Josephine de Beauharnais had the distinction of being the first Empress of the French. The beautiful first wife of Napoleon Bonaparte led a storied life even before she married the fascinating Emperor of the French. A difficult first marriage and imprisonment during the Reign of Terror were part of her life even before she met Napoleon.
Born Marie Josephe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie in Martinique, she was the daughter of wealthy plantation owners that produced sugar. When the family began to struggle financially, Josephine was sent to France to marry her aunt’s lover’s son, Alexandre Beauharnais, a wealthy artistocrat. Originally her sister Catherine was set to make the marriage, but after her death Josephine became the bride-to-be.
Alexandre and Josephine were married on December 13, 1779 in Noisy-le-Grand in Paris. The marriage was not a happy one. Alexandre had mistresses and affairs and Josephine was lonely and unhappy. They marriage did produce two children: Eugene and Hortense.
The Reign of Terror brought forth drama to Alexandre and Josephine. Alexander was arrested and jailed in March 1794 and only a month later Josephine would be arrested due to simply being Alexandre’s wife. They both were imprisoned in the Carmes prison in Paris. Alexandre was accused of not having defended sufficiently during the Siege of Mainz and for being born an aristocrat. He was guillotined on July 23, 1794. Luckily only five days after the death of her husband, Robespierre was executed and the Reign of Terror ended. Josephine was free!
Josephine was now a widow with financial problems. As a result, she became a mistress to many wealthy and powerful men including Paul Francois Jean Nicolas Barras. She met General Napoleon Bonaparte in 1795. He was six years younger than her. Napoleon was immediately smitten. Josephine had gone by her name of Rose all her life, but it was Napoleon who changed her name to Josephine. Napoleon wrote her passionate love letters and praised her beauty. The two were married on March 9, 1796. Their happiness was brief, he went off on a military campain and she had an affair with a lieutenant named Hippolyte Charles. Napoleon found out about the affair and was furious. Their relationship changed from that point on. Napoleon was jealous and controlling and also Josephine was not a favorite among Napoleon’s difficult family. They both had affairs and the love they shared at the beginning of their relationship disappeared. The marriage was also childless, but Napoleon looked at Josephine’s children as his own surprisingly.
In 1804, Napoleon became Empeor of the French thus making Josephine Empress of the French. The two shared their coronation ceremony on December 2, 1804. Sadly, Josephine was only Empress for six years as she realized she could not have any more children and Napoleon needed an heir. Josephine agreed to a divorce with Napoleon on January 10, 1810. Napoleon married Marie-Louise of Austria only three months later.
After her divorce, Josephine lived at the Chateau de Malmaison in Paris. She was know for having beautiful rose gardens due to her love of roses. Napoleon and Josephine managed to be on good terms after the divorce. Josephine died on May 29, 1814 from pneumonia. She is buried at the church of St Pierre-St Paul. Napoleon’s final words on his own death bed in 1821 were “France, army, head of the army, and Josephine.” Napoleon and Josephine may have had a complicated relationship, but there was no doubt there was love there. They remain one of the most famous royal couples of all time.