|THE ROBINSON LIBRARY|
Library >> General and Old
World History >> France, Andorra,
Monaco >> France >> Revolutionary and Napoleonic Period, 1789-1815
|Josephine de Beauharnais Bonaparte
wife of Napoleon Bonaparte
Marie Josèphe Rose de Tascher de la Pagerie was born at Les Trois-Îlets, Martinique, on June 23, 1763. Her father, Joseph-Gaspard de Tascher, seigneur de la Pagerie, was a Lieutenant of Troups de Marine and the owner of a sugar plantation; her mother was Rose-Claire des Vergers de Sanois. Hurricanes destroyed the sugar plantation in 1766, and the family was left financially ruined.
Joseph de Tascher had a sister named Edmee, who happened to be the mistress of François, vicomte de Beauharnais. When François' health began to fail, Edmee arranged a marriage between his son Alexandre and Josephine's older sister, Catherine, who was then only 12 years old. It was Edmee's hope that the marriage would not only insure that she would continue to be cared for, but that it might also help her brother's family. Those hopes seemed dashed, however, when Catherine died before the arrangements could be finalized. Unwilling to accept the loss of such an opportunity, Joseph de Tascher decided to take Josephine to France instead, and the two arrived there in October 1779. Initally uncertain about the change in brides, Alexandre ultimately agreed to the marriage, and he and Josephine were married on December 13, 1779. As is so often the case with such arranged marriages, the union was never a happy one. Despite their lack of affection for one another, however, the couple did produce two children -- a son, Eugène de Beauharnais, and a daughter, Hortense de Beauharnais (who married Napoleon Bonaparte's brother Louis in 1802).
Josephine and Alexandre's lives were literally turned upside down during the Reign of Terror that followed the French Revolution, due primarily to Alexandre's ties to the nobility. He was arrested on March 2, 1794, and guillotined on July 23, 1794. Since she too was a member of the nobility, Josephine was arrested on April 21, 1794, and imprisoned in Carmes prison until July 23, 1794. She was saved from the guillotine by the overthrow of Robespierre, just one day before her scheduled execution.
Now a widow with two children to support, Josephine became mistress of men in financial and political positions. It was while so engaged that she met Major-General Napoleon Bonaparte, in 1795. Initially reluctant to marry the young officer (he was six years her junior), Josephine finally agreed, and the two were married on March 9, 1796. Because he disliked the name "Rose," by which she had been known most of her life, Napoleon called her "Josephine," and she would go by that name the rest of her life.
Rumors of infidelity began circulating about Josephine almost from the beginning. Initially unwilling to believe the rumors, Napoleon was forced to change his feelings as more and more evidence to support those rumors surfaced. As his feelings towards Josephine changed, he began having his own affairs. His committment to Josephine became even more tenuous when she continually failed to produce an heir. After one of his mistresses succeeded in having a son by him, Napoleon was able to determine that he himself was not the problem, and talk of divorce from Josephine began circulating between the two. Despite the problems, however, Napoleon and Josephine were able to reconcile their differences, and she was crowned Empress the same day that Napoleon crowned himself Emperor, in 1804.
Their renewed love notwithstanding, Napoleon still desired a legitimate heir, and by 1809 it had become obvious that Josephine was unable to bear any more children. On November 30, 1809, he personally informed her that he would have to divorce her in favor of a wife who could bear children, and the two were officially divorced on January 10, 1810.
After the divorce, Josephine was allowed to live at Chateau de Malmaison near Paris, and she remained on good terms with Napoleon the rest of her life. She died at Malmaison on May 29, 1814, after catching a cold that developed into pneumonia. She was buried at St. Pierre and St. Paul church in nearby Rueil. Upon hearing of her death, Napoleon, by now in exile on Elba, locked himself in his room and refused to see anyone for two days.
This page was last updated on January 10, 2017.