The relationship between Napoleon Bonaparte and his wife Joséphine de Beauharnais has been hailed as a love affair for the ages, but it was anything but a perfect picture of selfless devotion. While it’s true that the French leader’s countless letters to Joséphine overflow with intense declarations of infatuated love, their relationship was marred by frequent adultery and their marriage ultimately ended in divorce.
Joséphine, whose real name was Marie-Josèphe-Rose Tascher de La Pagerie (Napoleon gave her the name Joséphine based on her middle name), had grown up on a plantation in the French Caribbean colony of Martinique. When she was in her teens, her family married her off to a minor French noble, Alexandre de Beauharnais, a philanderer whose multiple affairs resulted in the couple’s court-ordered separation. Although Alexandre found political success, becoming President of the National Constituent Assembly, he could not escape the state-sanctioned violence of the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror, and was guillotined in 1794. Joséphine, who had also been imprisoned, barely missed being guillotined due to the timely fall of Robespierre.
Released from the Carmes Prison, Joséphine was a 32-year-old widowed mother of two without access to her family funds, and with a set of rotting teeth. She needed to secure her future and so quickly arranged for loans from various quarters to install herself in an apartment on the rue Chantereine where, as French historian Frédéric Masson writes in his book Napoleon et les femmes, “she hoped for some kind of miracle to rescue her from her state.”
Her concerted campaign to launch herself into the new post-revolutionary French society clearly worked: After a series of affairs with a number of senior political figures, she became the lover of Napoleon’s powerful mentor Paul Barras, part of the nation’s five-person leadership coalition called the Directoire. However, by 1795 Barras had tired of his mistress and happily introduced her to the ambitious young soldier at a society ball he hosted. Little did Barras know that four years later, that soldier would rise to power in a bloodless coup against the Directoire, and that five years after that, he would crown himself emperor.
Napoleon Wrote Joséphine Besotted Letters
Joséphine did not immediately take to the prospect of Napoleon as a husband, allegedly calling him a “puss in boots” and sniffing at his lower-class “family of beggars, writes Adam Zamoyski, author of Napoleon: A Life. But he showered her with gifts and won over her children with his playfulness. The two married just months after their first meeting, in March 1796. Napoleon scandalized his family by marrying a widow with children, but he was besotted. Although he had to leave his new bride two days after the wedding to lead a French army into Italy, he wrote to her continuously, with gushing declarations of love: “Every moment separates me further from you, my beloved, and every moment I have less energy to exist so far from you. You are the constant object of my thoughts.”
Notably, Joséphine appears to have written far fewer letters to her husband. And those that do exist are much more tepid in tone. “I am not satisfied with your last letter; it is cold as friendship,” Napoleon replied to one. By that point, it appears Joséphine had already taken up with the dashing young Hippolyte Charles, a Hussar lieutenant and aide-de-camp to General Charles Leclerc, Bonaparte's brother-in-law. By June, Joséphine had rejoined Napoleon in Italy, but with her 23-year-old lover in tow.
When Napoleon visited her Milan apartment in November 1796, only to find it empty, he started to become suspicious. One letter reveals his tumultuous emotions: ‘I don’t love you anymore; on the contrary, I detest you. You are a vile, mean, beastly slut. You don’t write to me at all; you don’t love your husband… Soon, I hope, I will be holding you in my arms; then I will cover you with a million hot kisses, burning like the equator.”
Napoleon and Joséphine Both Had Affairs
In March 1798, Napoleon learned of the affair, sending him into a great rage—although Joséphine smoothed things over. Still, she continued the affair, Napoleon heard of it again during his Egypt campaign in July that year. He wrote to his brother discussing divorce, but that letter was intercepted and published in the London newspapers, to the great delight of the British. Meanwhile, she wrote to her lover: “Yes, my Hippolyte, my life is a constant torment! Only you can restore me to happiness. Tell me that you love me, that you love only me!” By this point, however, Napoleon himself had taken a lover, Pauline Fourès, the wife of one his army officers.
Having conquered Egypt, Napoleon returned to France in October 1799. After helping orchestrate the overthrow of the Directoire, he was given unlimited powers to head the government as First Consul. A month later, Joséphine, after promising to end the affair with Charles, convinced her husband to call off the divorce. From then on, however, their relationship never recovered, and he began to flaunt his mistresses.
Despite the other women, it seems Joséphine continued to control his heart. “My mistresses do not in the least engage my feelings… My mistress is power,” he wrote in 1804, the same year the couple were crowned Emperor and Empress of the French. However, shortly before the coronation, Joséphine discovered Napoleon in the bedroom of her lady-in-waiting Elisabeth de Vaudey, and the arguments began again. Napoleon threatened divorce once more, this time on the grounds that Joséphine hadn’t produced an heir.
Divorce, With Devotion
The failure to produce an heir continued to trouble their marriage, and when Napoleon’s mistress Eléonore Denuelle gave birth to his child in 1806, it was clear that the problem lay with the 43-year-old Joséphine. When Napoleon’s nephew and declared heir, Napoléon Charles Bonaparte, died at only 4 years old in 1807, Napoleon began drawing up a list of eligible princesses from around Europe. His marriage to Joséphine was annulled, but at the divorce ceremony on 15 December 1809, the couple read statements of devotion to each other, confirming their mutual love. Napoleon declared, “Far from ever finding cause for complaint, I can to the contrary only congratulate myself on the devotion and tenderness of my beloved wife.”
Napoleon married Marie-Louise of Austria by proxy on 11 March 1810, followed by a church ceremony a few weeks later. Almost exactly one year later, she gave birth to the long-awaited heir, Napoleon II.
Joséphine lived at the Château de Malmaison, near Paris, and stayed on good terms with her former husband. He would learn of her death by pneumonia in May 1814 while he was in his first exile in Elba. When he died in his last exile in St. Helena, his last words are reputed to have been, “France, the army, head of the army, Joséphine.” Despite their multiple affairs, tempestuous arguments and public divorce, it seems the love between Napoleon and Joséphine continued to endure.