thanks to his new-found role as Barras’ protégé, Napoleon would have seen Josephine almost every day thanks to their mutual presence at the same salons and dinners.
- But there isn’t any dramatic moment of love at first sight on either of their parts. It seems that Josephine was one of the few women in their social circle to pay any attention to Napoleon; but this was very much of a platonic and friendly nature. Josephine, after all, was always keen to make friends and allies.
- Napoleon, meanwhile, was still courting Désirée Clary, the younger sister of his brother’s wife, via letter. One of his letters to her gives a rather frank insight into how he might have originally viewed Josephine, referring as it does to ‘older and uglier women’ who were part of Therésia Tallien’s circle!
And then, sometime in the late autumn of 1795, something changes between the two. This is hinted at in the first known letter from Josephine to Napoleon. Judging by Napoleon’s own correspondence it seems that he and Josephine began a physical relationship not long after she writes him this note.
At least some of Josephine’s interest in the young general can be said to have been piqued by Napoleon’s sudden rise to fame thanks to his involvement in putting down an insurrection in Paris on 13 Vendémiaire Year 4 – or, to translate it from the republican calendar, 5 October 1795.
This is the famous ‘whiff of grapeshot’ incident that results in Bonaparte being referred to as ‘General Vendémiaire’ and is usually pinpointed as the event that set his star in the ascendant.
- The insurrection of 13 Vendémiaire was a royalist revolt against the Convention, when royalist armies entered Paris. Napoleon famously faced off against royalist troops outside the church of Saint-Roch in Paris, using cannon to fire grapeshot at them and killing 300 rebels. As a result, he was hailed as a kind of saviour of the republic and becomes a celebrated figure.
- This leads to Napoleon’s ascent up the military ladder, culminating in his appointment as commander of the Army of Italy, which he leads into Italy in the spring of 1796. In turn, his success there paves the way for his ascent to political power.
The act of crushing a rebellion transforms Napoleon Bonaparte from a slightly strange figure in the Parisian salons into a kind of celebrity – and it helps to establish his relationship with Josephine. That said, he’s significantly keener than her at the beginning?
- Despite the affectionate words that we’ve just heard from Josephine’s first letter to Napoleon, it’s clear that – while he rapidly becomes utterly obsessed with her – she retains a certain reserve in the relationship. He, as we heard in the clip at the start, goes in head first – but Josephine seems to weigh things up before she will commit to a long-term future with Napoleon, even if his star is very much in the ascendant when their relationship begins.
- In part, I think we can explain this initial coolness as being a combination of her personality, the fact that she had much more romantic experience than her future husband, and of course her concerns about her own position and power. Josephine is by her nature a little bit indolent, which is in stark contrast to the violent passion Bonaparte expresses in his letters to her. She is also keenly aware that relationships at this time and in this particular political climate are not just about romance and affection, they are also about power, influence and money. There is certainly a fear that if she abandons her role as the mistress of Barras, she will lose her social position and influence.
- On top of that, there’s the simple fact that the Napoleon of 1795 doesn’t seem to fit with Josephine’s previous ‘type’: usually extremely powerful men like Barras or dashing, handsome types like Lazare Hoche.
So, what is it, then, that makes Josephine change her mind and agree to marry Napoleon?
What eventually seems to have convinced her was both Barras’ support and even encouragement for the marriage, and a definitive break in her relationship with Hoche. As we said earlier, they had had an affair in prison and the entanglement appears to have continued over the next year – until it all turns rather nasty at the start of 1796.
- That said, it seems Josephine was still not completely committed to the marriage until the wedding day itself. Napoleon and Josephine were married at the beginning of March in 1796, but right up until the middle of February Josephine was still acting as hostess at Barras’ home. It also seems likely – if we believe the memoirs of Barras himself – that their physical relationship continued right up until the wedding day.
The wedding was hardly a romantic fairytale either.
- The story of their wedding ceremony says much about the nature of their relationship – Napoleon arrived three hours late, having been delayed either working on his battle plans for the Army of Italy or forging his birth certificate, depending on who you believe. After this rushed ceremony Napoleon and Josephine spent two days together before his departure for Italy.
- Regardless, it’s clear that – though she was not yet quite so interested in him – Napoleon continued to be completely fixated with his wife. It’s during this period that he writes the famous collection of love letters sent to her from the Italian campaign; they detail his fixation with her, his despair at being separated from her, and – in quite explicit terms – his desire for her.
- It’s also noted by contemporaries that, on the rare occasions that they were together during this period, Napoleon caused a stir by being seen to kiss and embrace his wife in quite a physical manner, while in public!
But all is not well with the marriage, particularly from Josephine’s perspective, during the Italian Campaign.
- No. A frustrated Napoleon eventually drags Josephine across the Alps and into Italy so that they can be reunited. While in Italy Josephine receives a remarkable welcome – akin, as Napoleon himself noted, to that given to a queen.
- But by this point Josephine had turned her attentions to someone else – a dashing lieutenant named Hippolyte Charles, with whom she had been having an affair that began in Paris. It was not until Napoleon was on the Egyptian campaign that he found out about the affair, and took his own revenge by carrying on a relationship with the twenty-year-old wife of one of his lieutenants.
- To make matters worse, Napoleon’s entire family took an instant dislike to Josephine – and the Bonapartes, especially Napoleon’s mother Letizia and his sisters, were a formidable bunch. They didn’t think this ‘old’ woman with her two children and reputation as a mistress of powerful men was the right match for their precious Napoleon.
In spite of these pressures – from mutual infidelity, from Napoleon’s military campaigns, and from his family – the marriage survived these difficult first years, as Napoleon’s star continued to rise. How, then, was Napoleon finally transformed from a successful general into ruler of France?
- Precursor to events of 18 Brumaire – difficulties faced by French Republic at both home and abroad. Military failures, coupled with increasing polarisation between extremes of royalism on the one hand and neo-Jacobinism on the other.
- Domination of Directory by Abbé Emmanuel Sieyès, who was planning a coup of his own to overthrow the Directory – Bonaparte seen as ideal candidate to help secure the coup through military power. Napoleon returned to France from Egypt in October 1799, and was welcomed as a saviour by both right and left.
- Bonaparte, however, began to plot a ‘coup within a coup’ – seeking to use the situation to ensure his own power.
- Events of 18 Brumaire (9 November 1799) – could all have gone very badly wrong for Napoleon, but thanks to intervention from his brother Lucien the Council of Five Hundred (the Directory’s representative assembly) was disbanded, with Bonaparte, Sieyès and Ducos appointed as temporary ‘consuls’.
- Napoleon soon manoeuvred himself into position as ‘First Consul’ – revised constitution of the Consulate in 1802 allowed him to claim the role for life, though the 99.9% ‘yes’ vote in the accompanying referendum smacked of electoral fraud.
- In 1804 Napoleon successfully exploited the discovery of a royalist plot to assassinate him to put another constitutional revision before the French electorate – this time, to decide whether he should move from being First Consul of the Republic to Emperor of the French. Again, the result was startlingly overwhelming. The transformation was complete when Napoleon was crowned – or rather, crowned himself – emperor in December 1804.
- It’s worth noting, though, that even in engineering his transformation into an emperor Napoleon viewed his role as that of a consolidator, rather than an enemy, of the revolution.
The grand coronation ceremony held at Notre-Dame in December 1804:
Napoleon knew how to do political theatre – after all, he’d seen how successful it could be under the ancien régime monarchy and during the Revolution. He brought Pope Pius VII all the way from Rome – not to do the actual crowning, but rather to confer a further sense of legitimacy. This was an extravagant ceremony and it cost a fortune - but it was designed to dazzle.
- The most famous image of the coronation is a massive painting by Jacques-Louis David, who had also been employed by Napoleon to design the setting and the costumes for every participant. Although the painting is called ‘The coronation of Napoleon’, it actually depicts Josephine in the act of being crowned by her husband, as he places a small coronet on her head.
- It wasn’t guaranteed, however, that Josephine would be crowned until not long before the ceremony itself. Napoleon’s family tried to bully him over the issue, disgusted as they were at his request that his sisters carry Josephine’s train. In the end, his resolve to crown his wife held firm – but he conceded that the pushy Bonaparte sisters would only have to make a symbolic gesture towards supporting Josephine’s heavy mantle.
But throughout this period there is always an elephant in the room – namely, the question of an heir to the imperial throne.
As we know, Josephine had two children with Alexandre de Beauharnais, her first husband – Eugène and Hortense. But Napoleon, having founded this imperial dynasty, needed one thing above all – an heir of his own.
- As the marriage continues and there is no sign of an heir – indeed, of any children – it becomes a more pressing issue, at least from Napoleon’s perspective. In addition to the fact that he was quite open about his infidelities, this issue was the source of many heated rows between the couple.
Is the issue of the heir the straw that breaks the camel’s back, in terms of pushing Napoleon to divorce Josephine?
- There is a suggestion that Napoleon had made up his mind to divorce Josephine before their coronation, but overall it appears that the lack of an heir was the real deciding factor. In spite of the problems within the imperial marriage during this period, he was still somewhat under the spell of his wife.
- Although he had come close in 1808, it was not until the last weeks of 1809 that Napoleon finally resolved to divorce Josephine. It’s clear that this was not necessarily an easy decision for him to make – remember that it meant losing not just Josephine, but her two children and their extended families.
To finalise matters, the Bonapartes conducted an official ‘divorce ceremony’, in front of their families and members of the court. During the ceremony, both Napoleon and Josephine read out statements of their devotion to each other. Despite the fact that this event was intended to officially bring their marriage to an end, these speeches were intensely emotional
Within three months of the divorce, Napoleon had remarried – taking as his second wife the nineteen-year-old archduchess Marie-Louise of Austria. Although this seems a bit callous, what’s interesting about Napoleon’s handling of his remarriage is that it reveals rather more sensitivity towards Josephine’s feelings than he had often displayed when they were married.
- The divorce and the way in which Napoleon treated Josephine after his marriage to Marie-Louise seem to show the persistence of respect and friendship between the two of them, even after all that had happened during their marriage.
- He allows her to keep the title of Empress, she was able to keep her beloved house at Malmaison, and he gave her the Elysée Palace – now the French presidential residence – as a Parisian base. In the immediate aftermath of the divorce, he even tried to work out a way to have two empresses who would sit on either side of him on the imperial throne. Naturally, this idea was soon discounted.
- Even though Napoleon asks Josephine to keep away from Paris for a year after his marriage to Marie-Louise, they soon resumed a friendly and affectionate correspondence.
This persistent affection between the two continued even after the birth of Napoleon’s heir, the King of Rome, in 1811.
- There is something rather touching about the fact that Josephine, having sent Napoleon a very affectionate and selfless letter of congratulations on the birth of his son, begs him for two years to let her see the child who, as she put it, ‘has cost me so many tears.’
- And Napoleon engineered an ‘accidental’ meeting between the two, which he had to keep secret from Marie-Louise who had made him swear that the little boy would never meet Josephine. This in turn shows a continued respect in their relationship, in spite of the fact that he had divorced her for the sake of continuing his ‘imperial’ line.
Their lives after the divorce - Napoleon had now, it appears, secured his line – but things were about to go badly wrong for him.
- Napoleonic wars – Napoleon waging war on the Alliance throughout much of this period.
- Culminates in the surrender of Paris to the Alliance in March 1814. Though Napoleon tried to abdicate in favour of his young son, this was rejected by the Allies. As part of the Treaty of Fontainebleau, he was sent into exile on the island of Elba off the Italian coast.
But this didn’t put a stop to his ambition, did it?
- This being Napoleon, no – it didn’t. In February 1815 he returned to France, and convinced soldiers to support him. This led to the period known as the ‘Hundred Days’, when he waged a campaign in order to reclaim the throne from the newly-appointed Louis XVIII, brother of the executed Louis XVI.
- Famously, his final defeat came at Waterloo in June 1815. In turn, the former Emperor was exiled again – this time to Saint Helena in the Atlantic. This was where Napoleon would live out the rest of his days, eventually succumbing to stomach cancer – although rumours persist that he was poisoned – in May 1821. It is said – though how true this is is difficult to ascertain – that his final words were: ‘France, army, head of the army, Josephine’.
Josephine herself had died in 1814, during Napoleon’s exile in Elba and before his final comeback in the ‘Hundred Days’.
- Josephine had continued to live a quiet life at Malmaison, attended by her two children. She was said to have enjoyed a particularly good relationship with her grandson Louis-Napoleon, the future Napoleon III.
- She is said to have caught cold while out walking with the Russian Tsar in the grounds of Malmaison. She died in May 1814.
- When news of her death reached Elba, it was said that Napoleon locked himself away for two days and refused to see anyone.
In spite of their divorce, Josephine persists as a central figure in the Napoleonic legend throughout the nineteenth century. Why is this, even though Marie-Louise is the mother of Napoleon’s heir?
- There’s a famous, possibly apocryphal quote from the Duc de Reichstadt, the young man who would have been Napoleon II. After his father’s death in exile he is said to have grumbled that, had Josephine been his mother, Napoleon would not be buried on St. Helena and he, the King of Rome, would not be rotting away in Vienna.
- Whether true or not, this statement highlights the presence of a ‘Josephine legend’ that became an integral part of the legend of Napoleon himself – one that painted her as a crucial element in his success.
- This view of Josephine increases in popularity when Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte seizes power and becomes Emperor Napoleon III in 1852. This is unsurprising, given that Louis-Napoleon was both Josephine’s grandson – his mother was her daughter Hortense – and Napoleon’s nephew.
- Josephine is present in Napoleonic and Bonapartist iconography well into the nineteenth century, appearing alongside her husband and even the Duc de Reichstadt. The publication by Hortense of selected (and carefully censored) love letters to Josephine from Napoleon encouraged the growth of her legend.
- Of course, it didn’t hurt that the woman seen as her rival – Marie-Louise – was both a foreigner and the niece of Marie-Antoinette.
In terms of big anniversaries this year, people’s sights will be very much on World War One, but 2014 also marks the 200th anniversary of Napoleon's abdication and the end of the French Empire.