History's Women: Miscellaneous Articles: Joséphine, Wife of Napoleon and Empress of the FrenchJoséphine
Wife of Napoleon and Empress of the French
1763 – 1814 A.D.

Marie Joseph Rose Tascher de la Pagerie, empress of the French, first wife of Napoleon I., was born at Trois Ilets, near St.Pierre, Martinique, June 24, 1763, and died at Malmaison, near Paris, May 29, 1814. Her father, whose family had emigrated from the vicinity from the vicinity of Blois, France, held the office of captain of the port at St. Pierre.

She received the very imperfect education that was then imparted to young ladies in the French colonies, but her native grace and kindness of heart endeared her to all with whom she became acquainted. When about fifteen years of age she was sent to France, and one year later married Viscount Alexandre de Beauharnais, like herself a native of Martinique, and then a major in an infantry regiment. By this union, which was far from happy, she had a son, Eugene, afterward a prince, and a daughter, Hortense, who became queen of Holland by her marriage with Louis Bonaparte, as was the mother of Napoleon III.

Viscount Beauharnais, although he had been one of the promoters of the revolution in the constituent assembly, and had faithfully served his country in arms, was arrested on suspicion during the Reign of Terror, and sent to the scaffold, leaving Joséphine in distress. Her efforts to procure the release of her husband had caused her own imprisonment; and her two children were reduced to such extremities that Eugene entered a carpenter’s shop as an apprentice.

At a reception she met Bonaparte, then an obscure officer. He fell desperately in love with her, although he was six years her junior, and married her March 9, 1796. Twelve days later he was appointed to the chief in command of the French army in Italy. She accompanied him in his Italian campaign, and exercised a great influence in restraining him from measures of violence and severity. She shared all the honors that were bestowed upon her husband, and was with great difficulty prevented from accompanying him from Egypt.

During the separation and after his return, at Malmaison, and afterward at the Luxembourg and the Tuileries, she attracted round her the most brilliant society of France, and contributed not a little to the establishment of her husband’s power. She was solemnly crowned in Paris, December 2, 1804, but her happiness was soon marred by sad forebodings; she had no children by her imperial husband, and in the eyes of this great politician a direct heir was essential to the preservation of his power. After many struggles between his love and ambition, Napoleon, partly by entreaties, partly by using his sovereign authority, prevailed upon his wife to consent to divorce. The marriage relation was accordingly dissolved by law on December 16, 1809.

Subsequent evidences of national sympathy for the fallen empress showed that she was far from having lost anything of her power over the French people. Her enthusiastic attachment for Napoleon remained unimpaired; and she would have been ready to follow him in his exile, after his fall, but their respective situations did not allow such a step. The esteem in which she was held by the allied sovereigns protected her during the disasters of 1814, and she was several times visited by Malmaison by the Emperor Alexander of Russia, and by the King of Prussia. She lived near Evreus, and died at Malmaison, May 29, 1814. Her body was interred in the church of Ruel, where seven years after, a monument was erected in her honor.

Joséphine was handsome; her figure was majestic and elegant; but her charms were her grace and goodness of heart. She has been called Napoleon’s “star.” His fortunes, it is said, arose with her, and waned when their connection ceased. The English, when they paint the Empress Joséphine, in their hatred of Napoleon, always depict her in the most glowing colors. To exalt Napoleon’s repudiated wife is to censure him. But we, who are less liable to prejudice, are able to estimate her character more impartially and to bestow praise where it belongs.

If Joséphine had been as eminent for high, womanly virtues as Napoleon was for exalted genius; if she had been in truth Napoleon’s “star,” her fate might have been a different one.


Reference: Woman: Her Position, Influence and Achievement Throughout the Civilized World. Designed and Arranged by William C. King. Published in 1900 by The King-Richardson Co. Copyright 1903 The King-Richardson Co.