Future French empress Joséphine de Beauharnais was born on June 23, 1763, in Trois-Îlets, Martinique, France. Initially married to Alexandre de Beauharnais, she later wed Napoleon Bonaparte in a civil ceremony in 1796. The two would have a tumultuous union, with Napoleon eventually arranging an annulment and Joséphine retreating to her private residence at Malmaison. She died on May 29, 1814, in Malmaison, France.
Marie-Josèphe-Rose Tascher de La Pagerie, also known as Joséphine, was one of the most celebrated women of the 19th century, playing a colorful and pivotal role in the life of her husband, Napoleon Bonaparte. Born on June 23, 1763, in Les Trois-Îlets, Martinique, France, she came from a poor but titled family that had settled on the island for half a century. Her father, Joseph-Gaspard Tascher, and mother, Rose-Claire des Vergers de Sannois, raised their children far from the courtly girls’ schools of Paris.
Joséphine’s sister Catherine was to wed the wealthy Viscount Alexandre de Beauharnais, which would have ended the Tascher family’s financial hardship. When Catherine died suddenly, Joséphine took her place, arriving in France in 1779 to wed de Beauharnais. It was not a happy marriage, with the couple eventually separating, but they did produce two children, Eugène and Hortense.
During the Reign of Terror that was part of the French Revolution, Alexander was arrested and guillotined in 1794. Joséphine was also imprisoned and scheduled for execution.
Five days after her husband’s death, the Reign of Terror initiator Maximilien de Robespierre was executed, and, with the help of high-placed friends, Joséphine was freed.
In post-revolutionary France, Joséphine de Beauharnais became one of the most prominent women in the salons of Paris. Glamorous and a well-connected socialite, she engaged in several love affairs with highly placed political and military leaders, among them General Napoleon Bonaparte, who was immediately smitten with her. Both saw marriage to each other as an opportunity for legitimacy and advancement. They were wed on March 9, 1796, a few days before Napoleon left on his Italian campaign. During his absence, he sent the first of many love letters he would pen throughout their marriage and until her death. Many of these letters still exist today.
Tumultuous Love Affair
Some members of Napoleon’s family were opposed to his marriage to an older widow with children. His mother and sisters were especially nonplused as they felt Napoleon’s new wife considered them well below her station. But Joséphine was said to be a caring person and good mother to her children.
In 1799, while Napoleon was campaigning in Egypt, Joséphine purchased the Château de Malmaison, near Paris. She took special interest in the gardens, and became proficient in botany and horticulture.
With their constant separations during Napoleon’s conquest of Europe, Joséphine was rumored to have taken other lovers, with Napoleon having affairs as well. Word of her activities eventually made their way to Napoleon, who would go into a rage and threaten divorce. Joséphine would successfully deny the accusations, but by the time of their coronation as French emperor and empress on December 2, 1804, the marriage was in shambles. Yet with the encouragement of Joséphine’s daughter, Hortense, the coronation went on as scheduled.
The union remained tempestuous, with each accusing the other of infidelity, and more tension arising with the couple bearing no sons to be heir to the throne. By 1809, Napoleon arranged for the annulment of the marriage, with Joséphine being forced to make way for the emperor’s wedding to a younger Marie-Louise of Austria. Rejected, but extremely well provided for, Joséphine retired to her Malmaison estate. She died in Malmaison, France, on May 29, 1814. She is buried in the nearby church of Saint Pierre-Saint Paul in Rueil. Her beloved and devoted daughter is interred near her.
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