Magazine article History Today

December 14th, 1809: Napoleon Divorces Josephine

Magazine article History Today

December 14th, 1809: Napoleon Divorces Josephine

Article excerpt

The future Empress of the French was born in Martinique in 1763 as Marie Josephe Rose Tascher de la Pagerie, daughter of a minor aristocrat. She was known as Rose or Marie and it was Napoleon who called her Josephine. At 16 she was sent to France to be married to the Vicomte de Beauharnais. They had two children, but the marriage did not work and they separated. Beauharnais was executed during the Terror in 1794. His widow spent a few months in prison, but she was close to the men who took over France after Robespierre's fall, including Paul Barras and Jean-Lambert Tallien. Charming, coquettish and sexually adventurous, she became Barras' principal mistress and lurid tales circulated about their orgies with Tallien's wife and others.

It was through Barras that she met a shy young Corsican army officer named Napoleon Bonaparte who was six years her junior. They were married in Paris in a civil ceremony which, conveniently for him later on, was invalid in several respects. The official who conducted it was not entitled to do so, the officer who witnessed Napoleon's signature was too young, the bride reduced her age by four years to 29 and the groom gave a false address and date of birth.

Napoleon went off to lead the Army of Italy in a brilliantly successful campaign, while Josephine failed to answer his love letters, had at least one love affair and ran up colossal debts. As her husband rose to fame and power Josephine began using her contacts to forward his interests. At Pope Plus VII's insistence they were married in a Roman Catholic ceremony in 1804, the day before he was crowned Emperor of the French. Louis Marchand, Napoleon's valet, said of her: 'She had the elegance of a Creole together with infinite grace and charm, and an evenness of temper that never failed.'

Unfortunately, she failed to bear Napoleon an heir. For years he hesitated over whether to divorce her. She knew what was in his mind and, when in late 1807 he left for Italy without her, she was in a miserable state, often in floods of tears and suspecting that her attacks of indigestion were caused by attempts to poison her by members of his family who wanted to be rid of her. In April 1809, when Napoleon went to Bavaria to fight the Austrians, Josephine hurled herself weeping into the carriage so that he was forced to take her with him. …

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